Power of One, The (1992): John Avildsen’s Political Coming of Age Drama, Starring Stephen Dorff, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Morgan Freeman, John Gielgud

John (Rocky, Karate Kid) Avildsen directed (and edited) The Power of One, a coming-of-age political drama, loosely based on Bryce Courtenay’s 1989 novel of the same title.

Set in South Africa during WWII, the film centers on the life of Peter Philip Kenneth Keith, an English South African boy raised under apartheid, and his conflicted relationships with a German pianist, a Colored boxing coach and an Afrikaner romantic interest.

The film stars Stephen Dorff, John Gielgud, Morgan Freeman, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Daniel Craig in his feature film debut.

Born in 1930 to a widowed Englishwoman on a homestead in South Africa, little Peter Philip Kennith Keith (nicknamed ‘PK’) is schooled in the tradition of England by his mother and the ways of Africa by his Zulu nanny, whose son Tonderai is also his friend.

Their peaceful life is shattered when the farm’s cattle are claimed by rinderpest. When PK’s mother has nervous breakdown, he is sent away to a conservative Afrikaans boarding school.

Being the only English student at the boarding school, PK earns contempt from his Afrikaner fellows—particularly Jaapie Botha, the oldest student.

The extreme bullying strikes PK with bed wetting, a habit which he eventually overcomes with local sangoma Dabula Manzi. In conquering his nightmares, PK is given a chicken (he names it Mother Courage), which becomes his companion.

When war breaks out in Europe, the Afrikaner students kidnap PK and Mother Courage and try them before mock Nazi court, where Botha expresses hatred for the British. The Afrikaner boys hang Mother Courage and kill her with a rock.

When PK retaliates against Botha, they attempt to execute him, but are interrupted by a teacher who later oversees Botha’s expulsion.

Botha leads a violent raid on Alexandra the following night which results in Breyten’s death. Botha threatens to shoot Elias Mlungisi, the local boxing promoter, but is confronted by PK. In a fight, and PK finally defeats his childhood enemy.

Despite the loss, a vindictive Botha is still bent on killing him with a hidden pistol, but an arriving Gideon Duma brutally kills Botha with a cricket bat to the head. Now wanted fugitives from the apartheid government, PK and Duma vow to continue a campaign against racial injustice with the other survivors.

PK’s closing narration identifies meaningful voices during his life from his nanny to Doc, Geel Piet, Dabula Manzi, and finally Maria.

Avildsen offer a narrowly conceived simplistic take on the complex issues and troubles of South Africa.

Among the film’s strengths are the performances of Dorff in the lead, and John Gielgud as the Headmaster.

Morgan Freeman later said that the film wasn’t as good as he had hoped it would be.

 

Cast
Guy Witcher as PK at age 7
Simon Fenton as PK at age 12
Stephen Dorff as PK at age 18
Armin Mueller-Stahl as Doc
Jeremiah Mnisi as Dabula Manzi
Ian Roberts as Hoppie Gruenewald
John Gielgud as St. John, the Headmaster
Fay Masterson as Maria Marais
Morgan Freeman as Geel Piet
Daniel Craig as Sergeant Jaapie Botha
Robbie Bulloch as the teenage Botha
Dominic Walker as Morrie Gilbert
Faith Edwards as Miriam Sisulu
Alois Moyo as Gideon Duma
Brian O’Shaughnessy as Colonel Breyten
Marius Weyers as Professor Daniel Marais
Clive Russell as Sergeant Bormann
Winston Ntshona as Mlungisi
Nomadlozi Kubheka as Nanny
Mark Clements as schoolboy