“The Power of One” begins with a canvas that involves all of the modern South African dilemma, and ends as a boxing movie. Somewhere in between, it loses its way. The film, which spans the years surrounding the Second World War, tells the story of a young English-speaking boy who is sent to an Afrikaanslanguage boarding school, where a neo-Nazi clique makes his life miserable. He fights back, and keeps fighting back when, as a young man, he becomes friends with Africans who are part of a developing political movement.
His story was first told in a thoughtful historical best seller by Bryce Courtenay, who tried to give some sense of what it was like to grow up as an English-speaking liberal in a country where apartheid and aspects of the police state were combined in an unholy marriage with parliamentary democracy. In a sense, the story of “The Power of One” could continue right down to the March 17 referendum in which a majority of South Africa's white voters ratified de Klerk's decision to move toward black majority rule. That would be the happy ending.
But “The Power of One” wants to be more than the story of a young man whose life reflects the times of his country. It also wants to be a box office hit, and in playing the notes of mass entertainment, it loses its purpose. You can almost feel the film slipping out of the hands of its director, John G. Avildsen, as the South African reality is upstaged by the standard cliches of a fight picture.
The hero, nicknamed P.K., is played by Stephen Dorff as a perpetual outsider who is victimized at an Afrikaans boarding school by young students whose idol, in the years before World War Two, is Hitler. They stage secret meetings and mock trials, kill his beloved pet chicken, and are ready to humiliate the boy in a bizarre ceremony before the authorities finally step in. These scenes are meant to show the lasting antagonism between the two white tribes of South Africa, the Afrikaaners and the British, although in reality, given the poverty and powerlessness of most Afrikaaners in the 1930s, it would have been much more likely (if less tidy) to show an Afrikaaner boy taunted at an English boarding school.
The little neo-Nazis are led by a punk with a swastika tattooed on his arm, and at the point where that same tattooed arm turns up attached to a bullying officer of the state security force, I knew the movie was lost. “The Power of One” makes the same crucial error as “Article 99”; it diminishes evil by embodying it in one man who must be vanquished. By implying that his defeat is the defeat of his system, it avoids the real issues. (Indeed, this movie ends before the worst of apartheid is even enacted into law.) P.K. is embraced in the movie by young blacks who form the core of a new political movement. They see him as a symbol, as a myth (these are their own words) who, as a boxing champion, can help lead them to freedom. P.K. becomes best friends with a young African man, also a boxer, and as they climb into the ring with one another (in an unsanctioned interracial fight), the African cheerfully explains that whoever wins, a leader will be born.
This is pretty shaky politically. And it continues the tendency of so many recent films about South Africa, like “Cry Freedom,” to embody the anti-apartheid struggle in an heroic white man, presumably so white Western audi ences will have an easier time identifying.
The film, shot in Zimbabwe, begins with a clear sense of the land and the attachment of all Southern Africans to it. It shows the symbiotic, if paternalistic, relationship of blacks and whites in rural areas. It gives some sense of the beginnings of apartheid. But then it turns into another movie about a bad bully, and by the end, when the hero and the neo-Nazi are mano-a-mano, and riots are sweeping Alexandria township, I was in despair. South Africa is too complex to be reduced to a formula in which everything depends on who shoots who.
There are some nice touches: John Gielgud as a headmaster, happy in his academic ivory tower in the midst of upheaval; the brightness and energy of the soundtrack, largely recorded by Bulowayo choral groups; the very proper, venomous racism expressed at the dining table of a government minister; the photography of the heartbreakingly evocative landscape. But how can you forgive a movie that begins by asking you to care who will win freedom, and ends by asking you to care who will win a fight?
Learn About The Movie Project
Goal: To turn a children’s book that teaches American history, the power of imagination, and the value of goal setting into a feature film or made-for-TV movie.
Action Step #1: The three videos above were produced to introduce the book and Philip Edwards’ story to people in the film industry. The movie would be set in the 20th century with Phil as the main character and flash back to earlier time periods in the book.
Americans love a great story. Particularly when told through living examples of truth, courage, compassion, and history.
The legacy of Philip Edwards began in his hometown of Naugatuck, Connecticut where he became the idol of his neighborhood’s children who loved and admired him for his kindness and attentive conversations.
Phil’s glowing example warmed the hearts of all who crossed his path. But, as his heart fell vulnerable to thoughts of spring … destiny suddenly beckoned Philip Edwards to heed the “patriots” call, like his ancestors before him.
Soon, an average American boy, renowned for his remarkable gift of humility and kindness to children, would summon all courage and make the supreme sacrifice on a battlefield in France in World War I. But this is where the story of Philip Edwards – and his ultimate gift – really BEGINS.
Throughout his childhood, author Ben Edwards was acutely aware of his family’s rich American heritage. Beyond the connections to Paul Revere and Colonial Boston, Ben was particularly moved by tales of his relative Philip Edwards, his conversations with the neighborhood children, and the life lessons he passed along to them.
One April in Boston: The Gift of the Spyglass is Ben Edwards’ tribute to his family’s Boston history. It is also a testament to Private Edwards’ special affinity for children … and centers around one very special gift he arranged to bestow, in the event of his death. Tenderly expressed in the story is an emotional letter written by Philip Edwards to his parents, just two days before his death. In this letter, Phil asks his parents to pass on a special message to the neighborhood children.
The book also reveals the timeless love story of Philip Edwards and his sweetheart Ella Wininger. Ben met and interviewed Ella’s sister, 90-year-old Doris Wininger Harkins, who shared details of their relationship. From Doris, Ben learned that the farewell letter Phil wrote to his parents wasn’t the only one he penned that day. He wrote one to Ella too. Although that letter has been lost to time, Ben wondered what Phil wrote to Ella that kept her feelings of love for him alive until she passed away over 70 years later. The conclusion of the story captures the spirit of that endless love and conveys the powerful impact Phil had on the neighborhood children before his death at the age of 23.
Now included in the newly revised second edition (2015) of One April in Boston, is the true tale behind the author’s incredible discovery of a photo of Phil and Ella taken in 1916. The events leading to this photo’s discovery in 2006 are just another amazing footnote to this remarkable story.
One April in Boston: The Gift of the Spyglass is available for Free at the iTunes Store.
If you have an interest in this project or would like more details, Ben Edwards can be reached by phone at 617.670.1888 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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