Judge Daniel MacDonald just doesn't look good in a loincloth, and he's at peace with that now. Some people can pull it off; some people can't.
His triumph changed the world forever.
Some films you watch and enjoy and never think about again, while others completely wash over you, sweeping you away into an experience you were neither expecting nor prepared for—and make you wonder what took you so long to watch them. Such a film is Gandhi.
Facts of the Case
In the late 1800s, a young Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast) is thrown off of a train in South Africa for simply being non-white and refusing to move from his rightfully purchased first class seat. This unfortunate incident opens the eyes of the young lawyer to injustices being inflicted upon Indian people in the country, and encourages him to change the system. His persuasive style of civil disobedience gains him a following not just in South Africa, but in his home country of India as well.
Upon his return, he took up the cause of ending British rule in India, using creative forms of dissent and his relationships with powerful members of the community to fight, using "peaceful non-violent non-cooperation," to affect change. By the time he died from an assassin's bullet in 1948, Gandhi, now known as Mahatma or "great soul," had become an influential political activist recognized and respected the world over.
Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi chronicles the remarkable life of a man who refused to turn a blind eye to injustice, yet just as firmly stood against violence as a means to an ends. The film also features Martin Sheen (Badlands), Candice Bergen (Carnal Knowledge), Roshan Seth (Vertical Limit), and Rohini Hattangadi.
"An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind."
What a wonderful film this is.
There's a scene early in Gandhi that perfectly illustrates both Gandhi's revolutionary philosophy and the gloriously cinematic telling of his life in this picture. Gandhi and a number of compatriots are facing a group of mounted policemen in South Africa, the police starting to charge toward them in an attempt to run the dissenters off. Faced with ten or more horses bearing down on him, Gandhi tells the people to lie down on the ground, that the horses will not trample them and will go no further. Sure enough, it works—the frightened horses refuse to step on Gandhi and his fellow protesters, and because of their faith in Gandhi and dedication to their cause, they win the day. The whole story is told right there.
With this picture, director Richard Attenborough (Chaplin) has created a grand epic equal in scope to David Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia, with colorful widescreen compositions using every inch of the frame to tell the story, capturing a personal story of one man's life that happened to affect the world. Cinematographers Ronnie Taylor (Cry Freedom) and Billy Williams (On Golden Pond) give us one striking image after another, a veritable feast for the eyes but always with a purpose, the framing contributing to the subtext and conflict in each scene. This is a picture to view on as large a screen as you can find.
A key consideration when dealing with a biography is to determine how much an audience already knows, to avoid boring viewers with unneeded backstory and exposition. Attenborough and writer John Briley (Cry Freedom) solved this dilemma by beginning the picture with Gandhi's death, cutting immediately to the massive funeral procession with Gandhi's body being moved through a crowd of 400,000 (and that's the actual number of participants in the scene), all there to pay tribute to this great man, a reporter's voiceover recounting some of the man's great achievements. With this, we immediately understand why we should care about Gandhi's life, making events that unfold later resonate beyond their inherent dramatic value.
The movie is filled with "moments" that take full advantage of the power of cinematic storytelling, such as when Gandhi marches across India to make salt, in defiance of British restrictions, and is followed by thousands. There are moments of great bravery, ugly violence, natural beauty, comedy, and inspiration. However, each scene propels the plot in more than one way, with surprisingly efficient and succinct storytelling for such a lengthy film.
Above all, Gandhi is an actor's picture, led by Sir Ben Kingsley's virtuoso performance as the titular character, playing the man across the span of nearly fifty years of life. Kingsley inhabits Gandhi so fully to the degree, as he reports in an included interview, that Gandhi's grandson felt his grandfather's spirit working through him. He gives Gandhi an indelible dignity, an unfailing humility, and a sharp and easily accessed sense of humor. While Kingsley has given many strong performances since this film (especially in House Of Sand And Fog), it is this Oscar-winning role with which he will forever be associated, and rightly so.
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, starting with Hattangadi as Gandhi's wife. Her steadfast support of her husband, including following him to prison, is an inspiration, and Hattangadi portrays her character as both submissive and an equal to Gandhi, an impressive feat. Martin Sheen imbues his small but vital role with his usual combination of passion and integrity, and Candice Bergen is radiant in her brief part as a photojournalist. Lastly, Roshan Seth portrays his character of Nehru as strong, kind, and unfailingly devoted to Gandhi. There are several more great British character actors filling out the cast, all serving the picture well.
This two-disc special edition takes the place of the film's previous one-disc release, and includes much more supplementary material and a remastered picture. The film's cinematography is well represented, with fine detail such as the pilling on Gandhi's shawl clearly visible, with little mosquito noise and no compression artifacts. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio track is quite good, with crisp, clear highs and more surround activity than one may expect (although it remains front-centric). The low end is rather thin, which I would attribute to the source mix more than any deficiency with the audio mastering.
Disc One contains a fine introduction by Richard Attenborough (in which he calls this the most important film of his career), the entire 191-minute film with three audio options, and an excellent commentary by Attenborough. Despite the movie's length, the director rarely pauses for more than a few moments, providing vital context, amusing anecdotes, and other musings. While he repeats a couple of stories from the featurettes on Disc Two, this is an engaging track well worth the time of anyone who has enjoyed the picture at least once.
The second disc contains the rest of the special features, including an interview with Kingsley, vintage newsreel footage of the real Gandhi, and nine featurettes that essentially form one long documentary, albeit one in which you have to sit through the copyright information every ten minutes or so before moving on to the next section. The Kingsley interview is a standout, as he affably and honestly discusses his creation of the character of Gandhi, freely admitting the amount of skill required to do so as masterfully as he did with no sense of false honesty, and dismisses the idea that he was "channeling" Gandhi, instead crediting the technical aspects of acting for his accuracy. Of the featurettes, "Looking Back," "Shooting an Epic in India," "The Funeral," and "From the Director's Chair" are the most informative and the longest segments. And the photomontage, set to music from the film, is also worthwhile. A very solid set of features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only reason this release doesn't earn a judgment of "100" is that the entire film is presented on one disc—an intermission is even included within the picture, so viewers could have easily changed to a second platter without disrupting the intended flow of the movie. While a marked improvement has been made from the previous special edition, which included the movie and a number of special features all on one side of a dual layer disc, I wonder if the picture quality here could have been even better if it had more room to breathe.
They just don't make epics like this anymore. A phenomenal achievement of filmmaking, a box office success, and the winner of 8 Academy Awards, this special edition of Gandhi deserves a spot in the collection of every serious film lover.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Richard Attenborough
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