The Power of One (film)

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The Power of One
The Power of One (1992) promotional poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John G. Avildsen
Screenplay by Robert Mark Kamen
Based on The Power of One
by Bryce Courtenay
Produced by Arnon Milchan
Cinematography Dean Semler
Edited byJohn G. Avildsen
Music by Hans Zimmer
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Roadshow Entertainment (Australia & New Zealand)
Release date
  • 27 March 1992 (1992-03-27)
Running time
127 minutes
United States [1]
Budget$18 million
Box office$2.8 million

The Power of One is a 1992 drama film loosely based on Bryce Courtenay's 1989 novel of the same name. Set in South Africa during World War II, 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 Coloured boxing coach and an Afrikaner romantic interest. Directed and edited by John G. Avildsen, 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 recently widowed Englishwoman on a homestead in South Africa, little Peter Philip is schooled in the ways of England by his mother and the ways of Africa by a Zulu nanny, whose son Tonderai is also his best friend. Their peaceful life is shattered, however, when the farm's cattle are claimed by rinderpest . PK's mother succumbs to a nervous breakdown, and he is sent away to a conservative Afrikaans boarding school while she recovers.

Being the only English student at the boarding school, PK soon earns almost universal contempt from his scathing Afrikaner fellows—particularly from Jaapie Botha, an older student. Botha's abuse and his inferiority complex strikes PK with a severe case of nocturnal enuresis, a habit which he eventually overcomes with local sangoma Dabula Manzi. In conquering his nightmares, PK is given a chicken (Mother Courage), which becomes his closest companion. Botha subsequently captures PK and Mother Courage and has them tried before a mock court while elaborating on the depth of his hatred for the Britisha people he holds responsible for atrocities committed during the Second Boer War. The Afrikaans boys hang Mother Courage and kill her with a rock. When PK physically retaliates against Botha, they attempt to execute him in a similar manner but are interrupted by a teacher who later oversees Botha's expulsion.

With his mother dying, PK finds himself living with his grandfather in Barberton. He eventually seeks a mentor in Karl "Doc" von Vollensteen, a lonely German musician who lost his family in Europe. Doc warms to PK and under his guidance PK soon becomes an excellent pianist. He is interned as an enemy alien at the onset of World War II, but PK continues to visit him regularly in prison. Doc introduces the boy to Geel Piet, a Cape Coloured inmate who trains him to be an excellent boxer. Piet also impresses on PK his mantra: "first with the head, then with the heart".

A maturing PK begins to express sympathy towards black prisoners, who are detained under appalling conditions. He works with Doc to distribute contraband among the Africans, writes their letters to home, and shares their many sufferings. The war does not end happily for PK, as Doc is repatriated and Piet is killed by a white warder. PK goes to study at the prestigious Prince of Wales School in Johannesburg. While attending a boxing championship, he is enamoured by Maria Marais, daughter of a leading National Party official. Since her strict father will not permit them to see each other, they begin dating in secret. On one such outing they are introduced to Gideon Duma, a prominent boxer in Alexandra, a black township. Duma's passion for resisting apartheid inspires PK, and he begins teaching English at an African school.

Maria's father, incensed by the couple's ongoing relationship and PK's ties to a multiracial gym, leads him to request a formal investigation by one of his South African Police contacts, Colonel Breyten. Breyten and his sergeant, an embittered Jaapie Botha, place PK under surveillance for subversion. His clashes with the police (which result in detainment of numerous people he knows) come to a head when Duma is severely injured and Maria is killed during a raid on their school in a conservative church along with numerous other innocent people. Maddened by grief, PK considers going to study at Oxford in England, but is consoled by a recovering Duma who shows him that all his teachings have finally shown progress and reminds him of all the good he can still do in Africa.

Botha leads a violent raid on Alexandra the following night which results in Breyten's death at the hands of an enraged villager. Botha threatens to shoot Elias Mlungisi, the local boxing promoter, only to be confronted by PK. They fight, and PK easily beats his childhood enemy. A vindictive Botha is still bent on killing him with a hidden pistol, but an arriving Gideon Duma dispatches the policeman with a cricket bat before he can fire. Now wanted fugitives from the apartheid government, PK and Duma vow to continue a campaign against racial injustice with the aid of the other survivors. PK's closing narration identifies meaningful voices during his life, from his nanny, to Doc and Geel Piet, Dabula Manzi, and (finally) Maria.


Critical reception

The film received mixed reviews. Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes currently ranks the film at a 39% 'rotten' rating based on 18 reviews, with an average score of 4.96/10. [2] Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave it two and a half stars out of four, stating that the nature of troubles of South Africa "are too complex to be reduced to a formula in which everything depends on who shoots who", but did add "there are some nice touches," such as the locations and Gielgud's performance. [3]

Morgan Freeman later said in an interview that the film "wasn't as good as I had hoped it would be." [4]


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  1. "AFI|Catalog filmography". Retrieved 12 June 2021.
  2. "The Power of One (1992)". Rotten Tomatoes . Retrieved 28 September 2019.
  3. Ebert, Roger (27 March 1992). "The Power of One". . Archived from the original on 2 June 2013. Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  4. Head, Steve (11 May 2005). "10 QUESTIONS: MORGAN FREEMAN". IGN.