The indefatigable, unconquerable Clint Eastwood -- his latest movie, Invictus, opens today, telling the story of Nelson Mandela, a black South African who whispered the poem "Invictus" to himself -- it helped him get through thirty years in prison.
Here's a clip of Morgan Freeman, as Mandela, remembering the poem.
Wow -- hearing just the title of the movie -- I'm overwhelmed, by my own memories of reciting that poem when I was very young. And I'm flooded by memories of when I danced in South Africa -- the shock -- when a black bellboy at my hotel told me not to converse with him -- "I'll be fired," he said.
I learned the four verses of "Invictus," a poem by William Ernest Henley. when I was five. This is the first verse:
"Out of the night that covers me,
Black is the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods there be
For my unconquerable soul."
I remember I was wearing my favorite dress, staring down at the tiny blue flowers on it. I was scared, afraid I'd forget a line or a word. Mama liked me to pronounce all the words perfectly, like "unconquerable."
Invictus. the movie, about the unconquerable Mandela, tells us where Eastwood is at today as an artist -- he's been fearlessly taking on ever larger themes, as he, himself has been growing older.
1971, in Play Misty for Me -- Eastwood played and directed himself as a handsome, leading-man hero, plagued, threatened, almost murdered by a fan. Twenty years later, in the The Unforgiven, Eastwood played, directed, and produced the film about an aging ex-gunfighter hero, long past his prime, who's challenged by an old enemy.
The second verse of the poem suggests that the poet, Henley, was reflecting on what was happening to him in the battlefield.
"In the felt clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed."
In Eastwood's Invictus, I kept hoping that actor, Morgan Freeman, would say the words -- all of them -- louder. But he was internalizing, them, as actor's do -- with his softer intonation, making each word like part of a prayer. And that's what the third verse suggests.
"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."
Those are words that I could have recited when I was performing in South Africa. I had trouble -- apparently made trouble, because my sponsors, the government's art committee had told me, (with polite words and metaphorical phrases) -- not to treat backstage helpers (blacks), as friends, and never tip them.
I expressed my dismay and explained why this seemed wrong to me -- backstage helpers were my "buddies" -- but they said the Mayor of Durban would cancel performances if I continued to "make trouble."
In the movie, the hero is the old man, Mandela, who emerges from 27 years as a political prisoner to be voted into South Africa's highest office, ending decades of apartheid "in a lightning flash of popular will" -- yes -- all he had to do was end crime, and create jobs.
( Like Obama, our first black man holding our highest office, who has to create jobs, fix healthcare, and find a way to end what seems to be two endless wars.)
Invictus, the movie, and the poem, tells us to keep going -- be the captain -- no matter what.
"No matter how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
The captain of my soul."
Those words are what I still say to myself sometimes, to keep going.
I hope the movie echos in the minds of the audience, and is one more artistic success, and a big commercial success for Eastwood, who can reach us, touch us with his ideas, and maybe affect where our country is heading.
Bravo Clint Eastwood! And thanks.