LONDON (Reuters) - Sports movies too often veer uneasily between off-field drama and on-pitch action without portraying either with much conviction.
“Invictus”, the tale of Nelson Mandela’s role in South Africa’s triumphal 1995 rugby World Cup victory over the New Zealand All Blacks, is more plausible than most, although it has its critics.
The film features a dignified performance by Morgan Freeman as South African president Mandela and a passable portrayal of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar by Matt Damon. Clint Eastwood directs with an assured hand.
Freeman is maybe too saintly, Damon too short, albeit impressively muscled, and the rugby scenes are patchy. Some of the plot contrivances grate.
The force of “Invictus” derives from its subject matter, however. It succeeds in showing a mass audience, who will not necessarily be aware of the details of South African history, how Mandela won over white supremacists by embracing their cherished sport of rugby union.
Sport, and in particular rugby union, was an essential weapon in the bitter, protracted war against apartheid.
In December, the month that “Invictus” went on general release in the United States, the man who seized upon sport as a weapon to fight South Africa’s racist policies died in his sleep in Cape Town.
Dennis Brutus, a Zimbabwean-born poet and political activist, was imprisoned on Robben Island in the cell next to Mandela. While breaking stones he heard the news that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had suspended South Africa from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Brutus had been the secretary of the South African Sports Association, later renamed the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, which was founded in 1958.
At the same time the Broederbond, an organization founded to further Afrikaner culture and political power, was strengthening its grip on rugby union. Avril Malan, captain of the grand-slam winning 1960-1 Springbok team in Britain and Ireland, was a member.
The 1960s were to prove a pivotal decade. They began with the Sharpeville massacre on March 21, 1960, an atrocity which jolted the world’s conscience when armed police killed 69 peaceful black protestors.
In the same year the All Blacks toured the white-ruled republic without any of their native Maoris in their customary capitulation to their hosts’ racist policies.
By the end of the decade, even notoriously conservative sports authorities were finding the South African National Party’s policies difficult to stomach.
New Zealand called off a tour in 1967 because Maoris were still excluded and in the following year the South African government canceled a visit by the England cricket team after non-white, South African-born batsman Basil D‘Oliveira was selected.
The political activism and street protests of the 1960s spilled over into the sporting arena in 1969. A Springbok tour of Britain, Ireland and France was disrupted by pitched battles between demonstrators and police that were every bit as violent as the anti-Vietnam protests of those tempestuous times.
“Nineteen-sixty-nine was a watershed in many ways,” said Springbok loose forward Tommy Bedford. “It was the beginning of the end.”
An equally disruptive tour to Australia was to follow in 1971 and in 1976 New Zealand authorities belatedly realized that, even with their Maori and Polynesian players allowed to tour, most of the world was implacably opposed to any sporting contacts with South Africa.
Black African nations walked out of the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest against the New Zealand tour and five years later the traditionally peaceful south Pacific nation was plunged into virtual civil war when the Springboks embarked on an historically misguided tour.
New Zealand was split in half as anti-tour demonstrators fought street battles with supporters. Opponents of the tour included the wife of All Blacks fullback Alan Hewson while captain Graham Mourie refused to play.
The worldwide cricket boycott after the D‘Oliveira incident hit South Africa hard. But the gradual erosion of official rugby contact, in particular with their great 20th century rivals New Zealand, struck at the heart of Afrikaner culture.
“Rugby to the Afrikaner was a religion,” said veteran anti-apartheid campaigner and International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive board member Sam Ramsamy. “They had to make sure they protected their rugby as much as they protected their conservative racist attitudes. That we understood.”
“Invictus” is based on “Playing the Enemy”, a book by John Carlin which relates in gripping detail how the imprisoned Mandela, convinced that the country would otherwise disintegrate into civil war, decided in the mid-1980s that negotiations were the only way to end apartheid.
“He explained how he had at first formed an idea of the political power of sport while in prison; how he had used the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an instrument in the grand strategic purpose he set for himself during his five years as South Africa’s first democratically elected president to reconcile blacks and whites and create the conditions for lasting peace,” Carlin wrote.
The climax of the book and the movie is the magical day at Ellis Park when South African Airways pilot Laurie Kay flew a 747 jumbo jet low over the ground with the words “Good Luck Bokke” painted on its underbelly. A choir sang the haunting new national anthem “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and Mandela shook hands with both teams, wearing the green Springbok cap and the green jersey with number six, Pienaar’s number, on the back.
Against all the odds, South Africa successfully stifled the threat of the previously unstoppable Jonah Lomu and defeated the World Cup favorites in extra time. Johannesburg erupted in a exuberant street party; Mandela spent, as was his custom, a quiet evening at home.
“At a stroke he had killed the right-wing threat,” Carlin said. “South Africa was more politically stable than at any point since the first white settlers in 1652.”
“The overwhelming majority of South Africans supported the Springboks,” Ramsamy recalled. “We had no particular vengeance against Afrikaners although they were the oppressors in many, many ways. They were now South Africans and we needed to support them.”
Editing by Clare Fallon