What I totally missed when I first saw the movie, and then again until just this last week, is the Reagan connection. It's a doozy...in Kings Row, the movie that made Ronald Reagan a star, the story is that Reagan's legs were amputated unnecessarily by a sadistic doctor. Reagan doesn't know that, but his best friend and brand-new Vienna-certified shrink, Bob Cummings, has learned the horrible truth, or at least Cummings thinks that it's horrible, and he's afraid that when Reagan learns the truth it will destroy him. You know where I'm going next; here's Garry Wills (emphasis is his):
The film's climax brings together all that is best and worst in it...Cummings, his cherubic features chalkily made up to suggest long nights with his books, feels he might soften the blow by reciting Henley's "Invictus" to the suffering man. Parker Tyler calls this "the poetry cure for the castration complex."
Wood and Howe shrewdly use the cut-up space of the loft given them by Menzies. Cummings is at the foot of the bed, reciting as if to win an elocution contest. [Ann] Sheridan [Reagan's character's girlfriend] flutters, momentarily, between the friends, trying to prevent the confrontation with reality; then she sinks down beside Reagan -- we see her across his profile as he sits and absorbs the truth. There is a long pause in which it is Reagan's job not to react, to build suspense. The he breaks the tension with a return of the old Drake McHugh laughter, withheld since he hit rock bottom. The easy Reagan laughter, returning, leads to some brave new lines: "That's a hot one, isn't it? Where did [Doctor] Gordon think I lived, in my legs?" There is more, but by this time we are not paying much attention to the words, since Erich Korngold's title theme returns to the soundtrack like the Life Force, building behind Reagan's words until (the nerve of it is breathtaking) a heavenly choir actually bursts into the blessedly indistinguishable words of Henley's poem -- I say blessedly because, if you do listen with care, you find that Korngold, who fancied himself an opera composer, has set the last two lines of Henley's poem (which even Cummings spared us) this way: "I am the mast-ER OF my fate, I am the CAP-tuh-unh of my-ee soul." Reagan did not have to act much -- just pout, then laugh. And even the fact that Cummings could not act does not matter finally. The scene works because the scene is Korngold's...
Since the pasty-faced Cummings does not fit the swashbuckler description at all, Reagan's defiant laughter at the end identifies him finally with the heroic theme; he is the Captain Blood of his own soul. He does not have to steal the picture from Cummings. Korngold stole it for him. (Wills, Reagan's America, 209).Well, to be fair, I think Reagan actually nails the scene. Cummings is terrified that he's screwing everything up, and Reagan plays it just right...both courageous enough to demand the truth, but clearly frightened about whatever this mystery truth, that obviously scares Cummings and Sheridan, might be. That's the acting part. The rest (outside of, as Wills points out, the music) is a trick Reagan used more than once of withholding his easy grin and then, finally, returning it to us. And Cummings is pretty awful, I think it's fair to say. At any rate, while Reagan was obviously proud of the "Where's the rest of me?" scene, I'd say (and I think Wills is saying) that it's the "Invictus" scene that's the important one for him.
(Robert Cummings: you have to be a real Reagan junkie to think of Kings Row for him, no? I'd guess that most people think of Dial M for Murder, where he can't really keep up with Ray Milland, but then again that's a tough league. I'm too young to remember him as a sitcom star and I really don't remember a lot of his later guest spots -- he showed up on plenty of shows in the 1960s and 1970s. I guess for the right age cohort he's a sitcom guy Mainly, though, for me, he'll always be the guy who taught Eric Von Zipper how to give himself the finger).
So, whatever it's importance in the politics of South Africa, I think Invictus is better thought of as the poem that made Ronald Reagan a real-life Hollywood star, on the way to the presidency.