Once in a long while a motion picture so eloquently expressive and technically exquisite comes along that one is tempted to hail it as being near perfect. Such a film is “Gandhi.” Unfortunately, this does not mean that Columbia has an automatic box office bonanza. There is a vast identification gap to be bridged, but once that is accomplished there should be a large and appreciative audience, from late teenagers on through the geriatric set. “Gandhi” is as topical as the headlines out of the Near East. It is a triumph for Richard Attenborough and catapults him to the top rank of directors. For this is a picture that always will be referred to as the high point in his career.
The canvas upon which the turmoil of India, through its harshly won independence in 1947 from British rule, is, as depicted by Attenborough, bold, sweeping, brutal, tender, loving and inspiring. He has juggled the varied emotional thrusts with generally expert balance.
His handling of mob sequences, which exude raw, savage power, shows that the director and his assistants were in complete control every inch of the way. There is nothing stagy about them; they throb with vitality and immediacy, and are so extremely effective only because they were conducted by a sure and steady hand.
The brutal massacre of more than 1500 Indian men, women and children by native soldiers under the command of British Brigidier General R. E. Dyer in a compound called Jallianwalla Bagh, from which there’s no escape, numbs the senses and overwhelms a viewer with disgust and anger. This largely forgotten dark moment in modern history is even more horrendous than the recent slaughter in Lebanon which gave Israel a black-eye.
It might be argued that as a biography of a man who shaped a nation, the film is not as penetrating as one might wish, but Attenborough takes care of this nicely in a foreword which says, “There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime.” .Attenborough and scenarist John Briley agreed to attempt to capture the “spirit” of the man and his times, and in this they have succeeded admirably.
It also might be argued that the picture is somewhat long and a bit slow at times (188 minutes, plus intermission) but Attenborough is nothing if not thorough, resorting to expository conversation interludes to fill in gaps which could not be explained adequately by the camera. In short, this is a film in the grand style, with all the punctuation marks meticulously placed.
Ben Kingsley, the British (half Indian) actor, who portrays the Mahatma from young manhood as a lawyer in South Africa, is a physically striking Gandhi and has captured nuances in speech and movement which make it seem as though he has stepped through black and white newsreels into the present Technicolor reincarnation. (The first four Techni 70m prints were made in England, and the remainder will be via the Deluxe lab.)
From the time he first experiences apartheid in being unceremoniously booted off of a train in South Africa after obtaining his law degree in London, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi becomes a man with a mission – a peaceful mission to obtain dignity for every man, no matter his color, creed, nationality.
In Briley’s *screenplay, the only untoward incident between Gandhi and wife Kauturba come. When, as part of the austere and severe cloak of humility that was to become the inner force of his life, he asks her to swab the communal latrine. She is repelled and rebels mildly. There are some accounts which suggest that the family relationships were not quite as idyllic as portrayed in this picture. Indeed, a drop of vinegar here and there would have made it that much more natural.
For those who came along too late to catch the newsreel accounts of Gandhi’s many demonstrations of passive resistance through fasts and other means in more than 50 years of struggle, including some violent political factionalism within India, to gain national independence, this film should be a fascinating history lesson.
The thin voice of the ageing Gandhi, whose life was ended at age 78 by an assassin’s bullet in 1948, should ring out loud and clear from the screen to remind the world that for all our technological progress the mind and heart of mankind remains in the dark ages, surging with envy, greed and bigotry.
* While the focus of the drama is naturally on the person of Kingsley, who gives a masterfully balanced and magnetic portrayal of Gandhi, the unusually large cast, some with only *walkthrough roles, responds nobly to Attenborough’s sensitive and introspective direction.
Calling for individual mention are Edward Fox as General Dyer; Candice Bergen as Margaret Bourke-White; Geraldine James as devoted disciple Mirabehn; John Gielgud as Lord Irwin; Trevor Howard as Judge Broomfield; John Mills as the Viceroy; Rohini Hattan as Mrs. Gandhi; Roshan Seth as Nehru and Athol Fugard as General Smuts.
There are literally “thousands” in the mob scenes and the logistics of production must have been awesome. The camerawork of Billy Willlams and Ronnie Taylor is fabulous1 and ditto the work of their operators. The score, springing from the talents of Ravi Shankar and George Fenton is a major plus in evocation of the film’s many emotional variations. There can be no doubt that “Gandhi” is a picture which took many talents to make, yet it is as much the embodiment of a single individual’s conception as any film could be.