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Although he became a movie star playing street criminals, Richard Attenborough's directing choices have turned several times to sober pacifist subjects: Oh, What a Lovely War, Cry Freedom. Gandhi is a high-purposed biography of one of the more important humans in world history, and as such it has taken some criticism along with praise and prizes. The film spans almost fifty years and two world wars to unfold the story of the Indian Mahatma: "Great Soul". It made English actor Ben Kingsley into an instant star and became a huge prestige hit, if not a monster box office blockbuster. It appeared in one of those years in which the Academy decides that a classy epic should take home the statuettes, earning eleven nominations and winning eight.
Gandhi's $22 million budget delivers enormous crowd scenes, but Attenborough and his screenwriter John Briley begin their story on a relatively small scale, on an unexpected continent. Young England-educated Mohandas Gandhi is rudely tossed from a railway train because "there are no black attorneys in South Africa". With the backing of some local Indians, Gandhi mounts a successful political campaign against some discriminatory laws. He wins by implementing a political strategy of non-violence. His parades and demonstrations bring repressive measures, and when newspaper coverage notes that the brutality is all on the side of the oppressors, Gandhi's cause is strengthened. Meanwhile, Gandhi's persuasive essays find favor on both sides of the issue: a supporter tells Gandhi that English schoolchildren are writing about him.
The opening scenes cut in more than one direction. Besides establishing Gandhi's passive-aggressive political strategy (being pacifist does not mean being non-confrontational) they underscore the South African struggle against Apartheid, which was still noxiously alive and kicking in 1982. Producer Attenborough does honor to the notion of a liberal filmmaker -- his targets are clear and his movie made a difference. He doesn't overstate his case.
On his return to India Gandhi commits himself to the independence movement, and will spend the rest of his life either campaigning or in jail. Gandhi's travels through India inspire him to dress and live like the people he represents. He mounts a massive campaign to encourage Indians not to buy English-manufactured cloth. He makes a stand for entire regions of tenant farmers suffering under the economic tyranny of English overseers. The colonials can't win, as Gandhi inspires as much non-violent non-cooperation when incarcerated as he does when free. In one way, he's fortunate that the English rule is so civilized -- in another country he might simply be assassinated. Gandhi can sit down with the colonial administrators and hit them with logic they can't deny: the occupation will end because 100,000 English overseers cannot possibly hope to control 350 million Indians in their own country.
Gandhi supports the Crown in WW1 but refuses to do so in WW2 because of broken promises; he wins most of his battles but despairs when a British general overreacts and slaughters 1500 Indians in a single massacre. As they grudgingly let loose of power the colonial overseers claim that only their rule can hold India together and avoid civil war between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi unites India against the English, but bitter religious differences arise just the same.
Attenborough and writer Briley organize Gandhi into three hours of dramatic reversals that never become boring. Ben Kingsley fairly well transforms himself into the great leader, a man who never held political office. A number of human-interest scenes keep the man from becoming a puppet for an "author's message". Gandhi and his wife (Rohini Hattangady) were married at age 13; they lovingly restage their wedding vows for visiting journalist Vince Walker (Martin Sheen).
Detractors cite the fact that famous "Gandhi-isms" are woven into the script like greeting card mottoes, an unfair claim considering that all of the sayings fit the script quite well: "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind." "If you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth." Attenborough isn't the most cinematic of directors and others complain of far too many ennobling shots of Gandhi silhouetted at his spinning wheel. Yes, Gandhi is a primer-level introduction to its subject and simplifies many issues. Gandhi's India looks unusually clean and attractive, and the man's historical halo has been given a high polish. For instance, the subjugation of women in Indian society is seen but never commented on; Mohandas is lucky to have had such a devoted spouse. On the other hand, Gandhi was such an amazing historical exception that Attenborough could probably show him walking on water and not do full justice to his achievement.
If a movie is to dispense reverent moral lessons, they should only be as worthy as these. A despondent Hindu, his son murdered by Muslims, confesses tearfully to Gandhi that he's killed a Muslim child in vengeance and doesn't want to go to Hell. "There is a way back from Hell", Gandhi says, telling the man to find and raise an orphaned Muslim child .... as a Muslim. If the world needs anything, it can certainly do with some good men who believe that there's a way back from Hell.
Attenborough peppers Gandhi with enough big names to keep Hollywoodites from feeling lost. John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Ian Bannen, Michael Bryant, John Clements and Michael Hordern check in for duty as colonials. Edward Fox is the unrepentant general who instigates a massacre. Candice Bergen appears as reporter-photographer Margaret Bourke-White. John Mills plays Lord Chelmsford, who may be the same historical figure responsible for the disastrous Isandlwada defeat in the Zulu Wars. 1 Way down the list is an early appearance by Daniel Day-Lewis, as a South African street thug. The list of Indian talent has a number of favorites as well: Saeed Jaffrey (The Man Who Would Be King), Alyque Padamsee, Roshan Seth, Om Puri. Gandhi's South African sponsor is played by actor Amrish Puri, who became (in)famous in the next year's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, playing the Evil Kali cultist as a cross between Boris Karloff and Hammer menace George Pastell.
Sony's 25th Anniversary 2-disc set of Gandhi is the kind of release that will help grow the Blu-ray format; although filmed in 35mm it has the look of a massive Road Show picture, and even includes an intermission. The picture is beautiful throughout. Audio is in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 for both English and French, with 'ordinary 5.1' for Portuguese and Spanish.
Just about every extra one might expect is present. The feature disc carries a full Richard Attenborough commentary and a director introduction, as well as a picture-and text track called Gandhi's Legacy. The second Blu-ray disc begins with a selection of newsreel footage of the real Mohandas Gandhi; the match between Ben Kingsley and the original article is pretty close.
Then follows a long list of featurettes and short docus, some hosted by Kingsley. The titles are self-explanatory: Sir Ben Kingsley Talks About Gandhi, In Search of Gandhi, Reflections on Ben, Madeleine Slade An Englishwoman Abroad, Looking Back, Shooting an Epic in India, Designing Gandhi, From the Director's Chair, The Words of Mahatma Gandhi and The Making of Gandhi Photo Montage. They left out the complimentary Gandhi Cocktail Napkins. The Funeral documents one of the largest-scale scenes ever filmed: for a brief aerial view we're told that 300,000 extras were present. I confess that I thought the shot was a matte.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gandhi Blu-ray rates:
1. From longtime correspondent Avie Hern:: Hi Glenn. Frederic Thesiger, the 2nd Baron Chelmsford (1827-1905), was responsible for the circumstances of Isandlwada, whereas his son, Frederic Thesiger (1868-1933), 1st Viscount Chelmsford, Viceroy of India from 1916-21) is the one portrayed by John Mills.
A more interesting question, then, is whether these Thesigers were related to the British actor Ernest Thesiger, who played, variously, Doctor Praetorius in The Bride of Frankenstein and the Emperor Tiberius in The Robe.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics. Also, don't forget the 2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.