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The Real Transformers

Inspirational leadership on the big screen

Posted March 26, 2010


InvictusBy Jeffrey Overstreet []


In 1997, Bob Dylan sang, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.” Nine years later, Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road painted a nightmarish picture of the end of the world. Several months later, the Coen brothers won an Oscar for translating McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men to the big screen, along with its story of unstoppable evil and moral disintegration. Everywhere you look, the arts are warning of apocalypse. We need visions of hope and redemption, now more than ever. We need inspiration.

It’s not easy to find true inspiration at the movies, but if you look hard enough, you’ll find films about transformational leaders who can point the way to reconciliation, healing, and hope in the midst of the darkening world.

Here are some examples of big-screen leaders who have inspired moviegoers, young and old, around the world.

Nelson Mandela in Invictus

Clint Eastwood came to fame by playing figures of violent vigilante justice. In the last 20 years, with films like Unforgiven and Flags of Our Fathers, he’s transformed his reputation, becoming a director who show us the corrupting nature of power, and the consequences of excessive force.

His new film Invictus, which earned an Oscar nomination for Morgan Freeman, portrays the great South African reconciler Nelson Mandela, who exercised the power of peace.

The film focuses on Mandela’s election as the new South African president after suffering decades of imprisonment, persecuted by a racist establishment. After his release and subsequent election, Mandela’s supporters seem to expect he would “return the favor” by kicking his former captors to the curb. But Mandela astonishes them, reaching out to his enemies with expressions of forgiveness and even respect. He welcomes the former president’s secret service guards to carry on their work protecting him, which aggravates those guards who are his friends.

When his supporters want him to do away with the rugby team beloved by white Afrikaners, Mandela refuses. He says:

Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. … They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy. If we take [away their rugby team] we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint, and generosity. I know. All of the things they denied us. But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation …. You elected me your leader. Let me lead you now.

He then develops an unlikely friendship with the white South African soccer champion Francois Pienaar. Pienaar, visiting the prison cell where Mandela suffered, wonders “how a man could spend 30 years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him.”

Mandela’s forgiveness is not just a matter of words. He takes action to embody his vision of a reconciled nation. His Christian convictions are evident in his willingness to risk his own safety and popularity for the sake of the truth.

His assistant, Brenda Mazibuko, says, “You're risking your political capital, you're risking your future as our leader.” Mandela replies, “The day I am afraid to do that is the day I am no longer fit to lead.”

T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia

In David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, the eccentric British soldier and writer T.E. Lawrence emerges from the details of history to become a living, breathing, inspiring leader.

This epic film follows Lawrence’s unlikely adventures as a visionary man of quixotic ambitions. By venturing out of his comfort zone to assemble desert tribes in a bold campaign against the Turks, Lawrence seems driven by something more than mere politics. He seems to be answering a call from the wild, a call to cast off his British societal sophistication and become “a part of the tribe.” It’s this heroic commitment — echoes in other stories about “going native,” like Dances with Wolves, The New World, and even Avatar — he gains the confidences of the tribes and leads them to accomplish more than they thought possible.

In the film’s most memorable scene, Lawrence has survived a punishing journey across the desert. With shelter and water in his reach, he suddenly turns around and goes back into the desert to search for a fallen friend. This Christlike decision distinguishes him as a man of selfless love, one that wins him the devotion of nations. His sacrificial act burns bright as one of cinema’s most inspiring, heroic scenes.

Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire

We may not think of Eric Liddell as a man who led a nation. But his example — sticking to his Christian convictions and refusing to run an Olympic event on the Sabbath — has inspired athletes and Christians alike, around the world. His famous, controversial decision gave him an opportunity to share his Christian testimony in the spotlight.

But even more than that, his insistence that running was a worthwhile way of glorifying God — just as valid as the missionary work he did in China later in his life — has inspired generations of Christians to see their various gifts as avenues of service.

The Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire illustrates this beautifully, even though it stops long before Liddell’s most heroic endeavors. Held captive with other British prisoners in a Chinese concentration camp, he ministered to the guards there. When his fame earned him the opportunity to leave the camp, he gave that chance to a pregnant woman. He died soon after, from a brain tumor, just five months before the liberation.


Mahatma Gandhi: Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi dramatizes the Indian leader’s life as he inspires a movement of nonviolent resistance against Britain’s colonial domination of India. Attenborough won an Oscar for the film, as did lead actor Ben Kingsley.

St. Francis: In The Flowers of St. Francis, a 1950 Italian film by Roberto Rossellini, Christ’s love for the poor, the broken, and the weak-willed is manifested in Francis’s love for “the least of these,” and in his inspiration of the early Franciscans (who were played in the film by monks).

Joan of Arc: Carl Theodore Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc dramatized the story of a simple young woman from Orleans who claimed that divine inspiration helped her lead French forces against the British occupation. That claim provoked charges of heresy, a grueling trial, and torture before she was burned at the stake in 1431. Renée Falconetti’s turn as Joan has been called the greatest performance ever filmed, and Dreyer himself called it “the martyr’s reincarnation.”

Fictional Transformational Leaders

Babette: In Gabriel Axel’s film Babette’s Feast, the character imagined by author Isak Dinesen comes to life, investing her winning lottery ticket in resources for an extraordinary French feast. She then prepares that feast for a community of Christians who have lost sight of God’s generosity and the riches of his grace. In doing so, she blesses them with a picture of sacrificial love, and a sensual experience of God’s gifts. It’s easy to believe that her community was transformed by the experience.

Olivier the Carpenter: In the Dardenne brothers’ film The Son (Le Fils), a carpentry instructor named Olivier becomes intensely interested in one of his students — a young, despondent boy. What seems at first to be a sinister impulse is revealed to be a desire for forgiveness and reconciliation. Olivier, quietly applying himself to the painful work of grace, gives both of them hope. He may not be leading a nation, but by his example he will liberate this boy from the burden of guilt, the first step in building something beautiful.

Kermit the Frog: Why not? In The Muppet Movie, Kermit has a dream to “make millions of people happy.” He takes his banjo and his dream, leaves the seclusion of swamp life, and sets out for Hollywood. Along the way, he inspires other imaginative dreamers to join him. They’re pursued by an enemy who wants to exploit their talents. But Kermit wants something more, something genuine, something joyful and imaginative. He seems to be answering a call. In his famous song, “The Rainbow Connection,” he sings: “I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it. It’s something that I’m supposed to be. Someday we’ll find it.” It’s like an “I Have a Dream” speech for artists, a summons to fulfill a higher calling.

Share your thoughts


What’s your favorite film about a leader who’s inspirational and transformational?




Posted June 18, 2010, at 1:17 p.m.


A classic comes to mind for me: To Sir With Love.


Great film about a teacher who was transformational in the lives of a classroom full of teens who were quite happy in their underachieving world.



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