MODDER EN BLOED
DIRECTOR: Sean Else
CAST: Stian Bam, Charlotte Salt, Grant Swanby, Bok van Blerk, Edwin van der Walt, Jacques Bessenger, Deon Lotz, Albert Pretorius, David Louw, Altus Theart, De Klerk Oelofse and Albert Maritz
CLASSIFICATION: 12 PLV
RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes
RATING: 3 stars (out of 5)
GATHERING the cream of contemporary Afrikaner male actors, director Sean Else tells a miserable yet inspiring story of the indomitable spirit of die Boere.
Setting the story in 1901, he takes us back to the dying days of the Second Anglo Boer War, as prisoners of war are transported to a concentration camp on the island of Saint Helena.
The story is centred on totally disillusioned Willem Morkel (Bam) whose wife and child perished in a mainland concentration camp. Wholeheartedly embracing a death wish, he sets himself up in opposition to the camp commander Colonel Swannel (Swansby) who is only too happy to play along.
Morkel persuades a motley crew of fellow prisoners to play a game of rugby with their prison guards, to save the life of a fellow prisoner. All the prisoners are literally just normal folk, mostly farmers, who know nothing about the game but with the help of fellow prisoner, Irishman Finn Kelly (Patrick Connolly), they learn, figuring that trying is better than simply giving up.
The drama inherent in the events of the Anglo Boer War is intense, but Else tacks on not only a rugby game, but lays on emotional manipulation in thick fashion, not trusting the audience to read the good actors who do a lot with their tiny roles – like Jacques Bessenger’s pragmatic Phil Blignaut or Albert Pretorius as big-hearted Gawie Mentz.
Playing on concepts like pride in homeland, holding the life of a child sacred, just simply getting on with life as it comes at you - and yes, rugby – the film speaks to the ideals that Afrikaners hold up as core to identity. Director Else goes for broke, using every trick in the film handbook to turn the story into an epic one – the score is lush with soaring violins, the imagery of prison life is squeezed for maximum melodrama and guards are boorish Englishmen with no time for the conventions of the humane treatment of war prisoners.
While filmed to maximise the melodrama, the actual game is crisply edited – it moves fast and the action is clear – and makes sense of what can be a complicated sport.
Strangely enough, since the Afrikaner character on film is one of the most heavily and negatively stereotyped, especially when cast as the bad guy, director Else repeats that mistake when he does not afford his own bad guy any sort of nuance. As Colonel Swannel, Grant Swansby sneers and enunciates his way through the role of sadistic camp commander, but is never afforded a way to explain his loathing of the prisoners.
Providing the less antagonistic viewpoint is left to Charlotte Salt as the widowed daughter of the island’s governor, Katherine Sterndale. While she initially comes across as patronising, Sterndale gains a measure of understanding for the prisoners viewpoint, which puts her at odds with the rest of the English on the island. Hers is the character that undergoes a measure of growth, while for the men, at least the prisoners, it is a case of vasbyt en uithou.
The English subtitles are prosaic when compared to the Afrikaans dialogue which emphasises the economic lyricism of people on the edge of their existence, forced to confront their identity and just why they are in the positions they find themselves.
If you liked Verraaiers or the TV series Arende, you will like this.