I was waiting for 48 HRS. to start when a bunch of yahoos filled the row behind me. Since I’d already finished reading my copy of the Christmas edition of FUN magazine, I had little else to do than listen in on the lively conversation going on back there. They were talking about movies, and much to my surprise, a couple of the guys were very interested in seeing Gandhi. After a bit, a new voice entered their talk: “Oh, Gandhi, yeah, I wanna see that. Is that like based on a true story, or what?”
I stopped listening at that point. We all owe Richard Attenborough thanks for getting Gandhi made; even if it had been a bad film, at least it would have established that this person Gandhi did exist, and that he mattered. As a matter of fact, Attenborough has not made a bad film; at the very least, he has made an honorable one. These observations I jot down now are based on only a couple of hours’ worth of decompression from a very full 3 hour and 10 minute film, so there’s no carving in stone going on; instead, some impressions:
– Something on which I daresay everyone will agree is the rightness of casting the half-Indian, mostly-unknown actor Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. Not only is Kingsley a good actor with commanding screen presence, but his physical resemblance to – and meticulous re-creation of – the Mahatma is quite flabbergasting.
– Richard Attenborough is not exactly a great visual stylist, but he had the good sense to pick two good cameramen (Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor) who have brought Gandhi’s India to impressive life. There’s a scene near the beginning that has a procession attended by more people than you’ve probably ever seen on a movie screen at one time – hundreds of thousands, anyway – and Attenborough scans the crowd only once before he cuts in to closer shots. Now, that’s restraint. How many times, and from how many different angles, would David Lean have shot the crowd?
– The screenplay, by John Briley, is unusually intelligent, and shrewdly constructed; the rhythms of Gandhi’s triumphs are spaced so that audience involvement should never flag. Briley wrote the script of The Medusa Touch, a Richard Burton horror flick, a few years back; when the Film Society tried to alert people to its worth in an encore showing, nobody came.
– Attenborough struggles with action scenes. During the slaughter of Indians by British forces, you can see him searching for a way to make it play; the whip-pans he uses are not particularly effective, but the scene is powerful despite the cinematic messiness. Attenborough is at his best when keeping things simple and straightforward.
– During the last quarter of Gandhi there is a slight sense of we’ve-been-through-this-before, as we see Gandhi pull of one last miraculous victory. Perhaps this feeling will be wiped away with a second viewing, and perhaps it will be strengthened. But after all, Gandhi does deal with historical truths, and one is obligated to cover the main events. Some of Gandhi‘s nicest moments are not based on facts, but inventions of the filmmakers; at one point, a little boy climbs a tree to catch a glimpse of the little man that everyone is talking about; when he does see the man, the boy smiles instinctively. It is, from the filmmakers’ standpoint, a self-conscious Moment, but no less a Moment for being self-conscious. The boy gets a glimpse of an unlikely dream, and of the birth of a nation. There are people who would have given a lot to be in that tree at that point in history; thanks to Gandhi, we all get a chance.
First published in The Informer, January 1983
Never did sit through this movie a second time, and haven’t missed it. I’m as annoyed as the next person that it beat E.T. for the Best Picture Oscar, and I don’t know anybody who talks about Gandhi anymore, other than as an example of Cinema of Quality squareness. Still, I obviously admired it in the immediate afterglow, and I’m not going to apologize for that. Nice remembrance of the Seattle Film Society’s boosting of The Medusa Touch, which I believe played on a double-bill with The Exorcist II. Oh yes, and there was once something called FUN magazine distributed to Seattle theaters, a kind of glorified ad circular with press kit material printed up as copy (my mention was intended as a bit of drollery). If you want to hear more, let me know.