Film Eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (March/April 2010), Reviews, Volume 18

Invictus
Directed by Clint Eastwood
by John West

 

77_small_1268935726Apartheid and how to confront it caused a split in most countries. In Ireland in 1970 the IRFU followed the mantra that sport and politics should be kept quite separate and they were keen to welcome the Springboks to Dublin. Outside Lansdowne Road the anti-apartheid marchers, opposing any contact with the intolerant all-white regime in South Africa, included those who opposed the tour on principle, with leaders like Mary Robinson, Father Aengus Finucane and Kadar Asmal. The latter, after a distinguished career as a law lecturer at Trinity College, went on to become a valued member of the cabinet and a minister in Nelson Mandela’s new government.
While the match ended in an 8-all draw, the tour sparked off considerable debate on the morality of continuing contact with South Africa, and its rugby in particular. Ireland had developed strong links with South African rugby. Apart from Lions captains Willie John McBride, Tom Kiernan and Paul O’Connell, there was J. H. Gage, who won the first of his Irish caps in 1926 and went on to play for the Springboks. That feat eluded John Robbie, first capped for Ireland in 1976, who just failed to make the South African side when he moved there permanently following the Irish tour in 1981. In that series Ireland were the opponents when Errol Tobias became the first black man to represent the Springboks. Dion O’Cuinnegeain, of Irish parentage, was schooled in South Africa and played for their under-age side before his distinguished career with the Irish XV in the 1990s. The splendid Irish victory at Croke Park last November was the most recent in a long line of close encounters between our two nations.

 

Morgan Freeman—plays Nelson Mandela beautifully.

Morgan Freeman—plays Nelson Mandela beautifully.

Rugby is at the core of the film Invictus, which is based on John Carlin’s book Playing the enemy. The name of the film is from a poem by W. E. Henley, who wrote it when in hospital awaiting the amputation of his foot. Invictus, meaning ‘unconquered’, deals with what is important when facing the horrors of life:

 

‘I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul’

 

In the film, directed by Clint Eastwood, Nelson Mandela, president of post-apartheid South Africa, writes out the poem by hand and gives it to François Pienaar to encourage him to win. He explained that it was this poem that kept his spirits up during his long incarceration on Robben Island. The message is that the new mixed-race Springboks, albeit with Chester Williams their only black, must bond together, work for each other and never yield.
Mandela is a shrewd politician. He confronts the ANC membership and in an act of extraordinary generosity insists that the white Afrikaners who have been deposed as the hated rulers of the blacks should be assimilated and made to feel an equal part of the new ‘Rainbow Nation’. He sees rugby, the white man’s game, as one of the means of achieving this.

 

 

The least impressive part of the film is the live rugby action scenes.

The least impressive part of the film is the live rugby action scenes.

Mandela, beautifully played by Morgan Freeman, is a class act. Pienaar (Matt Damon) buys into this vision and brings his team mates with him. In the end, South Africa win the rugby World Cup in an epic final against the New Zealand All Blacks, the winning score coming from Joel Stransky’s drop goal in extra time. A nation rejoices. The iconic image of a smiling Mandela wearing his Springbok cap and number six jersey presenting the World Cup to Pienaar went round the world and made a real statement of solidarity.
During the filming Matt Damon became close to Pienaar, studying him closely and copying his haircut, his accent and some of his mannerisms. Physically smaller, he had to work hard at his fitness and relates an incident demonstrating the Springbok mentality. Pienaar took a medicine ball, cradled it against his chest and told the actor that he had three minutes to force the ball off him by any means. He was exhausted after the exercise, and then the situation was reversed. Such was the intensity of the training.
The film takes licence to condense the apartheid struggle into less than two hours, and the ease with which Mandela won over the dour Afrikaners is simplistic. The metaphor for the embracing of the win by the whole Rainbow Nation was the two white security guards listening to the match commentary on the car radio, with a black youth whom they had started to chase away eavesdropping. Their shared joy at the win and their joint celebration and mutual acceptance confirmed that Mandela’s policy was working.

 

 

The real-life Nelson Mandela presenting the Webb Ellis Rugby World Cup to Springboks captain François Pienaar in 1995.

The real-life Nelson Mandela presenting the Webb Ellis Rugby World Cup to Springboks captain François Pienaar in 1995.

The least impressive part of the performance is the live rugby action scenes, and the film would have been improved if much of this had been cut. It is difficult to film these action scenes and, on the whole, they were unconvincing. It is unlikely that the Springboks were as poor as shown in the opening of the film and before the Mandela/Pienaar partnership to revive the side started its magic. The match scenes, particularly the scrums, were unrealistic and the gang tackling of the All Blacks’ Jonah Lomu, overridden by sound effects of groaning and grunting, very obviously staged. The New Zealand side are shown as cardboard characters, and there was also no mention of the dubious food poisoning in their camp on the night before the final.
The visit of the squad to Robben Island, watching Matt Damon’s Pienaar shutting himself into Mandela’s cell, was moving. Overall, it is a remarkable story. The friendship and mutual admiration between the South African captain and the president is very real and comes through clearly. It is an enjoyable and interesting film charting a remarkable part of recent history. Just a pity about the rugby. HI

 

John West, a former international referee, is currently a Citing Commissioner for the International Rugby Board.

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