There's no question that Mohandas K. Gandhi was one of the key figures of the twentieth century whose role in promoting pacifism and, of course, gaining India's independence from the British Empire should never be forgotten. It's important to state this upfront before criticising Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, because the film is so reverential that it's easy to look like you have no respect for the man when, in reality, you just don't like the movie. I'm sure a great film could be made about this little man who triumphed in effectively destroying the British Empire, but Gandhi isn't that film. Instead, it's a solemn and unimaginative plod through schoolbook history that never for one moment comes alive or has any filmmaking excitement. In the circumstances, some of the performances are very good and some of the photography is very nice. But it's more of a moving coffee table book than a proper movie.
The film traces the rise of Gandhi from being an Indian lawyer working in South Africa to his position as a world statesman and spokesman for Indian Home Rule. It covers the bases pretty comprehensively - the racism he encountered as a young lawyer, the activism against prejudicial treatment of Indian immigrants in South Africa, the massive peaceful protests against the British, the time in prison and the fasting, the Amritsar Massacre which turned public opinion in Britain and the final triumph tempered by the continuing problems between Muslims and Hindus which led to the India-Pakistan conflict still raging today. In historical terms it is fairly diligent, up to a point. Most of the events are dramatised with enough accuracy to be historically convincing, although the protests which led to the Amritsar massacre in 1919 actually took place over several days and not a single day - not that this remotely justifies General Dyer's decision to shoot into a crowd of peaceful protestors including women and children, but it does suggest that it was the result of a growing frustration on the part of the British rather than the snap decision it is presented as being. Nor does the film quite evoke the international outrage the massacre resulted in - Dyer was relieved of his command and his reputation ruined (unthinkable a year earlier while the war was still going on) and Churchill condemned the action in Parliament in language considerably stronger than was expected. It was a pivotal turning point in the struggle for freedom and the film doesn't really capture that. Nor is there any follow up in dramatic terms for the audience since we don't find out if anything happened to Dyer afterwards. There is also a certain lack of narrative logic with events compressed and no indication of time passing apart from Ben Kingsley's moustache becoming whiter. An inordinate amount of time is spent in South Africa with the events in India given less time than they merit. The last hour is especially confused with the independence negotiations rushed through - Mountbatten, a pivotal character, barely appears - and the religious problems somehow fudged without being made entirely clear.
These aren't the crucial problems however. Other historical epics have been just as flawed in historical terms - Patton being a key example - while still being excellent pieces of filmmaking. Gandhi is not even a particularly well made film. The pacing is turgid with some scenes held so long you wonder if Dickie Attenborough had fallen asleep and forgotten to say 'Cut'. What on earth the editor was doing is another question worth raising - the narrative seems pieced together without any concern for tension or logic as if a six hour movie has been cut down to three by a child with some sticky tape and safety scissors. The film looks very nice and sometimes has a visual energy that fights against the somnolent direction - we can presumably thank Billy Williams for this since there is some of the atmosphere of his work for the prologue of The Exorcist here. Worse problems come when considering the script and the conception of the movie. It wouldn't matter that the dialogue sometimes sounds like it comes from a particularly poor school play or that no-one has bothered to give Gandhi any complexity or real 'grit', if the controlling vision was powerful. But it's not. Attenborough spent twenty years trying to get this film to the screen to tell us that Gandhi was a nice chap who didn't like violence and was mistreated by the British. Was that really worth all the heartache he went through ? It's like someone making a film about Napoleon that tells us he was short, vain and shouted a lot (which, come to think of it, Sergei Bondarchuk did, and it was even worse than it sounds). There's hardly any decent humour in the whole film and Gandhi isn't made three dimensional. For example, the reason that he wasn't at his father's bedside when he died after a long illness was that he was screwing his wife at the time. Such things are what bring historical characters to convincing life, even if they are irrelevant to the plot.
The most serious problem is that the key issue is grotesquely simplified. The British are portrayed as monsters, with the exception of a kindly judge, a British spinster who came to live with Gandhi and a nice Christian chap. It's the sort of risible "streamlining" that we happily mock in current Hollywood blockbusters like The Patriot. Apparently, when we do it ourselves it's acceptable. Liberal self-hatred more like, the type of bland self-regarding masochism that made Dances With Wolves such an embarrassment. The British forces are portrayed as heartless bullyboys - an alternative name for much of the film would be The Empire Strikes Back, with the British troops as the Stormtroopers and the governors played - indistinguishably - by the Sir Johns, Mills and Gielgud, as Darth Vader. The Indians who warned against the fast pace of change and the religious problems are portrayed with the sort of curled-lip hypocrisy that American movies used to use to show the depravity of Nazis, Communists and particularly obnoxious Romans. Anyone who believes that the issues of the break-up of the Empire for Britain, particularly given financial and social implications, were this simple deserves the films they get. Some people have interpreted my comments above as meaning that I support British rule in India, which is unfair and untrue. I simply think the issues are more complex than a simple case of good guys versus bad guys. This atrocious script won an Oscar by the way, which goes to show something so depressing I can't bear to think what it might be.
Given these immense flaws, the performances are sometimes excellent. Apart from the British character actors on parade and the token Yanks - messers Sheen and Bergan - most of them on auto-pilot, there are wonderful things from Roshan Seth as Nehru and the excellent Saeed Jaffrey ('Coronation Street' fans will be delighted to learn that Fred Elliot appears as well). The dignified performance of Rohini Hattangady as Gandhi's wife is a pleasure to watch as well, and Ian Charleson makes a decent enough impression as the clergyman who first ignited Gandhi's burning hatred of injustice. But the film would be a waste of time were it not for Ben Kingsley's superlative performance. I did mention that the part didn't go to an Indian actor, but it appears I was wrong because Kingsley's real name is Krishna Bahji. His Gandhi is riveting to watch and makes some kind of sense even when the the film doesn't. It's a distinguished performance that deservedly launched Kingsley's film career (although he had played in some other films previously such as the rather good Fear Is The Key) and he received the only one of the 8 Oscars which the film actually deserved.
Some people have suggested that the topic of the film is so important that we should be more tolerant of its flaws. This strikes me as a calumny. A bad film is a bad film, regardless of its subject matter and when it has taken twenty years to make, it is even more depressing since it represents a monumental waste of talent. Richard Attenborough was far, far better as an actor than he could ever hope to be as a director and film after film just goes to demonstrate this fact. His best work tends to rely strongly on actors (Shadowlands, in my view, is his only decent film) but he keeps going for movies which involve the sort of spectacle and epic themes he is not equipped to tackle. Yes, he's not bad with crowd scenes and he gets his camera angles right half of the time, but there's no epic conception of cinema here, the sort of vision that would make us burn with anger and injustice. One single scene, the massacre at Amritsar, captures some of this but is then thrown away without any dramatic follow-through. I speak only for myself of course. Anthony Mann, Stanley Kubrick, even David Lean could have made far more of this great material than Attenborough does. But I appreciate my view is in the minority. Most people seem to think this is a great film. Gandhi was certainly a great man, but I would argue that Gandhi is far from a great movie.
Columbia have given Gandhi a sort of half-hearted special edition which is likely to infuriate many of the fans of the film. Attenborough's twenty year odyssey to get the film made would make a superb documentary but you won't find one here.
The film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1. It's an excellent picture in just about every respect. The most striking thing is the richness of the colour which just bursts out at you right from the beginning. Absolutely stunning and matched by the high level of detail and superb contrast. There is a very small amount of grain in places and some occasional artifacting but these are minor problems given the overall quality.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. Generally a good track, although somewhat limited use of the rear channels. It's taken from the original Dolby Stereo theatrical soundtrack and this results in use of the left and right front channels for dialogue, occasional effective surround for some of the crowd scenes and an impressive enhancement of the music score.
There are a number of extras. All of them are worth seeing, but they hardly constitute a special edition. The longest item is an interview with Ben Kingsley which is enlightening and fascinating about how he approached the film and how important it was to him. "The Words Of Mahatma Gandhi" is a collection of inspiring quotes. "The Making Of Gandhi Photo Montage" is what it sounds like, although we do get the accompaniment of the superb music score. I enjoyed the period newsreel footage best of all. The deliriously pompous theatrical trailer is here as well, along with filmographies. The opening menu is nicely animated and there are 32 chapter stops.
My low opinion of the film is not shared by many other people it would appear, and if you are one of those then you will be quite pleased with this disc. It could have been far richer in terms of special features, but the technical quality of the transfer makes it a worthwhile purchase.