Richard Attenborough’s Accessible Activism

By  · Published on August 26th, 2014

Columbia Pictures

Yesterday, Scott Beggs discussed how the subject of war permeated throughout Richard Attenborough’s career both in front of and behind the camera, noting how anti-war themes ran through the former Royal Air Force flier’s directing debut in Oh! What a Lovely War to his Best Director win for Gandhi and beyond. But there’s another important aspect of Attenborough’s unique career that informed this consistent theme of pacifism: the actor/director often gravitated toward stories of activists determined to change the world and its asymmetrical relations of power. Attenborough rarely put himself in the position of liberator, but recognized and used his position of Western privilege to render the speech of others heard.

Attenborough was a genteel Englishman who seemed positively aristocratic in his presentation and demeanor – his appearance made him look the part of someone who might have been quite comfortable in the role of colonizer a century ago – but he used this assumed authority as a platform for making the voices of the wronged and exploited accessible to the ears of the powerful. His career and biography make him seem in many ways a walking contradiction: Attenborough held several honorary titles of the British Empire, from Commander of the Order of the British Empire to Knight Bachelor, yet his career behind the camera is best known for chronicling the just dissolution of that empire and depicting the tragic folly of imperialism.

Yet it was the artist’s accessibility as a British cultural icon that made his messages against colonialism, imperialism and violence so far-reaching. Attenborough is perhaps the only filmmaker that could have had an epic about the fall of the British Empire that gets a Royal Premiere.

In retrospect, Attenborough’s magnum opus as director, the 1982 Oscar-sweeping bio-epic Gandhi, looks (especially now) to be a textbook example of Oscar bait and the clichés of Hollywood biopics. The film covers an abridged checklist of historical events and heroic characteristics while bearing a functional directorial style friendly to the many public school classrooms in which the film came to be screened, divided into 45-minute increments that only emphasize the its unquestioned allegiance to traditional episodic linearity. The dueling qualities of convention and opportunity were not lost on viewers during the film’s initial release. Time’s Richard Schickel, for example, described Attenborough’s direction as possessing a “conventional handsomeness that is more predictable than enlivening.”

Schinkel, like many critics at the time, argued that the film’s great triumph was Ben Kingsley’s realization of the important historical figure, and regarded Attenborough as doing little more than fitting the appropriate context for that performance to come to life. The transformative radicalism of Gandhi’s politics and methods of resistance were hardly met by a shared risk in cinematic style. Attenborough, indeed, pursued the opposite, embracing the opportunity to make an inoffensive Hollywood spectacle about a figure met with incredible controversy during his lifetime.

But perhaps the achievement of Gandhi is the fact that it was made at all. In 1962, before Attenborough had ever directed a feature, Attenborough read Louis Fischer’s biography on Gandhi after being encouraged by Motilai Kothari, a Gujarati man working as a civil servant in London who knew Fischer personally. Throughout the following two decades, and despite the support from India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Attenborough struggled to get the film produced. Knowing that David Lean had at one point intended to make a film about Gandhi starring Alec Guinness (thankfully, Lean helmed Lawrence of Arabia instead), Attenborough approached Lean in the late 1960s about a prospective biopic, who showed interest and asked Attenborough himself to play the part, until that agreement fall apart.

Imagining a Gandhi starring Attenborough is near impossible, and not only because Attenborough would have been wrong for the part in nearly every sense of the term. Attenborough’s own politics have rarely been available in the characters he portrayed onscreen. Attenborough the actor made a career out of playing authority figures and nationalists, most often in the military. His unique ability to deliver information with unassuming confidence made him the perfect candidate for British cinema’s custodians of quiet power, whether portrayed malevolently or not. In 1977, Attenborough even portrayed a figure on the other side of Gandhi’s fight for sovereignty, playing a British General who helps the East India Company take over the Awadh kingdom in Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players. Onscreen, Attenborough was never a political dissident, but the guardian of the status quo.

Yet behind the camera, Attenborough gravitated toward outcasts, pariahs and ordinary people subject to extraordinary struggle and invisibility with producer credits that included The Angry Silence, Whistle Down the Wind, and The L-Shaped Room. This sensibility pervaded a directing career that began with a satirical WWI musical and penultimately served a film in which James Bond himself rejects British life, renounces his identity, lives amongst Native American trappers, and subsequently becomes one of North America’s first environmentalists. An attentive keeper of the Royal Crown, Attenborough’s directing career was not.

Attenborough’s career-defining interest in figures that fight systemic subjugation became enlivened by the critical and commercial success of Gandhi. He subsequently directed Cry Freedom, about the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko (played by Denzel Washington), while apartheid was still South Africa’s rule of law. And his biopic of Charlie Chaplin (with the famous creative played by Robert Downey, Jr.) focused much more on the mid-century political witch hunt that forced a national treasure out of his adopted country instead of Chaplin’s cinematic outings as the Little Tramp.

Many of the same criticisms were leveled at these later portrayals of consequential historical figures that practiced radical compassion: the performances were visionary, a consensus validated by Oscar nominations, but accused of being erected on a foundation of cliché and convention.

But in order to understand Attenborough’s work as a director, I think it’s necessary to recognize how his persona in front of the camera (as a totem of British male power) worked in concert with his role as a filmmaker. Attenborough the actor became an expert in the language of British gentility and authority, even after growing up in the wake of its empire. Attenborough the director used his aura of authority, his specifically British disposition and his understanding of what it means to speak as a locus of power to lay a foundation for the voices of the powerless, subjugated and historically impoverished.

If his films bore the burden of convention and predictable directorial choices, that is because they are the result of learning and speaking through convention and tradition. Attenborough used convention and tradition to tell stories of those who have been suppressed by convention, enslaved by tradition, and who fought for emancipation. If his filmmaking was orthodox, it served to even more subversively highlight people who were anything but.

It’s not without significance that Attenborough’s best-known performance in front of the camera was of an aristocrat who witnessed the immediate, unceremonious fall of his own personal empire. Attenborough notably decided not to play John Hammond in Jurassic Park as an evil genius who thinks himself God, but as a refined grandfatherly figure who fails to see what is so obvious to everyone else, that within the elaborate playground he’s made lies the seeds of his own (and others’) destruction.

Onscreen, Attenborough mastered the art of playing characters that genuinely believe in the might and logic of the fences that divide us; offscreen, he portrayed in the most accessible terms the tragic, megalomaniacal moral failure of the fence-builders.