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Henley’s ‘Invictus’ stars with Morgan Freeman

Written by Jane Davis, 11th February 2010

There can't be many films which would appeal to poetry lovers and rugby fans but that is what Clint Eastwood has set out to do with Invictus, his new release about Nelson Mandela and the South African Rugby World Cup. To see a poem take a starring role alongside Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon is quite something. And like Freeman and Damon,  'Invictus' does its job brilliantly.

People who are involved in Get Into Reading may know the poem because it's been read in quite a lot of groups. It's always a lovely surprise to see this Victorian gem, which might be considered a bit obvious, a bit corny, come to life in human hands. The poem has a  kind of magic about it, in that the more difficult the lives of its readers the more moving it becomes.


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

I hadn't realised that it was a key poem for Mandela during his years of incarceration (and wish I had, as some politically correct persons have occasionally  told me that they are  troubled by the undercurrent of colonial racism hinted at in Henley's use of the word 'black').

The film is an old-fashioned move-you-to-tears and to-punching-the-air triumph-over-adversity story, which had me in tears within minutes, perhaps seconds. Mandela's calm determination and belief is worth learning from, there's a terrific performance from an actor whose name I don't know but who used to be nurse in Casualty, Damon has found his niche as a lumpen inarticulate but courageous sportsman, and Freeman was born to play Mandela: the two are now one in my mind, as if they always were one and the same. Go with a rugby fan, take hankies for two, and be prepared to be inspired.

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