Thursday, 28 June 2007

Gandhi (1982)

“When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they can seem invincible but in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.”

Back in 1989, when I seriously started to rate films on a 1-10 scale, rather than thinking of them as just mere entertainments, this one came top of the list of those I had seen - and we're including the likes of Citizen Kane, The Godfather and the Star Wars trilogy among the competition here.

I mention this in passing because the achievement may well have been influenced by topical events: 1989 was a pivotal year in world history. A dramatic revolution took place with the falling of the Berlin Wall and the demise of several Eastern Bloc dictatorships. Only the tanks of Tianenmen Square prevented the Chinese government from being added to the list of conquests. Within a year Nelson Mandela was also freed from captivity and South Africa became a more democratic nation.

So the atmosphere in those days was very much towards upheaval and the eventual rise of a more peaceful and humanitarian society. But regardless of which year I happened to see it, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi is, first and foremost, a grand and gracious biopic with an extraordinarily vivid central performance by Ben Kingsley. But it is also a triumphant message for our time, be it the 1940s, the 1980s, or today.

First impressions of the film itself came in the shape of all the awards it won (beating Spielberg's wonderful fantasy E.T.), together with Attenborough's endless speeches about his film and the state of the British film industry. Having subsequently seen the film, and the effort that went into it, I think he'd bloody well earned the right to.

It took him over 20 years to realise his ambition of bringing the story of the Mahatma to the screen. The biggest problem, aside from trying to convince Hollywood backers to finance his epic ("Who the hell is interested in a little brown man with a beanpole?" was one unkind executive's reaction), was to find the actor to play the central role. In the early days of the project the film was being planned for David Lean to direct, with Alec Guinness the only possible choice to play Gandhi, once Lean had first finished a little film he was making in Ireland. This "little" film turned out to be Ryan's Daughter, an extremely long romantic drama which took even longer to make, at the end of which Lean was dissuaded from the Gandhi project (although both he and Guinness did make A Passage to India together in 1984, to a mixed reception.)

Anthony Hopkins, a favourite of Attenborough's, next became a candidate to play the role. By this time Attenborough had acquired considerable kudos as a director in his own right, with two boldly cinematic anti-war films, Oh! What a Lovely War and A Bridge Too Far, and also a biograpahical drama, Young Winston, with an uncanny impersonation of the young Churchill by Simon Ward. Anthony Hopkins also gave a good account of himself as David Lloyd-George, but ultimately was considered too Welsh and skinny to play Gandhi, and so Attenborough's thoughts turned round to the possibility of an Indian actor playing his Indian hero.

At this point in the mid 1970s, Richard's son Michael Attenborough was working at the National Theatre, and suggested to his father a half-Indian actor on the books named Ben Kingsley. It may not have been Manna from Heaven, but it was certainly providential casting, and at last it seemed now that the right man for the role was in place.

With the assistance of India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (daughter of Pandit Nehru), and Earl Mountbatten - both of whom were later assassinated in similarly tragic circumstances to Gandhi himself - the filming could begin.

Like Lawrence of Arabia, the film begins with the end of the central character's life, when world attention was most focused on Gandhi's assassination by a Hindu extremist in 1948 - the scene itself was "shot" hauntingly in the same garden where the Mahatma was. From this striking beginning comes the largest funeral scene ever filmed - over 300,000 extras were allegedly used for the procession in New Delhi (a tribute to costume designer John Mollo who had to devise period clothes for most of them!) If you look VERY carefully, you will see Richard Attenborough himself as one of the army officers standing behind the coffin; such was the sheer scale of the scene that he had to play one of the mourners in front of camera in order to be able keep an eye on everything else.

At the end of this extraordinarily epic sight, the words of Albert Einstein are quoted: "Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." It sums up the astonishing aspect of the whole film really, that one man of peace could be able to uproot an entire British Empire from its greatest Dominion.

The film jumps back over 50 years earlier to "South Africa 1893", when we see what looks almost like a different actor to the old man we've just seen shot (the film's make-up is a masterpiece), sitting in a First Class compartment, where Gandhi, a young, affluent, English-trained lawyer, was thrown off the train, in a country that later adopted Apartheid as law.

The incident was a watershed in Gandhi's life, and started him on the trail of fighting social injustice - by non-violent means. A key speech is made in the early South African scenes when Gandhi defends his reasons for using non-violence as his weapon:

"I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow, but we will receive them, and through our pain we will make them see their injustice, and it will hurt, as all fighting hurts! But we cannot lose, we cannot."

His first ally in this dauntless quest is his client Mr. Khan, played with quiet dignity by Om Puri. A number of fine Indian actors also contribute good character performances, including Roshan Seth as Nehru, Saeed Jaffrey as Sardar Patel, Harsh Nayyar as Nathuram Godse - the assassin, and most outstandingly of all, a BAFTA-winning Rohini Hattangady as Mrs. Gandhi.

Ian Charleson (on the back of his acclaimed role in Chariots of Fire) is also excellent as a rare British ally of Gandhi's, Reverend Charlie Andrews, in quite a moving scene where he and Gandhi eventually go their separate ways because India has to believe that "what we are doing can be done by Indians alone...". The rest of the international cast is as exemplary as could be expected from any Richard Attenborough epic: John Mills, John Gielgud, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen (as photographer Margaret Bourke-White, whom she uncannily resembles), and some notable early cinema roles for Nigel Hawthorne and Daniel Day-Lewis. Favourite among the supporting roles for me are Trevor Howard in an unusually understated performance as Judge Broomfield - a staunch Gandhi sympathiser who ironically had to sentence him to 6 years imprisonment - and Edward Fox as the coldly ruthless General Dyer, who ordered the massacre of thousands of Sikhs at the massacre of Amritsar.

The massacre, together with the funeral scene and all the other great set-pieces including the Salt March and the later riots in Calcutta, were staged brilliantly by the veteran Second Unit Director David Tomblin, an old ally of Attenborough's, who has also staged many of the set pieces for the likes of Spielberg and Lucas in their best films.

John Briley's excellent script also captures the domestic life and jovial humour of the man himself, an important element. This is not just the story of a hero, but of a real person.

In many ways this is a portrayal that shines more than the image of the real "Bapu". Reverential perhaps, but as the film itself admits at the beginning, the story of one man's entire life can never be encompassed in one telling (even when 3 hours long), all that can be done is to try and be faithful in spirit to the record and try and find one's way to the heart of the man. This is certainly achieves successfully.

There are those, even today, who feel that the British should never have left India - the most notable and vocal opponent was Winston Churchill - and given the sub-continent's subsequent bumpy history, this is understandable. Perhaps it helped that the Dominion was looking a little shaky for some time anyway, and if anything, it was the intervention of World War II that tipped the balance over towards Britain giving India independence. As one British Governor says mockingly, "we're too damned liberal" - an amusing jibe considering how many of Attenborough's critics consider him a militant liberal himself.

When the question of using such "pacifist" methods against a dictator like Hitler is raised, Gandhi's answer is simple if cunningly evasive: "not without defeats, and great pain, but are there no defeats in this war, no pain?"

Attenborough does not however shirk from making Gandhi just a one-dimensional story of one man's struggle against British oppression, but against racial intolerance as well. The later scenes involving the controversial partitioning of India into two separate nations (India and Pakistan), and the bloody aftermath between Hindus and Muslims, are harrowing and heart-rendering, even if the film sags just a little bit when Gandhi goes into another one of his notable "fasts unto death".

The resulting truce that is declared across the whole of Calcutta, so that Gandhi can live again in a world than can still be united and free and just, is a truly inspirational moment, at the end of a truly inspirational film.

The author at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial in Tavistock Square, London

Friday, 8 June 2007

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

A slightly topical one this, for D-Day.

Most people who will have seen this film will rave about the visceral opening reel on Omaha Beach, and rightly so. That is not to say that the rest of the film isn't pretty startling too.

Significantly, the veterans of Omaha themselves have said how much they appreciate those opening 20 minutes of Spielberg's film, that bring home to cinema audiences the sheer uncompromising intensity of the horrors of battle, more so apparently than any other war film. The ironies and tragedies are so endemic: at one point a soldier gets a bullet which pierces a hole in his helmet, but not his head; as he marvels at his good fortune, in that next split second he gets shot. Another soldier is seen holding his own left arm in his hand - a common trait of Spielberg films: severed limbs often pop up (or out, as the case may be) in the likes of Jaws, Jurassic Park and the Indiana Jones films.

It is perhaps, I confess, not my favourite war film. In truth, I wonder if the genre is always trying to have its cake and eat it, by depicting a male-dominated macho environment with lots of action, whilst at the same time trying to have a strong anti-war message.

There are also certain other war films that may invoke happier memories for me, such as The Cruel Sea for its very English way of coping with conflict at sea and for Jack Hawkins, or All Quiet on the Western Front for its brilliant depiction of disaffected trench life and its superb tragic ending. Even Spielberg's own Schindler's List (a war film of a kind) is I feel an artistically superior work, as also were Lawrence of Arabia and Casablanca - war films in the loosest sense. Two others I will also allude to later in this blog: The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.

But with Saving Private Ryan, over all the above mentioned, there is still the experience of those opening 20 minutes. Perhaps they are akin to experiencing something like that in real life: once gone through, it is impossible to get out of the system.

It should also be said though, that Saving Private Ryan is still a film, not the actual war itself, as Spielberg well knows, but the truthfulness in the way he depicts the action (supported by Janusz Kaminski's innovative camerawork) without over-glorifying it, is a model of fine film-making.

It is the most technically accomplished and visceral of all the war films he has made since his teenage years; back then the introverted, awkward young Steve hired some of his fellow teenage friends, dressed them in tin hats and army costume, and spent weekends shooting his shoot 'em ups as a hobby. Now the costumes and the pyrotechnics are much more elaborate, the budgets are much bigger, and his friends on the block now include Tom Hanks.

Its Americanness is perhaps a disincentive. From the very first shot - of the stars and stripes, which is repeated at the end - it never ceases to remind you that this is "America's war". One scene in the film where a fellow American commander (fleetingly played by Ted Danson) refers to Field Marshal Montgomery is about as far as the non-American contribution to the Allied cause is mentioned. Even the planes that fly in the sky are American.

The film's influence may also have a lot to answer for: the awful Pearl Harbor relied for much of its action on a lot of incoherent noise and shaky and unrealistic camera movements. Clint Eastwood's two recent fine films about the battle of Iwo Jima (both produced by Spielberg) nonetheless had jarring CGI action scenes that were, again, totally incoherent, and shot in horribly poor colour, even though the action takes place in the sunny Pacific! Most war films (and also the spin-off TV series Band of Brothers) seem now to take the lead of Saving Private Ryan in filming gritty, hand-held cameras and unintelligible battle scenes.

I suppose the argument could be made is that this is how it feels to be in the middle of a war; perhaps, but I feel that SPR's action is something of a one-trick pony. Once done the first time, the novelty quickly fades. Think of Hitchcock, whose shower scene in Psycho was truly shocking and innovative - but was there really need for any more violent stabbing scenes in films from then on? Of course not. (There were however, many largely inferior imitations of Psycho.)

This does not alter the fact however that Spielberg was ground-breaking in the use of such a revelatory technique. Two films that he also owes a debt of homage to are The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far: the former a meticulous recreation of D-Day from with an Omaha beach assault that worked within the confines of 1962 taste and restraint; and the latter for its full-blooded depiction of Operation Market Garden. Both were benchmarks to Steven of the example he had to follow, and exceed.

My own memories are of seeing the film at the Odeon Colchester in the autumn of 1998, and as with most Spielberg films, he gave his audience something to remember. There was some thoughtful closing theme music at the end, as always, by John Williams.

The film's eventual release seemed a long time in coming, as it was in production for the best part of two years - I remember seeing Spielberg and Tom Hanks on TV at the funeral of Princess Diana in the autumn of 1997, when filming had reached Hertfordshire, which served as a makeshift bombed French town for the later climax of the film. The then Prime Minister John Major had refused the film crew access to the British Army as extras, and most of the beach scenes were subsequently shot in Ireland.

At the time, during all the build-up to its release, SPR was perceived to be "just another war film". But in the hands of the more mature Spielberg that made Schindler's List, it is definitely much more than just that. Saving Private Ryan is perhaps not the masterpiece that some people have made out, but certainly a defining moment in the war film genre.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films