I would bet my soul that one year after the Academy Awards were dominated by Richard Attenborough’s old fashioned biography of Gandhi (1982), the voters were wishing they could do it all again and perhaps honor the right film, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982). Even Attenborough recognized that Spielberg had made the better picture, stopping on his way to the podium to tell Spielberg exactly that. The Academy got caught up in honoring the man, honoring Gandhi and not the film. Indeed what Gandhi did for India was extraordinary, the act of a brilliant, selfless man who deserves to be remembered for what he did and what he was? If indeed they had made a film that properly explored his life, warts and all, then indeed that film should be so honored, but they did not. Instead Attenborough made the mistake of falling in love with his subject to the point he saw no warts, he saw only goodness. Had the Gandhi in this film suddenly walked on water I would not have been shocked. Rather than make a biography Attenborough made a film that was akin to Gandhi: The Greatest Hits and explored the best things he did in his life, many of which we already knew. Why not do what Spike Lee did with Malcolm X (1992); show the man has flaws?? Do what Oliver Stone did with Nixon (1995); show how those flaws impacted his life and those around him!! We know Gandhi slept between two teenage girls in his later years to test his celibacy, so why not show that?? Why did his celibacy have to be tested? Perhaps because he worried he was weak?? Show that!! He seemed always surrounded by pretty women, why? Show us, help us understand!! His treatment of his wife was often terrible, making her live for him rather than live her own life. And he certainly enjoyed those cameras that were often turned on him. Show these things because these flaws, if they can be called such, humanize him!! Rather than giving us a virtual saint, and that is what Attenborough does, give us a man, a simple man who did great things.
I understand why Attenborough made the film he did, all of his films are like this, they refuse to go any deeper than the script. His Chaplin (1992) is much the same, skirting over anything that is remotely uncomfortable. Gandhi was a lawyer who was appalled that in his own country he was a second class citizen to the British. They could not walk on the same sidewalks as the British, they could not sit in the same train cars, and they could do nothing without British approval. Gandhi decided to not co-operate and rallied India to do the same. He believed that a few hundred thousand Brits had no chance against a country of tens of millions and he was right. However before the British left, as he predicted they would, there was much blood flow and he himself spent several years of his life in prison. But in the end the British left, turning over rule to the Indians, which brought about almost immediate Civil War leading Gandhi to go on many hunger strikes to try and stop the fighting. He was eventually gunned down by an assassin in the late forties, his funeral one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century.
The film’s greatest strength is the Academy Award winning performance of Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. He is simply extraordinary given the script he is working with. There are moments in the film that Kingsley carries with simply a beatific expression on his face, as though he understood the beauty of humanity as Gandhi obviously did. It is a powerful piece of acting from the newcomer, who won an Oscar for his efforts and went on to a strong career in movies. Along with the dramatic, he brings much humor to the performance, and I think Kingsley did a brilliant job of understanding the impact Gandhi had on those around him because we see it throughout the film.
There are a handful of strong supporting performances to speak of, Edward Fox perhaps the most chilling as General Dyer, who opens fire on a crowd of men, women and children, in a move that came close to end British rule and certainly gave Gandhi the ammunition he needed to get the Brits out. Martin Sheen does a nice job as a reporter and Candice Bergen is very good as the famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White, but the film belongs to Kingsley. Attenborough contributes to the picture’s weakness with a school book telling of the story. The film has no edge and should; no depth and it should, and often resembles little more than a travel movie for India. One would hope a film about Gandhi would inspire us to want to be better people, while this simply inspired me to want to know more about him, to film in the holes missing, and to try and understand him better, because the film gives me so little.
A blazing Kingsley performance, still not the year’s best, but little else. Eight Academy Awards were given to this film, and I would bet my soul the Academy would take most of them back if they could. The film has not held up, not at all, and even then looked old fashioned and stodgy. At best, at best, it is a paint by numbers biography, nothing more and though Kingsley tries he never captures Gandhi’s soul.