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Invictus: TAP’s Movie of the Month for April 2015

April 3, 2015

invictusDon’t let anyone tell you that sports aren’t important.  Too many people make that claim.  I have a friend who claims that sports are a waste of time, and there are many more important things to focus our energies on.

I see his point sometimes. This weekend’s Hawks game isn’t life or death, I probably shouldn’t want to cause bodily harm to my neighbor just because he likes a different baseball team, and March Madness shouldn’t really come down to real madness.

However, sometimes I see the exact opposite point.  Last summer we walked through the streets of Munich the afternoon of a World Cup soccer game.  The excitement in the air, the pride in their country, the flags waving, the face paint, the noise and energy.  That game meant something.  Sitting down in a beer hall in Munich that night, while the Germans took the field, that was incredible.  There was something palpable in the air that night.

The pride in Ireland was the same.  We visited Croke Park, the home of the Dublin hurling club.  There, it was explained to us that Irish athletes aren’t pros.  They don’t get paid.  They play for the love of the game, and hold down real jobs to pay the bills and feed their families.  The coolest part is that Irish athletes, whether it’s hurling, Gaelic football, soccer, or rugby, only play for their home county clubs.  No matter where in Ireland life or career takes them, you only suit up and play sports for the region you grew up in.  That kind of regional pride was amazing to watch.

On a very basic level, baseball in Japan, at least on the field, looks just the same as it does here at home.  In the stands, it’s a whole different game.  Drums, horns, giant flags, chants and songs for every batter, balloons and post game dance parties.  It was surreal, but you could see that the outcome of that game really mattered to those fans.  It meant something.

Keep that in mind while you’re watching Invictus.  Sports do matter.  They do mean something.  This movie, based on the true events of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, proves that.


The key figure in the film is the newly elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.  Apartheid is over, but it isn’t like a switch has been flipped and all the old wounds are magically  healed.  There’s work to be done. During the years of Apartheid, South Africa was banned from international competition like the World Cup.  Mandela saw the World Cup, which South Africa would not only be participating in, but hosting, as a huge opportunity to heal his nation.

For decades, Black South Africans would attend or watch rugby matches and root against  the South African team, the Springboks.  Over the years, the ‘boks had come to represent the oppressive white government.  They were, in many ways, a symbol of all that was evil and corrupt about South Africa.

When the Apartheid regime fell, Black Africans in charge of the sports associations voted to change the team’s mascot to the protea, an African flower that is another symbol of South Africa.

Mandela got them to change their minds.  He felt that taking the Springboks away from the fans that loved them would make the divide greater and prevent the healing his people needed.  This movie is that story.

Below is the story behind that story.  A few years ago ESPN did a documentary in their 30 for 30 series about the 1995 World Cup of Rugby.




Mandela y Morgan Freeman

Morgan and Mandela. They could be twins.

Morgan Freeman, who plays the South African president, had been a close friend of Nelson Mandela’s for many years before the movie.  He had actually been working with his own production company on turning Mandela’s autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, into a movie.  Mandela himself was once quoted as saying that only Freeman could play him.

Before production began, Freeman and fellow producer, Lori McCreary flew to South Africa to get Mandela’s blessing for the movie.  Freeman started off by saying, “Madiba, we’ve been working a long time on this other project, but we’ve just read something that we think might get to the core of who you are…” Before he had finished, Madiba said, “Ah, the World Cup.” For McCreary, that was “when I knew we were heading in the right direction.”

Freeman put a great deal of effort into his portrayal of Mandela, so much so that Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda La Grange, apparently asked Morgan Freeman to stop walking like Mandela so that she could tell the difference between the two.  La Grange also complimented the work of the production design team, saying, “I know the house so well and they recreated it to perfection. The environment even felt the same. And then I heard Morgan Freeman speak – I didn’t see who it was at first – and I thought, ‘Now how did Mr. Mandela get here?'”

The production team didn’t have to make everything from scratch.  The prison cell that the South African rugby team visited was the actual prison cell where Mandela stayed for 24 of his 27 prison years. The exterior scenes of Mandela’s house were done at his actual residence in Johannesburg, while the interior scenes were shot in a home in Cape Town.

Freeman prepared for his role as Mandela by watching some tapes of him to perfect his accent and rhythm of speaking. However, the most difficult part was Mandela’s charisma, which could not be duplicated: “I wanted to avoid acting like him; I needed to BE him, and that was the biggest challenge. When you meet Mandela, you know you are in the presence of greatness, but it is something that just emanates from him. He moves people for the better; that is his calling in life. Some call it the Madiba magic. I’m not sure that magic can be explained.”

As if the walk, voice, and charisma weren’t enough, Morgan Freeman took his dedication to a whole other level.  Freeman is left-handed, but to play the part of the right-handed Mandela as accurately as possible, he trained himself to use his right hand when he was seen writing in the film.

Oh Captain My Captain

Francois Pienaar, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, and itty-bitty Matt Damon.

Francois Pienaar, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, and itty-bitty Matt Damon.

The captain and leader of the Springboks was Francois Pienaar, played by American actor Matt Damon in the movie.  Damon was really concerned about the size difference between himself and Pienaar, even telling the director, Clint Eastwood, “You know, this guy is huge!” Eastwood replied, “Hell, you worry about everything else. Let me worry about that.” By configuring camera set-ups camera angles, Eastwood was able to make the average-sized actor look about Pienaar’s height.

The size issue must have been on Damon’s mind for a while, because when the actor visited Pienaar’s home to ask for help preparing for the part, the two men just stood at the front door for a few minutes simply looking at eachother.  Damon finally spoke, saying, “I look much bigger on camera.”  That was enough to break the tension, and Pienaar invited him in and cooked a gourmet meal for the Hollywood star.  Pienaar later said, “He’s a great bloke. I was struck by his humility and his wicked sense of humor. He wanted to learn everything he could about me, my philosophy as a captain and what it was like for us in 1995. We also chatted about the game of rugby, what happens in training and about the technical aspects. We had a lot of fun.”

Pienaar was not the only Springbok that Damon got help from.  To prepare for the role of a rugby player, Damon worked with Chester Williams, the only Black player on the 1995 World Cup team.  Williams coached Damon to look, move, and act more like a rugby player.

The Springboks

In the movie, Chester Williams was played by McNeil “Maccie” Hendricks.  Hendricks didn’t need the extra coaching, because he played for the ‘boks in 1998 and also played rugby professionally.

Joel Stransky, the player who scored all of the Springboks points in the finals, was played by Scott Eastwood, son of the director Clint Eastwood.

The Book

The movie is based on a book called Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by journalist and author John Carlin.

The Poem

The word “invictus” is Latin for “unbeaten.”  It is also the name of a short poem written in 1875 by British poet, William Ernest Henley.  Henley wrote the poem while the hospital waiting to have his leg amputated.  It was a favorite poem of Mandela, who has said that he often recited it to himself or fellow prisoners when things seemed bleak.  Mandela claimed the poem gave him courage.

In the movie, Morgan Freeman replaces the word “chance” with the word “fate” in the third line of the second stanza of the poem

Invictus is pretty much the only piece by Henley that became widely read, but for one short poem, it has had a great deal of influence.  Not only was it used in this movie and was Mandela’s favorite poem, but it was also used in works from C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyl, and Barack Obama.  Lines from Invictus were also used in the classic film Casablanca.

In the movie, Mandela gives Pienaar a hand-written copy of the poem during a key scene.  However, in real life he gave him a passage from a Theodore Roosevelt speech.

Below is the poem itself.  Take a moment of your time to see if you can figure out why it meant so much to Mandela.


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.

In case your life isn’t awesome enough, here’s Nelson… I mean Morgan Freeman reading the poem.


The World Cup

All of the actors who played the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, learned the traditional Maori war chant, the Haka.  In real life, the All Blacks perform the chant at every game to intimidate the other team.  Because the filmmakers wanted to be respectful and get the chant and the dance right, they contacted the New Zealand Rugby Association. They sent over a Haka expert who assisted in Haka/rugby training and was there when the scene  was filmed so that it was done correctly.

Here’s a video of the actual New Zealand All Blacks team from 2004 performing the Naka before a game against England.  I’ve never played rugby, but I think if I was asked to play against these guys, I’d just run away and cry.


Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, where the actual rugby games were played in 1995, is still used today.  It looks much different today, so the crew used old signage and computer graphics to give it the right look.


For those of you that watched Sarafina!, pay close attention to Invictus and see if you can spot Leleti Khumalo, who played Sarafina in both the movie and the Broadway show.  In this movie, she plays one of Nelson Mandela’s assistants.  She hasn’t changed much in the seventeen years between the two movies.

Some of you might catch a small bit of South African history if you have a good eye.  In the middle of the movie, the Springboks take a boat ride out to Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for more than two decades.  The boat the ride out to the island is named the Dias, presumably named after Bartolomeu Dias a Portuguese explorer who was the first European to sail around the southernmost tip of Africa.

There’s so much you can take away from this movie.  On a very basic level, you can learn a little bit about rugby, one of South Africa’s most popular sports.  But it’s so much more than that.  You get some insight into the racial divide that still existed in South Africa in the years following the end of Apartheid.  You get some insight into the tremendous pressure put on the Springboks in 1995 and what their success meant to a broken nation.  You get some insight into Nelson Mandela’s mind as he did everything he could to heal that break.  And, you get some insight into the mindsets of people on both sides of that divide.

Great stories make us feel.  They can make us sad.  They can make us smile.  They can make us cheer.  They can make us scream.  They can make us angry.  They can make us cry tears of joy.  Invictus is a great movie.

As always, grab yourself some rusks and billtong and watch our Movie of the Month, Invictus, along with the other videos we’ve posted today.  You can find Invictus at your local libraries or streaming sites like Putlocker or YouTubeonfire.  We ask that all of our South Africa travelers take the time to watch our Movies of the Month, then come back here to discuss the movie, the history, and the impact this story had on the people and places we’ll visit.  The longer and more in depth our discussion gets, the better it is for all of us.  

26 Comments leave one →
  1. Haley Watson permalink
    April 5, 2015 11:41 am

    This movie was probably the best movie we’ve been assigned. The beginning was a little hard to get into, but once they started with the rugby stuff it got better. There was a very drastic change between the first game, and the last one. In the first game, people were booing Mandela, waving the old flag that was present during the apartheid, and the black children were rooting for the opposing team. But by the final game, the crowd was chanting Mandela’s name, and everyone in South Africa was cheering for the Springboks, and came together to cheer them on to victory. The one thing I didn’t really get, is why they called Mandela, “Madiba”. And I thought I recognized his assistants from one of the other South African movies, I just couldn’t remember which one.

    • April 7, 2015 7:00 am

      Now your job is to look up what Madiba means and why the other Black Africans were calling Mandela that.

      • Haley Watson permalink
        April 8, 2015 5:16 pm

        I looked it up and it said that Madiba was the name of a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei in the 18th century & is the name of the clan Nelson Mandela was a member of.

  2. Austin Stein permalink
    April 5, 2015 8:08 pm

    Invictus is as brilliant as Tsotsi was. It did just what it needed to; to show the dividend between South Africa at the time and make the Springboks the symbolism for it’s unification. I know Mandela in movie specially says “this is the one way we can bring the people together,” but I’m glad the movie didn’t allow the audience to simply take it at face value. Throughout the two hours, on multiple occasions we see how much the Springboks or some form of unification was needed in the times right after the abolishing of apartheid. The moment that really hit me for this message was when the team visited a small community and all the children flocked towards Chester; without at least one person of color on the team, the children would have resented and ignored them. And speaking of, the motif of unification even spread into the team, as Francois needed some way to pull his uncoordinated team together to win. And by the end of the movie, we truly see how Francois and Mandela have become the leaders their people needed; they took the divided and made them whole. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment this movie offered, and it was such the interesting ride seeing into the time period where coming together was needed more than ever.

    As a side note, the one piece of historical inaccuracy I found the movie had was that Francois wasn’t suffering from a leg injury in the beginning of the world cup. In reality, I understand from a story perceptive that wouldn’t translate well into the plot we got, but it was an difference I thought I’d point out.

    • April 7, 2015 7:03 am

      Would Mandela’s plan have worked if Pienaar had been a less open-minded person?

  3. Jordan Springer permalink
    April 6, 2015 12:01 pm

    I have to say, I really enjoyed this movie a lot more than I thought I would. I’m not a big sports person, but the rugby was fun to watch and I found the political aspect very interesting. It was inspiring to see the lengths Mandela went to in order to preserve Afrikaaner culture and ensure that the country stayed united. He was very intelligent in his planning and considered things that I never would have thought of. For the most part, I thought that Morgan Freeman captured Mandela’s charm very well, and the accent was almost spot-on. The rugby probably would have been better had I been more familiar with the rules and the current state of the teams, but it was still very fun to watch and I definitely plan to root for the Springboks from now on. I don’t know if it would be possible, but going to a ‘Boks game sounds like a really fun excursion.

    • April 7, 2015 7:04 am

      Of course we’ll try to see some rugby while we’re there, but no promises. Are there any other South African sports worth checking out if rugby doesn’t work in our schedule?

      • Jordan Springer permalink
        April 19, 2015 8:12 pm

        I think that soccer would be interesting, as it seems to be almost as big as rugby is there. Their sports seem pretty close to ours, so I think it would be interesting to see how they’re different there. I think that going to a sporting event would be an adventure in itself, regardless of the sport.

  4. Ronnie Stovall permalink
    April 7, 2015 8:08 pm

    I liked the movie a lot I would say it was one of the best movies we watched this year. I watched the movie with my parents and we all loved it. I wasn’t sure I would really like the movie, but I did enjoy it. Some thing I noticed how Mandela said how we will be the Rainbow Nation like in the presentation South Africa is the Rainbow Nation today. I didn’t notice that the same team playing by other side of the field next to the little African kids. that are the rugby team the spring box. It was cool how Nelson Mandela plan worked out that the game rugby could bring the whole country together. Like those officers The Guards were glaring across from one another the black guards were pretty mad and didn’t get along with white polices officers. And sooner or later they started playing the game together getting along having fun. I also thought that it was a clever idea of Mandela bring a losing team out of there slump to bring them to the poor side of South Africa and spend time with the kids. I thought how sweet that was especially when they crowded Chester cheerer him on. I really did like this movie.
    I do have a question when they sang ola what did that mean was that there nation anthem or did it means something else . And on the airplane I noticed SAA which is South Africa Airlines and why did it fly so close?
    Rugby like football, but more dangerous and the person can fall down and ball is still in play. I hope to see a game hopefully.

    • April 7, 2015 10:16 pm

      The plane flew so close, because there was a message painted on the bottom of the plane.
      The song was an African song, used by the ANC during the fight against Apartheid. When Mandela was elected, that song became one of the country’s national anthems.

  5. Ronnie Stovall permalink
    April 7, 2015 8:10 pm

    Also that poem I didn’t notice at first but when I read it and heard him say it. We wrote at essay on that in L.A the part where is said “My head is bloody, but unbowed”.

  6. Ronnie Stovall permalink
    April 8, 2015 3:12 pm

    For my Language Arts teacher Mrs .Kozbiel We read poems and took notes on them. The last Poem was same form Invictus she never told us that Much about that poem when I read and heard it I remembered it. We did the activity to get ready for Writing prompt for the new test PARCC. And it difficult to really understand

  7. Gianna Kriechbaum permalink
    April 9, 2015 4:35 pm

    I absolutely loved this movie and it was honestly as good, if not better, than I thought it would be. I love sports, and I love rugby a lot. My uncle is from wales and used to always tell me about different things there and he’d talk about rugby a lot since he knew I loved sports. Well anyway, at first it was kind of eh… I wasn’t really that into it and it was hard to get into. But then the rugby started and I honestly got into it immediately. They were so bad at the beginning of everything but it really just shows how much growth they went through the whole movie. Again, seeing those tiny little houses and knowing people have to live like that was so hard and upsetting. Through the movie there are so many emotions that you feel as a person seeing it, and the emotions you see on the actors faces and through their actions. This movie was so amazing and I fell in love with it. It was very informative and showed a lot about the apartheid and just what people were going through after it ended. Not only did the team go through a lot of change, but so did the people. They wanted to get rid of the springboks but Mandela went in and saved that and told them why they needed to keep it. He was a very true and powerful leader. At the first game, people booed, threw things, and just didn’t seem entirely happy with Mandela. Even the black kids and adults watching cheered for the other team instead of the springboks. But at the very last game, the team played well, everybody was cheering, and everyone was rooting for the springboks. Overall, I think this movie was really amazing and I really love it.

  8. Kate Gall permalink
    April 10, 2015 8:34 pm

    In my opinion, this movie was by far the best one that we have had to watch for Tap. It started out kind of slow but after the first rugby match, I really started to get into the movie. I had noticed that before the first match, the crowd booed Mandela as he took the field as he wished the Springbok team good luck. Even some of the players didn’t care for Nelson’s pretense at the game and it was really amazing that Mandela went through a lot of things to root for the Springboks. Nelson bet on the Springboks to win the world cup and in the end they did win, which brought all of the races and religions of the people in South Africa together. I have never actually seen a rugby game before I watched Invictus. I thought it was really cool to see the teams play even though I didn’t understand most of the rules. I definitely think that I will watch more movies on rugby and try to learn more about it, and I’m sure it would be extremely fun to watch in person.

  9. erin seymour permalink
    April 10, 2015 8:52 pm

    This is one of the greatest movies you have ever assigned us. I loved it. There were some parts that were emotional. I liked how the blacks were getting along with the whites, like in the part where that little boy was trying to listen to the radio in the car but those white men wouldn’t let him and as the game passed they bonded in a way and everyone bonded from this game. There was a sad part were those ladies were handing out clothes to those poor children and the child wouldn’t even take the springbok jersey because he would get beat up. I felt really bad. I loved how the team really bonded and became an actual team. How they got so much better because they started to learn something. I also really liked Morgan Freeman in this movie. I thought he made it a little better. When that big jet passed over the stadium it surprised me too. I didn’t know what was going to happen and by the look on everyone’s faces it looked like all of their hearts skipped a beat.

  10. Brian Cottingim permalink
    April 12, 2015 12:38 pm

    A truly inspiring story. A s the games went on, I noticed that more and more “new” flags were appearing, and the old apartheid flags were being abandoned. The first game they were almost all apartheid flags. A game afterwards there were a couple people that switched over to the new flags, and by the end I only caught one apartheid flag in a sea of new ones. Also in this time, it seems like the Black South Africans and the White South Africans united as one country, not just “stuck” together in one country. Like how at the final game the little black boy probably couldn’t afford tickets to the game so he had to listen to the radio outise by the police car. The police looked at him strangely at first but as the game went on, as their team was getting closer to winning, the boy came closer and closer to the car. By the end of the game, he was on top of the front of the car, listening. The rugby united them (and the whole country). Many people thought Mandela was doing this rugby for nothing, but really, it unified a nation.
    I loved the movie and the story behind it, thanks!

  11. Maddy Trouvais permalink
    April 12, 2015 7:32 pm

    Okay, this movie was amazing. When I read the synopsis of it before I watched it, I read that it was about how Mandela and the rugby captain, Francois, were aiming to reunite South Africa. When I read that, I got really excited. I remembered from writing my article on Nelson Mandela that I wrote about in that article what this movie is about, well parts of it anyway. By doing that in the article, it really helped me better understand the movie, because I didn’t really have trouble following what was happening because of what I had already knew. So that part was pretty cool. But, there were some other parts of this that really touched me and I thought really made this movie even better. I really liked how Francois took the team to Robben Island and he arranged a time to see where Mandela was held for those 20+ years. To me this represented how important it was to Mandela for them to do the best that they could do. It showed the team just what he had to live with and it made them even more inspired and motivated to do better than they have before. Another scene that also really touched me was when they went to go see the children and teach them how to play rugby. I thought that was really touching because they went there, while they could have been practicing instead, to give these children an amazing opportunity and kind of show the community that they represent each and every one of everyone in South Africa, not just the wealthy and more fortunate ones. Needless to say, this movie was one of the best movies I have ever seen and this really touched me deep down in so many different ways and helped me better understand this topic in South Africa.

  12. Emily Blenck permalink
    April 13, 2015 7:03 pm

    Alright, so basically anyone who knows me knows that I have a pretty bad rep with sports. I never was attracted to the sight of several sweaty children fighting over a ball and grown men screaming violently at a televised football game. But I have to say that this movie kind of changed my point of view on the certain emotions I would relate to sports. It kind of made me realize that it isn’t just the game but the feelings and history which revolves around it. I have to say one of my favorite parts of the movie was when they introduced Mandela after the team had one the world cup and the look on his face when the crowd was cheering was almost priceless. I mean compared to the beginning of the movie where people were booing him and the blacks were cheering for any team other than the springboks, there was an enormous change within the country just because of a simple game. Who knew that rugby could bring so much lost pride to a country? Anyways, this was overall one of my favorite TAP movies and I think I learned a whole lot about Nelson Mandela’s character and the importance of sports. Invictus will certainly stick in my mind when discussing the post apartheid era.

  13. Kelsie Stanley permalink
    April 27, 2015 3:42 pm

    I think this is one of the best TAP movies we have been assigned. I never realized how much impact a sport could bring to a country. It just seemed like something extra that isn’t really associated directly with the people of the country, but now I realize that it’s almost everything. It can bring so many people together on one side rooting for one sole purpose. I thought it was cool how the rugby team traveled around teaching the kids. They were doing a good part in their community. Another part I found interesting was when the team visited Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. I think the more they realized how they really impacted the people, the harder they tried to help them. Overall, this was a great movie and I learned a lot.

  14. Stephanie Melendez permalink
    May 3, 2015 2:38 pm

    Invictus is by far one of the best movies we have been assigned! I had so many mixed emotions while watching this movie. First, I was angry. Next, I was sad. But in the end I was so happy I shed a few tears. (Tears of joy) The people of South Africa definitely changed their point of view about their country from the beginning to the end of the movie. At the beginning of the movie no one really liked that Nelson Mandela was released from prison and became the new president of South Africa. At least the people for Apartheid didn’t anyways. I just don’t think those people could grasp the fact that anti-apartheid was upon them. It would definitely take some time for South Africa to heal and come together as one proud and strong country. I also noticed at the beginning of the movie, the Black Africans went to the Rugby games but the rooted for the opposing teams and not the Springboks. Even the crowd booed Mandela’s name. You could even tell that Mandela’s bodyguards didn’t even get along let alone the people. But at the World Cup game there was a whole different atmosphere. South Africa came together as one and cheered on the Springboks into victory! In conclusion, I learned a lot about Nelson Mandela’s character, but most importantly I learned how important sports can be to a country and help them come together and solve their problems. Such as putting an end to the Apartheid era!

  15. Hannah Breier permalink
    May 16, 2015 4:34 pm

    Invictus was truly one of the most amazing movies i have watched in a long time. There were so many scenes that were eye opening and contributed to the excitement of being able to travel to South Africa. I thought it was amazing how in the beginning of the movie almost all of the crowd was booing at Mandela and he took it. Mandela smiled and went about the game. But towards the end, everyone loved him. Mandela got to know the players well and inspired them to work together as an outstanding team. I agree with Stephanie that it would take time for the country to heal after the anti-apartheid deal. I think that this rugby team coming together was a great step in the right direction for the country to begin to heal. When the country was watching the game together, they were cheering as one big “rainbow nation” and celebrated not in fear of one another. Invictus also gave me an insight on who Mandela was. Even though it was a movie and his actions and words could not have been accurate, Mandela was a great man. He had such an amazing heart and a great support system.

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