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Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

The poem “Invictus”, written by William Ernest Henley, first came to my attention through the movie of the same name. The movie, made in 2009, is about South Africa’s attempt to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, shortly after Nelson Mandela had become President. Rugby had always been seen as an Afrikaaner game in South Africa, so much so that the majority South African blacks would often support the opposition rather than support what they saw as a game played almost exclusively by their white racist masters.



William Ernest Henley

William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) wrote Invictus in 1875, it was published in 1888.



Mandela sees an opportunity to unite South Africa by embracing this white-dominated sport, and show his willingness to let the past be the past. In the movie, Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman, and the Springboks’ captain François Pienaar is played by Matt Damon. If you haven’t see the film, then I highly recommend it.





The poem was used by Mandela to boost his spirits during his long incarceration in prison on Robben Island, and he shares it with Pienaar in the hope of inspiring the Springboks to victory. Here is the poem in its entirety.


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 unbowed.

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.


The best known lines in the poem are the last two lines. Recently they have cropped up in a TV commercial for the Irish stout Guinness. The commercial features a group of men in Brazzaville in the Congo who belong to “La Sape”, which stands for Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes (Society for the Advancement of Elegant People). A member of this Society is known as a “sapeur”.





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Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the nominees for best actor in this year’s Academy Awards. His nomination is for his lead role in The Wolf of Wall Street, a film I haven’t seen yet. DiCaprio was in two of my favourite films of 2013, Django in Chains and The Great Gatsby.

The first film I saw Leonardo DiCaprio in was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, where he played a young teenager with learning difficulties. I’m guessing he was only 14 or 15 at the time, but it was a very good performance which deservedly gained him an Oscar nomination. He has since gone on to act in dozens of films, including the blockbusting Titanic in the mid-1990s, also Catch me if you Can, Romeo and Juliet, The Aviator, Gangs of New York and Revolutionary Road.

I was trying to think of which I would consider his best performance, and I’ve decided that for me it was in the 2006 film Blood Diamond. If you haven’t seen this film then I highly recommend it. The story is set in Sierra Leone in 1999 during that country’s civil war which raged from 1996 to 2001. Although the characters are fictional, the story is based on real events going on at that time in Sierra Leone and in the diamond trade.



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DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a diamond smuggler and gunrunner, originally from Zimbabwe (which he keeps referring to by its pre-independence name Rhodesia). Archer smuggles diamonds from Sierra Leone into neighbouring Liberia so that they can be sold in London’s diamond trade. On one occasion he gets caught, and is put in jail in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, Solomon Vandy (played by Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman from Shenge, a small village to the south of Freetown, is captured by the Revolutionary United Front, who are fighting a guerrilla war to overthrow the Sierra Leone Government. Vandy and the other captured men are forced to mine for diamonds, which are used by the rebels to fund their war against the Government.



Sierra Leone is a west African country bordered by Guinea to the North and East, Liberia to the South and the Atlantic Ocean to the West.

Sierra Leone is a west African country bordered by Guinea to the North and East, Liberia to the South and the Atlantic Ocean to the West.



The warlord overseeing Vandy’s mining gang is Captain Poison (played by David Harewood), a particularly harsh and brutal man. One day Vandy discovers a large diamond, but rather than hand it over to Captain Poison he buries it. Captain Poison suspects he has done this, and they get into a brutal fight. But they are both caught by Government forces and put into the same prison cell in Freetown as Danny Archer. This is where Archer and Vandy meet, and it is where Archer learns of the diamond’s existence.

Archer promises Vandy to help him find his family which has been torn apart by the civil war, in return for Vandy giving him the diamond. The other remaining main character in the film is Maddy Bowen (played by Jennifer Connelly), a reporter who is writing about this illegal diamond trade and is willing to help both men if she can write their story and expose this trade to the wider World.

Not only is Blood Diamond an excellent film with a compelling and powerful story; but, for me, this film has DiCaprio’s most accomplished performance. To my inexpert ear, even his Southern African accent seems pretty convincing. He won an Oscar nomination for his performance, but did not win. Here is the trailer for the film.





Which is your favourite Leonardo DiCaprio film?

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I was recently being taken to the BBC for an interview, which is about the only time I ever get to travel in a taxi. On this particular day, when the taxi driver asked me what I did and I told him I was an astronomer, he started asking me about extra-terrestrial civilisations. I suggested he watched this wonderful movie, Contact, based on the book that Carl Sagan published in the mid 1990s.


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Sagan then co-wrote the screenplay for the movie with his wife. The movie stars Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. Sadly, during the filming, Sagan died of cancer.



If you enjoy the film I would highly recommend the book. The book has some interesting additional complexity, which I won’t go into as otherwise I will give away the surprises. But it s a fantastic read from one of the most gifted scientists and science communicators of the 20th Century.

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