The First and Final Films of Richard Attenborough

By  · Published on August 25th, 2014

United Artists/Gramercy Pictures

This isn’t the story of a ship, but it starts with one. A month after the real-life Royal Navy resupplied Malta during Operation Pedestal, In Which We Serve hit theaters in the UK. It’s a WWII story made and released during WWII, featuring the sinking of the HMS Torrin as a symbol for the temporary loss that makes us all fight harder for the larger victory. A seafaring Alamo whose stalwart captain goes on to fire even larger guns from an even stouter ship at the destined-to-fail Nazis.

This was Richard Attenborough’s film debut as an actor. He played a yellow-gutted shell loader who abandons his post, leaving the men up top without one of their ammo sources. It’s a role hidden within a sea of other characters, but Attenborough – whose character doesn’t even have a name – gets a spotlit moment to twist his face in terror until ultimately breaking.

The movie was nominated for Best Picture and Screenplay, but it’s not like his seconds-long turn as a coward made Attenborough a star overnight.

There’s something special about that, though. Attenborough seized the brief moment and steadily built a career from it. That career was marked greatly by military stories – The Great Escape, Flight of the Phoenix, the propaganda drama Journey Together, Glory at Sea, Desert Patrol, A Bridge Too Far and on and on and on. In that sense, he never drifted from his very first screen performance or his real-life experiences documenting the war from the rear gunner’s seat on bombing missions. He made war films and filmed a war.

Naturally, there’s also a war in his last film, Elizabeth. It’s a holy conflict between Catholics and Protestants ripping England in two (with some French troops on the side). Half a century older and four centuries earlier, Attenborough is a lifetime away from the anonymous stoker he played during WWII and far from the battlefield itself. Here he’s William Cecil, the nervous right hand man to the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth (although it’s clear that he put the same grave look of concern from In Which We Serve to good use here, too).

It’s a fairly unremarkable role with a few flashes of brilliance of which Attenborough again takes advantage. In and beyond his first and final roles, there’s a distinct pattern of characters who sank into the background only to emerge once or twice during a story to make an impact before fading back again. Richard Attenborough’s movies were rarely “Richard Attenborough movies.” Instead, they belonged to Noel Coward and Cate Blanchett and David Niven, or they belonged to an ensemble of notable names with his nestled in between.

Yet when Attenborough stops to explain to the new Queen that her realm is a shambles and that her body isn’t her own, it’s like pounding a fist on the table to remind you that there’s a towering presence standing humbly in the corner. His magic was that he was able to do that while remaining calm and quiet. The man whose filmic career began without a line was almost never bombastic, and the greatest part of his talent as an actor and director was in bolstering the performances of everyone around him.

His role in Elizabeth (as well as a co-starring turn as Santa Claus in the Miracle on 34th Street remix) was due to Steven Spielberg convincing the elder statesman to bring youthful energy to Jurassic Park. If not for Elizabeth in 1998, his last performance would have been reprising his role as John Hammond in The Lost World, ending a career with the character who defined the third act of his life on screen. Instead, he ended in a similar way to how he began – standing forcefully behind the larger stars of a drama which would go on to Oscar recognition.

Of course, Attenborough was also an Oscar winner, but his awards didn’t come for acting. In fact, he was never even nominated during a yeoman’s career in front of the camera. He earned gold for directing Gandhi – a movie that, after decades of displaying militarism and war onscreen, investigated and promoted social change through acts of peaceful non-violence.

It stands out not only because of its Oscar domination, but because it acts to the centerpiece of Attenborough’s two other first and final films – the ones which he directed. First is the musical Oh! What a Lovely War from 1969, which parodically and complicatedly tells the story of WWI as a frivolous exercise with a staggering death toll and bright songs in major keys.

The title alone is a sign of how sardonic the message is, and it’s especially poignant coming from a director who served in the military. Attenborough beautifully adapted a stage show while maintaining that gorgeous blend of dead bodies and bouncy tunes that only Stanley Kubrick and the British are truly capable of. Here was a creator who started his career making propaganda films with John Boulting and the Royal Air Force Film Production Unit, now crafting aggressively anti-war stories.

After opening his directorial career with a film that can be found in both the War and Musical sections of any video store that closed down five years ago, he portrayed wartime more straightforwardly (and traditionally) in Young Winston, A Bridge Too Far, In Love and War and in his final film, Closing the Ring. It was a semi-syrupy swan song featuring a romantic mystery that begins during WWII and is only revealed 50 years later.

Yes, we live in a world where Mischa Barton worked with Richard Attenborough. It was also Attenborough at age 84, and while it’s far from Academy-worthy work, it’s also far from easy to write off as a misfire. It’s an intriguing, long-form romance featuring veteran actors Christopher Plummer, Shirley MacLaine and Pete Postlethwaite pulling together to present a story of lifelong regret made right. It also happens to look beyond the events of WWII with a hopeful eye while, a bit depressingly, recognizing an endless cycle of violence alive in the Ireland of 1991.

For many people – especially in my generation – Attenborough will remain the maniac who stole the champagne we were saving for a special occasion before showing us dinosaurs, but it’s interesting to see the end points of his time as an actor and director to recognize what themes stuck around. Shortly after the release of Closing the Ring, Attenborough suffered a stroke that sidelined him from making any more movies. His retirement inarguably gave greater importance to a fairly standard wartime romance, but there’s something accidentally fitting about ending a career dominated by epic battles with a message of raw hope amid the regenerating rubble.

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