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Study Guide: Ransom vs Invictus: Themes

The leadership of two men is central in this film. Both leaders are shown to inspire their people; to have the physical, emotional and spiritual strength for winning as well as for resisting anyone who tries to divert them from their course; to be capable of hard work and of embracing change; in short, to be a hero. The idea of family (individual and national) is extended and challenged, and the definition of what it is to be a man and to be a leader is constantly examined. We see people learning the rules of the rugby game and people learning the new rules of politics after apartheid; and at the World Cup, we see that rugby, like public life, is a type of battle. The possibility for change, forgiveness and unity are central ideas explored through the film.

From VATE Inside texts 2017, Part 2, Marion White [ed.], Faye Crossman [teaching notes], Victorian Association for the teaching of English, 2016, p.13


Leadership forms a major theme of the film. In meeting with Francois, Mandela asks him how a leader can inspire those he leads to greatness, to be better than they think they can be. Leaders appeal to “the better angels of our nature,” encouraging the best in us and more both by their actions and example. Mandela exemplifies this principle when he encourages one of his black bodyguards to forgive the white bodyguards with whom he is assigned to work. Forgiveness, he argues, is a liberation of the soul. Hate itself is a form of slavery, an oppression that continues long after the physical manifestations of subservience are lifted. Mandela’s forgiveness in the face of nearly three decades of imprisonment exemplifies what the nation needs. It calls them to do what many think themselves incapable of doing.

Leadership and family

The film also illustrates the idea that leadership has a cost and reveals that the desires and needs of a leader’s family, or of his need for them, are often put second. This is most evident in moments when Mandela’s neutral, calm, public mask slips, such as when his daughter Zinzi won’t agree with his views (00:49:52) or during Sc. 8 (00:38:10):

Linga: Morning, Madiba.
Mandela: How are you?
Linga: Fine, thanks.
Hendrick: Morning sir.
Mandela: How is your family, Hendrick?
Hendrick: Top shape, sir. How about yours?
Mandela: I have a very large family. Forty-two million ... I don’t think I want to walk today.
Linga: We never, never ask him about his family.
Hendrick: But he asks about ours all the time.
Linga: Think about it, man. He’s separated from his wife. His children ... how often do you see them here? He’s not a saint, okay. He’s a man, with a man’s problems – and he doesn’t need us reminding him about them. 

Leadership as a role model

Nelson Mandela is presented in the film as a leader who aims to be a role model, to lead by example and inspiration. Most people would find it difficult to forgive their oppressors if they had been treated as he was—a highly educated lawyer ‘classified’ by an unjust regime under the demeaning terminology of apartheid and imprisoned twenty-seven years for fighting for the rights of his people—but Mandela found it in himself to rise above that, and to provide inspiring leadership. The film shows him as having been inspired himself by the Henley poem, Invictus, the messages of which sustained him and his fellow prisoners during his terrible
years incarcerated in Robben Island prison. His sharing of this poem with François Pienaar speaks loudly of his belief in the individual and the capacity to shape our own fates. The final two lines of the poem: ‘I am the master of my fate/
I am the captain of my soul’ work as a kind of theme song for the way in which Nelson Mandela chooses to live out his leadership role.

The following scene (Invictus, Sc. 10) reveal the man within the leader, the challenges both Nelson and Pienaar have to face, and the sacrifices they must make in order to do their jobs well.

In the following interview Morgan Freeman discusses Mandela’s reliance on William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem, Invictus, to keep his hope alive:

“That poem was his favourite… When he lost courage, when he felt like just giving up — just lie down and not get up again — he would recite it. And it would give him what he needed to keep going.”

Freeman also provides a solemn and dignified recitation of the poem beginning at 3:51. 

Sport as Symbol

Invictus highlights the power of the symbol in the face of ethnic conflicts and class hierarchy present in South Africa. In many scenes, hostilities related to political breakdowns, which certainly compromise the functions and perpetuation of the social and political system in South Africa, are exposed: segregationist behaviour, intolerance, mutual hostilities, conflicts and social tensions, cultural discrimination, historical grievances and collective constraints. 

The film portrays the idea of sport as a healing force rather than a divisive one; it shows how radical social change can be brought about if the leaders never resile from belief in their own capacity to inspire others to exceed their expectations of what can be achieved.

In the video below, Matt Dawson talks to Matt Damon and Francois Pienaar, the 1995 World Cup-winning Springboks captain.

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