EXCLUSIVE: Eastwood’s Mandela film titled ‘Invictus’

Posted by · 7:50 pm · June 2nd, 2009

(from left) Matt Damon and Clint Eastwood on the set of InvictusIt’s interesting how news bites trickle down.  A passing comment from our own Chad Hartigan over at Twitter stirred the stagnant buzz nest of Clint Eastwood’s still-filming Nelson Mandela project for me, so I did a little digging.

Anyone who follows the film awards season is well aware of the project, which will star Morgan Freeman as the esteemed former president of South Africa and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, captain of the South Africa Springboks rugby union team that won an unlikely World Cup trophy in 1995 as the nation was in the midst of post-Apartheid transition.  The story was committed to print in John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy” in 2008.  Eastwood mentioned at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in January that Carlin’s book covered similar territory to his as-of-then untitled film but didn’t mention whether Anthony Peckham’s screenplay was a proper adaptation of the volume.

But back to that Twitter message.  It read, quite simply, “Eastwood’s film called Invictus.”  So I called Malpaso, Eastwood’s production company.  I asked if this was indeed the case and was told, swiftly, “that’s still all in the works.”  No confirmation was forthcoming.  Fair enough.  I got Chad on the phone and tracked down his source, which was an internal industry email that read: “Please note, Clint Eastwood’s untitled Nelson Mandela film is now titled ‘Invictus.'”  A quick email to his source at Warner Bros. and I got the confirmation.  We have a title.  But what does it mean?  Read on to find out.

“Invictus” (meaning “Invincible” in Latin) was a short poem written by William Earnest Henley and published in 1875.  What’s the connection to Mandela?  It seems the poem was a great source of inspiration for the freedom fighter.  The impact of its verses is probably best summed up by this passage from a 2007 Reader’s Digest interview with Mandela:

RD: When you were in prison all those long years on Robben Island and elsewhere, was there something that came back to you, something you had either in your mind, a message or passage from a book, a song, something that helped sustain you and keep up your spirits?

Mandela: There was a poem by an English poet, W.E. Henley, called “Invictus.” The last lines go: “It matters not how straight the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

Additionally, from the official Nobel Prize website, there is this aside, amid a passage detailing the impact of literary heritage on Mandela’s life:

At Robben Island, Mandela recited this poem and taught other prisoners these defiant lines; reading such words “puts life in you”, Mandela says.

It makes for a stirring if, for those who don’t want to research it (i.e., just about everyone), head-scratching title.  But more intriguing might be the fact that Sen. John McCain has also pointed to it for a source of inspiration and, to an extent, perhaps, faith.  When you read those final verses, you can certainly sense how they might galvanize someone who’s been taken as a prisoner of war.

From a William Kristol op-ed in the pages of The New York Times back in January of 2008:

McCain comes from a generation that, in its youth, was made to memorize poetry. And when I was able to get in touch with him Sunday in Florida, he told me that one of the poems he had memorized in school was William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” (1875). McCain actually recited snatches of the poem in our cellphone conversation — not something he does every day on the campaign trail, he pointed out.

Henley, Kristol notes, wrote the piece following a foot amputation due to tubercular infection. “He lived until age 53,” Kristol writes, “apparently unbow’d and unafraid, a productive poet, critic and editor. (The one-legged Henley also served as an inspiration for his close friend Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” character Long John Silver.)”

I point out the McCain connection because of Eastwood’s presumed support of the Republican Presidential nominee in the recent election.  They even got together on the campaign trail when McCain made a stop outside of Detroit.  Eastwood was filming “Gran Torino” in the area at the time.

Another bizarre note that reader M Mc points out is that the poem’s final verse served as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh’s last words.  But regardless of all of that, the film finally has a title (as long as WB is okay with the inevitable confusion it will likely induce in the public, as well as the McVeigh stigma).  So some of you (you know who you are) can stop complaining about the fact that I have the gall to list an untitled film throughout my Oscar predictions! (I kid.)

Here is the full text of Henley’s “Invictus”:

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 unbow’d.

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.

→ 27 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

27 responses so far

  • 1 6-02-2009 at 8:10 pm

    Andrew L. said...

    It means “The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3” will remain the worst title of 2009.

  • 2 6-02-2009 at 8:11 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    Wow, great poem, great inspiration for a title of a kvie, no more the human factor(thank god) now can actually start looking forward to thism though it may be nominated unless directed and acted incredibly well i really doubt it will win)the screen play will also play a large role)

  • 3 6-02-2009 at 8:17 pm

    Marlowe said...

    I have a feeling this is the first and last time I’ll read Bill Kristol quoted in a piece that makes me say “Whew! Glad to have THAT cleared up!”

  • 4 6-02-2009 at 8:19 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


  • 5 6-02-2009 at 8:19 pm

    M Mc said...

    Bizarre note: The poem served as Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh’s last words.

  • 6 6-02-2009 at 8:20 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


  • 7 6-02-2009 at 8:37 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Oh dear, regarding McVeigh. And Andrew L., THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3 is a fine title, its just not of this era.

  • 8 6-02-2009 at 9:47 pm

    JAB said...

    “…which will star Nelson Mandela as the esteemed former president of South Africa”

    he’s playing himself? :-P

  • 9 6-02-2009 at 10:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    You didn’t hear? Duh. LOL. Thanks for the catch.

  • 10 6-03-2009 at 1:02 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    The title strikes me as a lot heavier than the script, but it’s a hell of a lot better than “The Human Factor.”

    And “The Taking of Pelham 123” is a kickass title. It was in 1974, still is today.

  • 11 6-03-2009 at 1:04 am

    Alex said...

    It’s growing on me, but I think they’d do better to call it Mandela and feature Freeman prominently in the promotional material and sell it as a biopic. Or something like ‘Nelson and Me’ ‘Mandela and Me’. They are all terrible titles, (Mandela and Me sounds like Marley and Me), but this film has potential to do well internationally.

  • 12 6-03-2009 at 1:42 am

    Eunice said...

    I agree with Alex. Although given the meaning attached to the title through the poem, I’d say it makes a good fit for the man and the country as well.

  • 13 6-03-2009 at 3:57 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Thanks for the info and the background. Excellent.

  • 14 6-03-2009 at 6:07 am

    Silencio said...

    Nelson and Me? My God. No. I’ll take Invictus over some “easy” title like that anyday. People should just look it up, or not worry about it at all. Besides, they may mention the poem in the film.

  • 15 6-03-2009 at 6:08 am

    Silencio said...

    Also, if it’s not actually a biopic, they’ll be in hot water if they sell it as one.

  • 16 6-03-2009 at 8:11 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Yeah, this point cannot be stressed too heavily: it is NOT a Mandela biopic.

  • 17 6-03-2009 at 10:13 am

    MattyD. said...

    I’m sort of not at all excited about this…sadly. I do think the title is really neat, though.

  • 18 6-03-2009 at 10:14 am

    MattyD. said...

    And Guy, I was just about to type that I feel the title is much heavier than the film’s subject matter. Thanks for confirming that. :)

  • 19 6-03-2009 at 10:35 am

    Tyler j. Pratt said...

    The title reads strange, but I have a good feeling about this movie, from Eastwood to Freeman to Damon, my intuition is telling me that this is going to be a movie to see this year.

  • 20 6-03-2009 at 1:36 pm

    Bryan C. said...

    The poem in its entirety is actually included in the screenplay. It’s a rather old draft, though. Whether or not it will eventually be in the finished movie, I can’t say for sure, but after this name change it seems likely.

  • 21 6-05-2009 at 8:31 am

    jonny said...

    The RUGBY WORLD CUP 1995 was amazing. So much drama. I just hope this film gets the rugby scenes right.

    There was so much drama in 1995 that they said if they ever made it into a Hollywood film people wouldn’t believe it

    check these videos out for more on 1995 Rugby World Cup





  • 22 6-18-2009 at 4:14 pm

    darkknight01 said...

    sheesh….already taking Oscar bait films and hyping them up like these films are sho ins…..


  • 23 12-11-2009 at 12:43 pm

    Sam said...

    In 1995 were they still playing under the original Rugby union amateur rules, or had they by that time migrated to the professional version known as Rugby league?

  • 24 2-21-2010 at 11:34 am

    james said...

    Invictus is latin for “Unconquered” you d**kweed! NOT invincible! .. where did you dig that up? .. Did you just pull that out of the sky they sound alike?

    Are you an american? are you even educated?

    In the context of the poem it makes perfect sense .. but Invincible? dont tell me your a hollywood shoot’em up fan ..

    Words fail me