'Invictus': Remember the Springboks

The 1995 Rugby World Cup victory by hometown team South Africa may not have had the lasting effects on race relations many had hoped for, but it's still a hopeful moment worth revisiting, as Clint Eastwood does with Invictus


Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Distributor: Warner
Rated: PG-13
Telease date: 2010-05-18

Why are major sporting events -- huge productions that require massive costs in terms of capital and labor just to pull of their basic function as athletic contests -- constantly burdened with all kinds of additional expectations? If a country is hosting an Olympics, as China did in the summer of 2008, the games' success will generally be seen as an indicator of that nation's current political and economical prestige (or lack thereof). If a country is hosting the World Cup Finals, international soccer's highest level of competition, its football team gets an automatic-bye and all of a sudden thinks it has a chance at beating out top-seeded rivals, in the process perhaps inspiring its country's population to forget their differences in the interest of national pride.

It's a lot of hope to place on a series of 90-minute games that took years to plan and organize but will be over within a month. Just look at South Africa, hosts of the 2010 Cup, whose citizens actually seem to think they'll see their team go far in this tournament, despite the fact that the low-ranked South Africans will have to face powerhouses like France before they can even think about getting out of their division.

Then again, South Africans have more reason than most to believe that their underdogs can put together a victory. Their national hero, Nelson Mandela, sat in jail cells for 27 years before he was released and, in short order, elected president of the nation. There's a precedent in the sports world as well, as South Africa is the country that saw it's generally hopeless national rugby team, the Springboks, make it all the way to the finals when they hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. At a time when the tensions of the apartheid era of racial-segregation were a very recent memory, the exploits of the mostly-white Springboks and the open support they received from their black president seemed to bridge some of the racial divides that had seemed so uncrossable only a few years before.

At least that's the point Clint Eastwood tries to make in Invictus, a movie which focuses on the lives of Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) leading up to and during the team's run at the Cup in 1995. Eastwood makes the deeply-etched divisions that split South African society in the early-'90s as apparent as possible, giving his enlightened audiences plenty of racist quips from old, white Africans (who don't recognize that history has turned against them) to shake their heads at.

Then there is Mandela, a man who has suffered more at the hands of apartheid than most, and yet is willing to forgive and forget rather than seek revenge. There is also Pienaar, who comes from a privileged white background but -- as played by Damon -- has the kind of boyish good-looks and quiet seriousness that let everyone know he's not going to be dismissing the new black government, composed mostly of former political prisoners, as quickly as his family and teammates seem to.

Like the vast majority of sports movies, Invictus follows a predictable path (even if an audience doesn't know the actual result of the real-life finals, they'll be pretty sure of it long before the close, final game against New Zealand's All-Blacks comes to its conclusion). Eastwood's real job here is to make sure a somewhat standard redemption story doesn't lose it's inspirational power even when transferred from the real world to the big screen.

He succeeds at that for much of the film, although there are some egregious missteps (including several moments when the score is a little to insistent in explaining to the audience what they should be feeling. The soundtrack includes a frequently utilized song called "Colorblind," for example). Eastwood, however, seems to have a knack for making good films in spite of what should be fatal shortcomings in the production (remember those poor amateur "actors" in Gran Torino?), and with Invictus he succeeds partially through sketching in all the right details.

Mandela's obsession with his plan to unite the country by getting soccer-loving black Africans to watch their white neighbors' favorite game seems a little silly when you realize that he probably should be doing what his aides keep telling him and pay more attention to the country's economic woes, but watching his black bodyguards bond with the white security agents (who were part of a police force which terrorized black activists under apartheid) as they all come to root for their national team is touching, and feels real rather than exploitative and melodramatic.

For a film about a rugby match, though, Invictus is not overly concerned with the details of the game itself. There is just enough information given to let non-rugby fans know what the hell is going on, and so just enough to make the sports-event-as-social-struggle metaphor effective. Still, the in-game action is filmed rather well, as is most of the film. Eastwood, like many film-makers setting their movies in South Africa, likes to capture the way the sun washes through the landscape, often to the point that skin-tone is hard to discern.

Another visual asset is Freeman's physical resemblance to Mandela. Really, who else could have played the world's most revered living humanitarian other than the man who is the first-choice of directors wanting an actor who exemplifies unquestionable wisdom (he was once cast as God in Bruce Almighty). Damon doesn't look quite as much like the real Pienaar, but otherwise does a decent job with a somewhat archetypal character, and manages to pull off a convincing-enough Afrikaans accent.

Probably the biggest criticism that can be leveled against Invictus comes from South Africa's history in the 15 years since this event took place. The country is still plagued by violence, disparate wealth gaps and issues defining its multi-racial national identity. Blacks, whites, and everyone else may have joined together to support the Springboks, but non-Caucasian South Africans still face huge problems overcoming the depressive influence of years of institutionalized inequality, leading to everything from widespread crime to problems controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS. Racism continues, thanks to grudges still held by the formerly-segregated non-white population, and the mistaken conclusion among some white South Africans that the current ills of society are proof that everything really was better when they were the ones in control.

On the other hand, South Africa's story is a plot that is still ongoing, while Invictus tells the tale of a specific point in time, when a society ravaged by decades of injustice actually managed to overcome differences to rally around a single cause. Even if one rugby competition didn't make everyone colorblind (there's that word again) overnight, Invictus makes it easy to see why South Africans today might hold out hope that the impossible could happen -- again.


The Blu-Ray release of Invictus comes with a hefty selection of extra features, including documentaries on the production, rugby, and Eastwood himself. There's also a nifty picture-in-picture feature that lets the viewer get a lot more additional content while watching the film than they would with a regular audio commentary.


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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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