Long Walk to Freedom

Source: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), pp. 596-597

Text: In keeping with the increased openness on the island, we now had our own cinema. Almost every week we watched films on a sheet in a large room adjacent to our corridor. Later, we had a proper screen. The films were a wonderful diversion, a vivid escape from the bleakness of prison life.

The first films we saw were silent, black-and-white Hollywood action movies and Westerns that were made even before my time. I recall one of the first ones was The Mark of Zorro, with the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, a move that was made in 1920. The authorities seemed to have a weakness for historical films, particularly ones with a stern moral message. Among the early films we saw – now in colour, with dialogue – were The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston as Moses, The King and I with Yul Brynner and Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

We were intrigued by The King and I, for to us it depicted the clash between the values of East and West, and seemed to suggest that the West had much to learn from the East. Cleopatra proved controversial; many of my comrades took exception to the fact that the queen of Egypt was depicted by a raven-haired, violet-eyed American actress, however beautiful. The detractors asserted that the movie was an example of Western propaganda that sought to erase the fact that Cleopatra was an African woman. I related how on my trip to Egypt I had seen a splendid sculpture of a young ebony-skinned Cleopatra.

Later, we also saw local South African films with black stars whom we all knew from the old days. On those nights, our little makeshift theatre echoed with the shouts, whistles and cheers that greeted the appearance of an old friend on screen. Later, we were permitted to select documentaries – a form that I preferred – and I began to skip the conventional films. (Although I would never miss a movie with Sophia Loren in it.) The documentaries were ordered from the state library and usually selected by Ahmed Kathrada, who was our section’s librarian. I was particularly affected by a documentary we saw about the great naval battles of the Second World War, which showed newsreel footage of the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales by the Japanese. What moved me most was a brief image of Winston Churchill weeping after he heard the news of the loss of the British vessel. The image stayed in my memory a long time, and demonstrated to me that there are times when a leader can show sorrow in public, and that it will not diminish him in the eyes of his people.

Comments: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and president of South Africa 1995-1999. He served twenty-seven years in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the state, chiefly serving his time at Robben Island, location for the above anecdote which dates from the 1970s, when his prison conditions had begun to improve. Ahmed Kathrada was imprisoned at the same time as Mandela, following the Rivonia Trial in 1964. Elizabeth Taylor was British, not American. HMS Prince of Wales was sunk in the Pacific in 1941. I have not found any record of film showing Churchill weeping at this news (or any other occasion).