Invictus – a worthy film from some old masters

INVICTUS (12a) ***

Starring Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Running Time 2 hours 12 minutes

This is the true story of how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) decides to unite his country, the newly apartheid-free South Africa by inspiring its rugby team with its very white captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

They say:

“Do you really thrill to the idea of going to the cinema to hear over two hours of noble platitudes and political speechifying?” – Daily Telegraph

“Perhaps the greatest testament to Eastwood’s directorial skill is that such an unattractive, brutish game could serve as an uplifting symbol of communal harmony and renewed national spirit.” The Age (Australia)

“An old-fashioned crowd-pleaser which is both a rousing sports movie and a testament to the nobility of Nelson Mandela” – Screen International

Wolfie says:

Every now and then we should acknowledge our respect for distinguished old people who have been through a lot and come out the other side as a good guy with something to say to the world. We should admire their dignity and stately way and so it is with Clint Eastwood, 80 this year and amazingly still making films.

Stately is the word for this movie so don’t expect fast action excitement, even when thirty athletic sportsmen are bashing the hell out of each other, this is not the elderly Eastwood’s style. Everything is carefully controlled with an eye on the detail and a pace that never quickens but which still manages to keep its sense of rhythm and drama. It can be at times, in all honesty, a bit like being stuck behind a frail old person in a supermarket when you are in a hurry. You know you can’t get passed, you know they are doing something important and you just have to keep your patience and go with their leisurely gait which can, you find out in the end, be gentle and maybe a more sensible way to shop.

I suspect that Mr. Eastwood doesn’t play rugby or, as a true American, even understand the rules. I spent many wintery afternoons in my teens playing the game, not very well, and I never really knew what I was doing either. Here, in case you are a rugby fan, there is no real excitement in the matches as we fight our way through the 1995 World Cup tournament. Everything is muted, generalised montages which distance themselves from us with pleasantly neutral African music-lite. There is though one real moment when we get to feel what it must be like when the players, Springboks and All-Blacks engage in the scrum of their lives. For once, and only once, the director goes in there and our muscles strain with the players. If you don’t understand the game then this is just fine – you won’t be challenged by the rules.

There is a fundamental problem with true stories in the cinema and that is that we mostly know what is going to happen. Even with the wonderful and inspirational story of Nelson Mandela’s suffering, endurance and vindication, we aren’t exactly sitting on the edge of our seats shouting: “Come on Nelson you can do it mate!” We know he can do it….he is the nearest we have these days to a living saint.

So we spend a couple of hours watching a venerable, stately and highly regarded elderly man mesmerise us with his charisma. I am talking about Morgan Freeman of course – an actor who can do no wrong and who is magnificent in his portrayal of the great former South African president. Mandela has made some great speeches in his time – it is one of the reasons he has inspired people all round the World – and this film doesn’t cut him short. Morgan Freeman has the measure of the man, charming, charismatic and eloquent yes but also slightly frail, a little bit daunted by his responsibility and subtly saddened by his broken family life. This is a very deeply felt characterisation and when we see a photograph of the real Mandela at the end we are not entirely sure which is which.

The politics is certainly clear enough. Apartheid was bad and the new South Africa, in Mandela’s dream has to be a rainbow nation of all the colours. In the bio-pic, there are a few clumsy dialogue moments to help; us on our way through this piece of modern history and most of the secondary characters are only there to push on the plot. So we have the nice housekeeper who never stops telling him to eat his dinner reminding us that he is a frail old man, the loyal security guards who let us know that he could get assassinated at any moment, and a particularly clumsily acted sports reporter who makes all the expert predictions which we know will turn out to be wrong. The creakiest dialogue though is usually given to Mandela’s chief political adviser, the thrusting but charming Brenda Mazibuko (Adjoa Andoh). She has some awkward things to get across about world politics in quick chats on the way round town in the car. It is like Napoleon being asked by the Empress Josephine over dinner if the weather is going to be alright if he marches on Moscow.

The difference between doing a film about Napoleon and Mandela is that Napoleon is a long time gone and Mandela, mercifully, is still very much with us. He is still the good guy without any of those awkward seedy bits which can add a bit of interest to a movie which is really only about how he was always right about everything. Having said that, it is a wonderful story about a wonderful man and there are many reasons for admiring and feeling moved by another telling of a familiar but still important tale about the modern World.

Matt Damon as the South African rugby captain is excellent too in a strangely written part where he is supposed to be inspirational even through he doesn’t say very much and we don’t really see him wow us on the rugby field. Matt Damon does a lot with very little and redresses the balance in this project which is mostly about the old guys. He shows yet again that the young male leads in Hollywood films don’t have to bore your pants off.

It is perhaps too easy to underestimate this gentle and benign movie and if you don’t nod off, or even if you do a bit, you will, if you’ve got a soul, have a tear in your eye at the end.

The film is all about the very real need for inspiration in our lives and the symbol for this is a Victorian poem which Mandela is reputed to have found inspiring during his long imprisonment. As this site tries to be poetry friendly, it only seems right to quote it – especially as only a few lines make it into the film’s final cut.

It was a late Victorian favourite written in 1875 by one William Ernest Henley who was a big robust man who suffered the loss of a leg through tuberculosis as a child but who discovered the value of mastering his own fate and becoming in his own eyes unconquerable (invictus). If the poem did nothing more than inspire one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th Century then it did more than enough to earn its place in history. Who knows someone out there may read this and then go on to improve the lives of countless millions too:


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.

William Ernest Henley


  1. Yes! For example Matt's favourite film, the nearly three and a half hour long 'Jeanne Dielman'.

    Even though many could do with cutting, some films *do* have to be long. Lord of the Rings! There are some who moan about the long ending of Return of the King, but it was essential, I was just sad they didn't include the return to the shire and extend it a bit more!

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