Sporting icons have been getting a bit of a bad press recently, and for good reason. For an example of a real sporting hero, and a reminder of the redemptive power of sport, go see the movie ‘Invictus’. Directed by Clint Eastwood, it tells the remarkable tale of the South African victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Set against a backdrop of a South Africa beset by economic problems and riven with division after 50 years of apartheid, Nelson Mandela, played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman, is grappling with the problem of how to unite the country. He sees an opportunity in the forthcoming rugby tournament hosted by South Africa, and finds an unusual ally in the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar.
South African rugby was for so long the exclusive preserve of whites and closely associated with the racist apartheid regime. So, Mandela’s call for the nation to rally round its rugby team created considerable tension among his own supporters. Pienaar has to wage a version of the same battle with his own team mates, so long used to viewing blacks as second class citizens and the new South African president as a ‘terrorist’.
Mandela has a passionate conviction in the need to forgive past crimes if the nation is to heal old wounds and forge a new unity. He comes across as a man of high principle and firm conviction. And he oozes with charm! His humanity shines through in every encounter, whether with heads of state or tea ladies.
Pienaar also comes across as a man who has become aware of new responsibilities and succeeds in raising himself to new heights, inspired by Mandela’s vision about how rugby can unite the nation. The scene where Pienaar (played in an understated but powerful way by Matr Damon) takes his team mates to Robben Island, where Mandela was incarcerated for 30 years, is moving. Slowly the reality of the personal price Mandela paid for his country dawns on him.
I don’t think I have ever watched a rugby game, and to me the rugby scenes in the film just seemed to consist of big guys clattering into each other! But even I was on the edge of my seat during the last 20 minutes of the South Africa-New Zealand final.
The title of the film is from a poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela drew strength and solace from in times of adversity:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.