Judge Kent Dixon's favorite '80s song is still "I Want Gaaaaaandhi!"
"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood."—Albert Einstein, on Gandhi's passing
A soft-spoken man, who first encountered racial prejudice as a young lawyer in South Africa, Mohandas K. Gandhi would one day come to be known by his people as Mahatma. This "great-souled" man would change the world with his principles and unique approach of protest through peaceful non-cooperation. Brought to the screen in 1982 by the magic partnership of Sir Richard Attenborough and Sir Ben Kingsley, Gandhi is more than a biography or historical account, it is the story of how one man made a difference, not only in his own country, but around the world. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Academy Award-winning film, Gandhi makes his way to Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Jesus. Mother Teresa. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahatma Gandhi. There have been few historical figures that have left such an indelible mark on human history as they have. Few others throughout history have created similar ripples that affected the world for good, not only during their own time, but for years to come. From his early years as a young boy in western India, Gandhi learned the value of human life, developed his devotion to the Hindu faith, and nurtured his commitment to the principles that would serve him as one of the greatest spiritual leaders the world has ever known.
That embarrassing list. Everyone has one. The list of mainstream, groundbreaking or popular films you just haven't gotten around to seeing. I know people who have never seen Star Wars, others who haven't seen Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Trilogy, or Lawrence of Arabia. I have a list of my own, and until recently, that list has included Gandhi. For whatever reason, I have never taken the time to watch the film. Possibly due to a run time of more than three hours, or even that I felt I couldn't watch it until I was able to give it the full attention it deserved. Whatever my excuse was, I'm glad it's in the past.
Throughout history, there have been many names that have evoked strong emotions, immediately after hearing them, and there's no question that Gandhi is one of those names. As I watched the film, I was struck almost immediately by the humility and dignity of the man and everything in which he believed. As a young lawyer travelling in South Africa, perhaps he didn't fully appreciate the cultural norms that so severely split the races, but he knew one simple thing: it was wrong.
Despite his anger at the political oppression and injustice all around him, Gandhi never responds with violence but only refuses to give in to the pressures of the British government. Despite having legislation directed at his people in an attempt to restrict and control them, Gandhi refuses to comply with their directives, while beautifully recognizing and showing respect for colonial rule, particularly as he leads a theater filled with Indian men in a rousing and patriot rendition of "God Save the King." It was not the rule of the English that he resisted, but rather their desire to control India and dictate to the Indian people for their own ends. Throughout his life, Gandhi's message remained simple…the people of India should be allowed to control and shape their own destiny, and ultimately, he succeeded in making that dream a reality.
It's somewhat of a surprise that the film begins with a flashback to January 30, 1948, particularly as this was the date of Gandhi's assassination. While some might argue that revealing this eventuality at the beginning of the film makes the rest of the film anti-climactic, I feel it serves to address his tragic death early, allowing the balance of the film to celebrate his life and achievements. Like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other inspirational leaders, Gandhi's life was cut short by an act of violence, but that should in no way diminish the legacy he has left behind.
As must always be a challenge for filmmakers, how do you accurately tell the life story of an historical figure without either bogging down in mundane details, or glamorizing historical events to enhance their entertainment value for moviegoers? By all accounts, Attenborough and screenwriter John Briley were able to capture the pivotal points in Gandhi's life with historical accuracy and without trading reality for a sensationalist Hollywood approach to the subject matter.
Even a solid screenplay can fall to pieces without support from the caliber of actors necessary to convey the material with the proper support and credibility it demands and the cast of Gandhi certainly delivers. With Sir Ben Kingsley leading the charge in the title role, the impressive cast also includes British film legends Sir John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and John Mills, and Americans Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen; you'll even see a 38-year-old Bernard Hill in a small role, years before his work for Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings. From the film's significant awards, both Oscars and otherwise, and its domestic box office gross of nearly $53 million, the film was clearly well received by both the public and critics, and it also seems to have appealed to a very broad audience.
While Sir Ben Kingsley anchors Gandhi's cast, India herself has an equal role in the film, and much of the credit for that can be attributed to the film's cinematography team Ronnie Taylor and Billy Williams. From desert wastes to lush rolling hillsides, overcrowded cities to pastoral ashrams, India is a rich tapestry of culture and history and the film does justice to that fact. I have a good friend who has visited India and between her stories and photos and this film, I now know I need to see the country for myself, as it is both heart-breaking and breathtaking at the same time.
Although Gandhi may not deliver the same punch as a more recent Blu-ray release, it offers a visual presentation that for the most part is clear and without noticeable blemishes or damage. I did find the image to be vaguely blurry at times, with muted colors, but overall the picture is very solid for a film that's now celebrating its 25th anniversary…think of this as an outstanding DVD presentation, and you'll have a good idea of where it lands in the hi-def world. The audio presentation was surprisingly active for an older film, and the Dolby TrueHD presentation makes solid use of all speakers while maintaining an appropriate balance between dialogue, music and effects.
The real treasures on this release lie in the breadth and depth of the supplementary content. As moving and awe-inspiring as the film is itself, this two-disc release includes a treasure trove of supplementary features that compliment the film beautifully. Disc one includes the in-depth director's commentary that was included with the previous two-disc release of the film. A Blu-ray exclusive pop-up trivia track called "Gandhi's Legacy" is also included on disc one. The track is both informative and enjoyable, as every time a new trivia fact pops up, the film continues playing inside a frame within that is about 1/6 the size of the full screen and the trivia information and images fill the rest of the screen.
Disc Two contains the lion's share of the extra features and the offering is quite broad indeed. A series of short interviews covers the following: actor Ben Kingsley talks about playing Gandhi and gives insights into his fellow actors; "From the Director's Chair" offers two short features on the film's casting and music; "In Search of Gandhi" discusses the inspiration behind the film and the pre-production process; "Madeline Slade: An Englishwoman Abroad" gives insight into the young admiral's daughter who devoted herself to Gandhi and came to be known as "Mirabehn"; and "Reflections On Ben" shares Attenborough's insights on casting Kingsley in the title role.
Moving from casting and pre-production to the actual shooting of the film, "Shooting an Epic in India" covers the many locations and challenges of shooting throughout the country; "Designing Gandhi" delivers three mini-featurettes on building the ashram location, constructing the large tent from the film, and sourcing vintage trains; "The Funeral" covers the largest shoot in British film history, including 400,000 extras; "The Words of Mahatma Gandhi" cycles through on-screen quotes while Indian music plays throughout; "Newsreel Footage" includes vintage clips of Gandhi's trip to England, and a rare on-camera question and answer interview; finally, the "Photo Montage" again plays music while a slideshow of images from the film appear onscreen. As I said, there's a lot here and not much is wasted or duplicated.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the featurettes are interesting and informative, it would have been nice to see a Laurent Bouzereau-level full documentary on the film, especially for this anniversary release and Blu-ray debut.
A BD-Live feature is also include on this release, but as it seems with all current incarnations of this feature, it is slow to load and offers nothing of real value once you reach the interface.
Like me, you may have a list of films you haven't been able to get to yet. If Gandhi is on your list, you owe it to yourself to change that at the first opportunity. When Sir Richard Attenborough was first approached to direct the film in the 60s, he was a British actor who had never directed anything in his life. He spent 20 years raising the money to make the film and he took no salary for his efforts.
At the time the film was released, few people knew much about Mahatma Gandhi or his life, and many were concerned there would be no public interest for the film, especially given its run time of more than three hours. A modest initial theatrical release garnered critical acclaim and before long, the same studios that had passed on financing the film were climbing over each other for the distribution deal. Gandhi is quite simply a great film about an even greater man whose beliefs and ideals are no less relevant today than during his lifetime.
Regarded by many as the father of India, Mahatma Gandhi brought a nation to its feet and an empire to its knees. If you've never seen Gandhi, see it now on Blu-ray. Mahatma Gandhi…go in peace.
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