In my review of Chariots of Fire, I remarked that "the legacy it has left behind for British filmmaking has not been one of unmitigated benefit." By this I was not referring specifically to the career of Hugh Hudson (what there is of it), but to the films which sought all too earnestly to recapture its Oscar success. While Chariots of Fire still stands as a landmark of British filmmaking, untarnished and proud, the sands of time have gradually revealed Gandhi for what it really is: an utterly well-meaning but overly cautious biopic, which relies too much on reputation and not enough on empathy.
It would be easy to dismiss Gandhi outright on the grounds I have just laid out. Like Chariots of Fire, the film had a very good night at the Oscars, scooping eight awards from eleven nominations including the coveted Best Picture. But it doesn't take too long to realise that the film was made for all the right reasons and with the very best intentions. Richard Attenborough had been trying to make the film for almost 20 years, and had a deep affection for both Gandhi and his story.
You also can't fault the ambition of the film in terms of wanting to cover the Mahatma's life in as full a sweep as possible. The film opens with a card saying: "No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man." Despite this welcome modesty, Attenborough is not using the need for brevity as a means to cut corners.
The film famously holds a Guinness World Record for the number of extras involved, with more than 300,000 actors being involved at some level. Shot on 200 different locations over a period of six months, showing the passage of sixty-odd, it's the kind of epic filmmaking that we just don't get any more, for better or worse. Perhaps only Gone with the Wind was more ambitious in terms of time being covered and personnel involved - and unlike Gone with the Wind, Gandhi finished on-time and on-budget.
There can also be very little doubt that Gandhi is very handsomely mounted. Both Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor were used to projects with great visual extravagance, having collaborated with Ken Russell on Women in Love and Tommy respectively. The wide shots are beautifully lit, taking in the variety of the Indian landscape, and Attenborough's choice of colour is much more engrossing than some of Sydney Pollack's choices in Out of Africa. You get a sense throughout of someone wanting to get every detail just so before the cameras roll.
One of the reasons that Gandhi had such a long gestation period is that Attenborough struggled to find an actor capable of playing the Mahatma. Paramount Pictures, in one of the aborted attempts to make the film, refused to give him the money unless Richard Burton was cast. Ben Kingsley was chosen in part for his Indian heritage, his birth name being Krishna Pandit Bhanji and his father being Gujerati. Regardless of the film's reputation it is hard to imagine anyone else playing Gandhi; not only does he achieve a physical resemblance, but he truly serves the character, carrying himself without a hint of ego or pretence.
On the basis of what we have covered so far, Gandhi seems to be shaping up as a well-made, well-performed and well-intended film. Unfortunately, when we start to dig a little beneath the surface, and question the execution of these intentions, the film begins to come a little unstuck. It never falls completely into the territory of Out of Africa, which rapidly descended into baggy nonsense with no sense of direction. But for all your good will about either Attenborough or the real-life Mahatma, the film will leave you feeling just a little unsatisfied.
The key to Gandhi's problems lies in a comment made by Attenborough when he was recently interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live. He remarked that E.T. was a better film than Gandhi, since the latter was "a piece of narration, rather than a piece of cinema". While Steven Spielberg's film is a genuine example of visual storytelling, which works in whatever language you see it in, Attenborough's film relies on some kind of foreknowledge of the real-life figure to achieve any kind of emotional impact. When we respond to Gandhi, we are responding to the man himself, not to the way in which his story is being told to us.
A good example comes in the early stages of the film. A young Gandhi is leading a meeting of protest against the policies of General Jan Smuts, which restricted the movements of Indians in South Africa and gave the police powers to search Indian property without warrant. Kingsley gives a nervous but resourceful speech which, if the film is to believed, marks the beginnings of Satyagraha or non-violent resistance. We find ourselves drawn in by the ideas, but it feels like we are listening to an idea rather than to a person conveying it.
Like many films that are based on a true story or which tackle key events in history, Gandhi very quickly becomes didactic. As good as Kingsley is at delivering dialogue, much of his lines feel like pre-meditated motivational speeches rather than something more spontaneous and human. Even if the real-life Gandhi never said a foolish word, and was the very model of decorum in the midst of great violence, his goodness is presented so unrelentingly that there is no way for us lesser mortals to bond with him emotionally.
The film is also blatantly hagiographic in its depiction of Gandhi as little short of a saint. Not only does he come to be adored by the British public, he comes out as the unconditional good guy among the politicians who would come to rule India and Pakistan. Jawaharlal Nehru is always characterised as being slightly insincere, and Muhammad Jinnah comes out almost like a Bond villain. In complete contrast to Christopher Lee's performance in the 1998 film, Jinnah is portrayed as essentially selfish and aloof, and when Gandhi remarks that he has "co-operated with the British", it is the closest he comes in the film to spitting out poison.
The problem is not that Mahatma Gandhi was not a great man. He was, and he may well have been the most well-meaning out of this small group. The problem is that the film treats him and depicts him as someone who should be deified and worshiped, when what we want is to understand how he became this way, and the flaws to him. The film skips over Gandhi's attitudes towards class and caste, his early remarks on race and his views on the role of women, just as it declines to comment on the elitism of Nehru and Jinnah, or how their attitudes were shaped by their English educations. All the really interesting ideas and entry points for discussion at either ignored or held at arms' length, lest they tarnish or puncture the myth that Attenborough wishes to uphold.
There are only two scenes in Gandhi in which Attenborough invokes any genuine emotional response beyond admiration. The first comes on the farm, where Gandhi threatens to throw out his wife for refusing to rake the latrine. They have an argument about obedience and love, and eventually reconcile, in a scene which gives an indication of humanity and makes Kingsley's performance feel less mannered. The other is the recreation of the Amritsar Massacre, which is appropriately brutal and difficult to watch. Attenborough devotes several minutes to the catastrophic event, and while he is never gratuitous, we get the message.
The other really troubling aspect of Gandhi is its tendency to express the nobility of the Mahatma by surrounding him with well-meaning white people. Again, the problem is not the fact that the real-life Gandhi met and knew these people - it is that these people are used as ciphers to hammer home something that speaks for itself. Ian Charleston's clergyman, Martin Sheen's journalist, Candice Bergen's photographer and Geraldine James' aristocrat all bring us back to the central problem: we need to see through Gandhi's eyes and feel what he feels, rather than be told how great he was by annoying people that we couldn't care less about.
Gandhi is perhaps the best example of an admirable failure. It's not a bad film by any conceivable stretch, and no-one can deny either Kingsley's talent or the good intentions of Attenborough behind the camera. But ultimately it relies on these intentions far too much, forgetting the basics of creating character empathy in favour of a dry, skewed history lesson coupled with its fair share of guilt-tripping. In short it takes a very long time to say far too little, and something about ideas this important shouldn't leave us so cold and ambivalent.