THE LEGACY OF RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH: A Tribute by Jarrod Emerson
Just over two years ago, on August 24, 2014, Sir Richard Attenborough passed away. A few days shy of his 91st birthday, he left behind an incredible cinematic legacy. I first became aware of Attenborough at the age of six watching him in Jurassic Park. At that time I was far too young to know or care about decades-long career. It was only as I matured and expanded my movie viewing beyond what my adolescent self, that I became aware of his immense talent.
Born August 29, 1923, in Cambridge, England, Richard Attenborough was passionate about the performing arts from an early age. Educated at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Attenborough began acting professionally in 1942. Over the next several decades, he played a variety of roles on both stage and film, becoming one of England’s most acclaimed character actors.
However, Attenborough explored a whole new angle of his talent when he turned to direct films in the late 1960s. As versatile behind the camera as he was in front of it, Attenborough the director dabbled in many different genres—ranging from musicals (A Chorus Line) to horror (Magic) to drama, but his passion was in politics—past and present. Attenborough perhaps best embodied this passion in his Academy Award-winning biopic of Mohandas Gandhi. His apartheid-themed Cry Freedom was filmed during the midst of Apartheid. What history professors do in lecture halls, Attenborough did with celluloid.
Few filmmakers have relentlessly tackled such powerful stories with the conviction and fervor of Attenborough. His numerous contributions to cinema have left a permanent impression on the world.
The following eight films show the best of Attenborough as both an actor and director:
As an Actor:
- Brighton Rock (1947)
- The Great Escape (1963)
- 10 Rillington Place (1971)
- Jurrassic Park (1993)
As a Director:
- Magic (1978)
- Gandhi (1982)
- Cry Freedom (1987)
- Chaplin (1992)
BRIGHTON ROCK (1947) What do you get when the crime classic, Brighton Rock, (by acclaimed novelist Graham Greene) falls into the hands of pioneering British filmmaker John Boulting? Only an incredible film noir of British cinema, whose influence I can now see in many modern British gangster flicks (The Long Good Friday and Sexy Beast come to mind). Set in the 1930s, Brighton Rock tells the story of a young, ambitious gangster whose violent impulses ultimately work against him.
In one of his earliest film roles, Richard Attenborough plays “Pinkie Brown,” the lethal hoodlum I am referring to. Pinkie has just assumed leadership of a small, but brutal syndicate operating in the popular English resort of Brighton—thanks to a damning article written by journalist “Fred Hale” that led to the death of the gang’s previous leader. For his first order of business, Pinkie and his associates track Hale down and murder him. While Pinkie initially appears to have gotten away with it, he soon discovers there are some loose ends. Local resort entertainer “Ida Arnold”, having encountered the frightened Hale shortly before his death, refuses to accept the authorities suicide ruling and begins her own tenacious detective work. In addition, naïve waitress “Rose” has seen a crucial piece of evidence left behind by one of Pinkie’s goons. As Pinkie struggles to maintain control over the situation, he becomes increasingly impulsive and psychotic.
It may be tempting for many younger viewers to write Brighton Rock off as an old-fashioned, terribly dated piece of cinema. Yes, the film’s over-the-top, melodramatic musical score, bits of choppy editing and an emphasis on dialogue-over-action, might be off-putting to some. But, I urge you to look beyond all of that. Brighton Rock has endured remarkably thanks to passionate filmmaking. John Boulting takes full advantage of the medium, with many memorable sequences (including Hale’s death scene, which was inventively shot). While I admit to not reading Graham Greene’s novel, he and co-screenwriter Terence Rattigan seem to have done a fine job translating the story into a film, fleshing out the characters.
The nearly unrecognizable, 23-year-old Attenborough is perfectly cast in a role he seemed born to play. In the film’s introduction, Pinkie is lying on his bed, hand weaving a cat’s cradle. That’s how he sees himself: cool, calm and collected—and pulling the strings. For example, Pinkie forges a false courtship with Rose so he can hastily marry the impressionable girl—all to prevent her from being able to give any testimony against him. In one of the film’s more jarring scenes, Rose asks her new husband to record a vinyl love message in an enclosed gramophone booth. Instead of words of love, Pinkie records a cruel message. As the film progresses, pressure mounts and things begin to backfire. Hotheaded Pinkie starts making irrational decisions that will lead to his downfall.
The remaining supporting characters are also well written, particularly that of determined citizen-sleuth Ida Arnold played wonderfully by Hermione Baddeley. Doctor Who fans may also get a kick out of the presence of the very first Doctor himself, William Hartnell, as one of Pinkie’s goons.
If the detective in you is craving a gangster noir, I urge you to start your investigation with this classic potboiler.
THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963): Based on the personal experience of WWII veteran, Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape follows a group of POWs imprisoned in Stalag Luft III. Equipped with a barbed-wire fence, towers, and a full staff of armed guards, it has been declared Germany’s most secure prison camp. However, behind closed doors, the prisoners are collaborating on something big. Under the leadership of a previously escaped POW, the occupants orchestrate an unprecedented mass escape of more than 250 men!
Admittedly this is my first viewing of The Great Escape, which I will concede upfront is a “great” film. But what makes it so? Its basis on reality? The top-notch all-star cast (most of whom are, sadly, no longer with us)? The surprisingly character-driven screenplay? Is it Elmer Bernstein’s rousing musical score? Or could it be the breathtaking Bavarian locations? If you haven’t guessed by now, the answer is a resounding ALL OF THE ABOVE! Even though I’d previously known of The Great Escape, I had always thought of it as a Steve McQueen picture. In truth, he is only one part of an amazing ensemble of character actors, including James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, and of course, Richard Attenborough. Each shines in a distinctive, well-defined role.
Leading the effort himself is Attenborough, as the tenacious British Air Force Squadron leader Roger Bartlett. Dubbed “Big X” for his many previous high-profile escaped attempts and one of the camp’s newest arrivals, Bartlett faces execution should he try to escape again. Yet with so many repeat offenders under one roof, the temptation to lead them to freedom is something he cannot ignore. Attenborough nails the role with many fiery speeches, as well as more subdued moments. The highly organized Bartlett recruits and assigns each prisoner their own unique role in the escape plot, which includes digging three separate tunnels nicknamed “Tom,” “Dick” and “Harry”. Like any born leader, Bartlett constantly faces tough decisions. However, he is unafraid to risk his life in the name of freedom and always succeeds in rallying his troops.
You might be asking yourself by now, “Hey, what about the rest of the prisoners?” Well, remember, this is a three-hour movie. While you would think that two hours of planning an escape doesn’t sound exciting, director John Sturges and his screenwriters know better, thoroughly fleshing out each of Bartlett’s team. For example, Steve McQueen’s rogue American POW Virgil Hilts is initially reluctant to join the effort. Nicknamed the “Cooler King” and a classic anti-hero, Hilts has a record 18 escape attempts, each one resulting in a lengthy, isolated stay in the camp’s cooler. However, after a rather tragic turn, Hilts goes from lone wolf to joiner. We become well acquainted with the other members of the team, as they excel in their tasks which range from scrounging, to digging, to obtaining false documents. Phenomenal character development is on display here as the men struggle with personal problems, endure unexpected complications, and forge friendships. With the first two-thirds of the film being character-based, the last third is suspense on a large scale. While frequently labeled a “war film”, The Great Escape is best described as a story about a group of very different men, all united in a fight for freedom. This is an epic film, featuring Richard Attenborough in one of his finest performances.
10 RILLINGTON PLACE (1971): Sometimes the most gripping stories come straight from fact. Such is the case with this powerful thriller from Richard Fleischer (The Boston Strangler, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). Adapted from the collected writings of journalist Ludovic Kennedy, 10 Rillington Place dramatizes the crimes of English landlord/serial killer, John Reginald Christie, who murdered at least eight women at this infamous London address between 1944 and 1953. The film’s main focus is the 1949 murder of "Beryl Evans"(Judy Geeson), which resulted in the wrongful conviction and execution of her husband "Timothy Evans" (John Hurt).
Largely unnoticed upon its release, 10 Rillington Place is one of cinema’s great hidden gems. Made on a low budget, it is a visceral, engaging story stripped of many common thriller tropes. The score is seldom heard, the pacing is slow, and the colors are muted. This helps establish the grimy, unpleasant underbelly of post-war London. Unlike later similarly themed films, 10 Rillington Place is not concerned with gratuitous violence or nudity. Rather, it relies on what we don’t see, showing us just enough of Christie’s depravity. The film is not only an effective thriller but it is also a thought-provoking parable with significant political implications, many of which are still relevant today. The wrongful conviction of Timothy Evans remains one of England’s most notorious injustices and was one of the influences leading to the abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom.
Christie is arguably Richard Attenborough’s scariest role ever. While Attenborough was initially reluctant to portray such a dark character, he had said in interviews that the film’s political message influenced him to do so. Christie, as depicted by Attenborough, is equally as frightening—if not more so—than many of cinema’s more famous serial killers. Instead of a knife-wielding schizophrenic or a caged cannibal, Christie is something far more unsettling: the seemingly benign neighbor with a secret, monstrous perversion. In the film’s terrifying prologue, we are shown Christie’s modus operandi, which involves luring his victims to his home by promising a cure for their ailments. From behind a curtain, he voyeuristically watches his latest “appointment” approach. She has come expecting an antidote to her bronchitis. Instead, Christie proceeds to subdue her with carbon monoxide, before strangling and raping her.
Beryl and Timothy Evans, Christie’s new neighbors, are a struggling young couple with a one-year-old daughter. Beryl becomes distressed when she learns she is pregnant again, leading to severe tension between her and Timothy. She confides her wish for an abortion (universally illegal at the time) to Christie. Naturally, Christie seizes on Beryl’s desperation, intending to make her his next victim while Timothy is away. In a BAFTA-nominated performance, John Hurt is wonderful as well-meaning but slow Timothy. Timothy’s lack of education and borderline illiteracy makes him the perfect target for Christie to frame for Beryl’s murder, allowing Christie to continue his sickening habits.
10 Rillington Place has aged remarkably well. It is also a rarity in that it is a well-made thriller that carries dramatic weight. The performances of the cast, the frankness with which it explores its various themes, and the stripped-down aesthetics make this distinctive crime drama a raw, emotional experience.
JURASSIC PARK (1993): After focusing exclusively on his directorial career for over a decade, Richard Attenborough stepped back in front of the camera, when Steven Spielberg cast him in the mega-hit, Jurassic Park. Attenborough portrays billionaire industrialist, John Hammond, creator of a ground-breaking, island theme park. Hammond invites a small group to the for a sneak preview of his new attraction, hoping to gain their endorsements. Along for the ride are paleontologist "Alan Grant" (Sam Neill), his partner "Ellie Sattler" (Laura Dern), mathematician "Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and lawyer "Donald Gennaro" (Martin Ferrero). As this is a world famous film adapted from an equally popular novel, I doubt there are few, if any, these days who are unaware that dinosaurs inhabit the park. Needless to say, the tour doesn’t go as planned. When the electrified fences containing the genetically engineered beasts are sabotaged, the endangered guests must fend for themselves.
Steven Spielberg is usually synonymous with the word “blockbuster”, and Jurassic Park is a perfect example of that. With its vast array of groundbreaking special effects, suspenseful action sequences, and amazing set pieces, much of the film has held up well. Between the late Stan Winston’s animatronics and Industrial Light & Magic’s computer graphics, each dinosaur has its own personality. Unfortunately, as dazzling as the films’ prehistoric characters are, the human characters are less than memorable. This is not a film that one combs through for Oscar clips. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of good character development scattered throughout, thanks to a decent screenplay by David Koepp.
Amongst a cast of mostly two-dimensional characters, Richard Attenborough stands out. As park creator John Hammond, Attenborough reminded me that he is just as talented in front of the camera as he is behind it. While the novel’s version of Hammond was a selfish, conniving entrepreneur whose sole motivation was profit, Attenborough’s portrayal is something arguably more interesting. Here, Hammond is well-meaning but naïve entertainer who wishes to captivate his audience, oblivious to the fire he is playing with. In one of the film’s few character-driven scenes, he explains his intentions to Laura Dern’s Ellie Sattler after the park has failed. Hammond relates a story about how his past success in amusement parks motivated him to pursue and create something “you could touch and feel”. However, an angry Sattler forces Hammond to think about the destruction and death his actions have caused.
Of course, I cannot bring this film up without a tip of the hat to the always fun Jeff Goldblum, who steals practically every scene he is in as the highly eccentric comic relief, Dr. Ian Malcolm. It is a pity the rest of the cast doesn’t shine like Attenborough and Goldblum—and of course, the dinosaurs—but at least the awe-inspiring visuals and nonstop action sequences make Jurassic Park great fun. (I wonder: did anyone else make table shake so that glasses of water vibrate my seven-year-old self did?)
MAGIC (1978): Richard Attenborough’s only foray into horror, Magic, tells the story of "Corky Withers" (Anthony Hopkins), a shy, anxiety-ridden magician who struggles to get through a performance. Corky eventually finds success when he incorporates ventriloquism into his act with “Fats” an expressive wooden dummy. Fats is not merely a prop, he is Corky’s alter-ego. Although Corky’s agent "Ben” (Burgess Meredith) lands him a TV pilot, Corky refuses a required medical exam for fear his secret of conversing with Fats will be discovered. Corky flees to his native Catskills, deciding to look up his high school crush, "Peggy" (Ann-Margret). While pursuing a romance with the unhappily married Peggy, Corky becomes increasingly submissive to Fats, with deadly consequences.
Working from a novel and screenplay by the legendary William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Marathon Man), Attenborough has created a very effective, unique horror film. Don’t let the presence of a dummy fool you—Fats is no Chucky. There are no supernatural overtones, no special effects, and nearly an hour elapses before the first death. Magic is purely psychological, slowly unveiling an inevitable sense of dread as Corky’s sanity begins to erode.
Of course, Anthony Hopkins and the word “horror” may spark thoughts of a certain other role. However, the Corky Withers/Fats character possesses far more dimension than Hannibal Lecter. Whereas Lecter is a dungeon-lurking menace, Corky is a well-intended man, hampered by severe mental illness. When we first meet Corky, something is clearly wrong. A perspiring, shaky mess, Corky is attempting his first magic show at an open-mic-night. Failing to capture the audience’s attention, Corky descends into a shouting fit on stage to the stunned crowd.
Hopkin’s performance (for which he mastered ventriloquism very impressively), Goldman’s writing and Attenborough’s direction all work in tandem to reveal the simmering, repressed feelings that threaten to destroy Corky. Hopkins’s marvelous performance paints Corky as more tragic than scary. Ann-Margaret is also charming as the free-spirited, sweet Peggy. Together she and Hopkins have such believable romantic chemistry that I was hoping that Corky would crush Fats so the two of them could live happily ever after. Burgess Meredith also turns in an excellent performance as Corky’s agent, Ben. Ben initially comes off as just another show business hardass, but in the end one can tell he is genuinely concerned for his client.
Attenborough’s impressive crew adds to Magic’s uniqueness. Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper’s camera work captures the misty, creepy autumn of upstate New York. The haunting musical score of the late Oscar-winning composer, Jerry Goldsmith, alternates between deep emotion and suspense, with heavy vaudevillian motifs thrown in. From start to finish, Attenborough’s passion for directing is clear. With a heavy emphasis on character development, fine performances, and an emotional story at its core, Magic is a very un-cliché horror film, and I highly recommend it.
GANDHI (1982): The opening scene of Gandhi begins with the civil rights activist’s assassination, before flashing back to a fateful incident aboard a South African train in 1893. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, despite holding a first-class ticket, is booted from the train, leading him to realize the laws are biased against non-whites. This inspires the young, London-educated attorney to lead a fight for equal rights in South Africa, before taking the cause back to his native India, which was still under the rule of the British Empire. We observe Gandhi and his followers endure incredible hardships over the years. Despite being beaten, arrested, and imprisoned repeatedly, Gandhi chooses to fight back through civil disobedience. Fasting, promoting the boycotting of non-native goods, and inciting peaceful protests were just a few of the ways that Gandhi spread the awareness of the tyranny of the British Empire.
Richard Attenborough’s biographical epic is perhaps his finest hour. Political passion and good storytelling seldom align so effectively as in Gandhi. Together with screenwriter John Briley, Attenborough has woven an intimate portrait of Gandhi’s struggles. The film effectively illustrates the turbulence of Gandhi’s life as he gained both allies and enemies along the way. With echoes of such epic filmmakers as David Lean and William Wyler (Lawrence of Arabia, Ben Hur), the film depicts many historical and deeply personal moments of Gandhi’s life.
Ben Kingsley is terrific in his Oscar-winning performance as Gandhi. The biggest strength of his approach is in how human he paints Gandhi. Neither Briley’s script nor Kingsley’s portrayal makes the mistake of portraying Gandhi as infallible. Instead, he is shown as a complex, flawed man. One such moment is when he enters into a quarrel with his wife “Kasturba” (Rohini Hattangadi) over shared chores in his commune. After Kasturba objects to her assigned task, Gandhi momentarily loses his temper, grabbing Kasturba and threatening to cast her out. When the stunned Kasturba protests, Gandhi is overcome with shame and quickly offers a sincere apology. Such raw, emotional moments keep Gandhi from becoming a run-of-the-mill dramatization. Equally effective are the film’s reenactments of important historical events—particularly a frightening sequence depicting a ruthless 1919 Massacre in the Indian City of Amritsar. British Colonel “Reginald Dwyer” (Edward Fox) orders his troops to fire on a large crowd of peaceful Gandhi followers. Dwyer coldly watches, even as the blood of men, women, and children is spilled. Such difficult, powerful scenes perfectly capture the uphill battle Gandhi faced in his struggle. Ian Charleson, Martin Sheen, John Mills, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Ian Bannen, and Candice Bergen are but a few of the many veteran actors to appear as the various characters Gandhi encountered throughout his life.
In filming this important piece of history, Attenborough pulled out all the stops, assembling an impressive pool of talent. Breathtaking locations are beautifully captured by the cinematography of Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor. The audience is further immersed in the world and time period by the collaborative musical efforts of Ravi Shankar and George Fenton. By all accounts, Gandhi was a labor of love for Attenborough, and I think that is plainly obvious on every single frame. He succeeded in bringing the essence of Gandhi’s timeless message to screen for future generations to see.
CRY FREEDOM (1987) Cry Freedom tells the powerful true story of black South African activist Stephen Biko (Denzel Washington). The founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, Biko was a fierce advocate for equal rights for the largely impoverished native South African population during the height of Apartheid. Biko died in 1977 while in police custody. Donald Woods (Kevin Kline), a white liberal journalist and a friend of Biko’s, was instrumental in exposing the truth about Biko’s death. The “official story” stated that Biko had died of a hunger strike; in reality, Biko died of a head injury at the hands of police. Donald Woods further exposed the numerous injustices conducted by the South African government. Based on Woods’s collected writings, the film chronicles Woods’s and Biko’s friendship, Biko’s death, and Woods’s subsequent plan to flee South Africa after the government begins to target him as well.
Richard Attenborough once again touches on another powerful chapter in world history. When we first meet Donald Woods, comfortably seated behind his editor’s desk at the Daily Dispatch newspaper, he is already a vocal critic of Apartheid. However, it is not until he meets Biko face to face that he begins to fully comprehend the severe cruelty of Apartheid. Whether he realizes it or not, Woods’s life will be forever changed, as he will become entrenched in Biko’s struggles against the segregationist policies of the South African government.
Both leading actors have a very good, believable chemistry, disappearing seamlessly into their roles. Donald Woods (played by Kline) is a man who goes from being merely a sympathizer to a full-fledged activist. After Biko’s tragic death, Woods is emboldened to ensure Biko’s voice is heard worldwide. This comes at a cost, however, as Woods is placed under house arrest by the South African government and his family is repeatedly threatened. For his Academy Award-nominated turn as Biko, Denzel Washington does a wonderful job bringing a brave historical figure to life. Despite a fierce commitment to his cause and being constantly interrogated by the authorities, Biko always remains calm. He is a thinker, first and foremost. When detained and put on trial, he uses words as his ammunition, not violence.
In Cry Freedom, Attenborough has reunited with most of his Gandhi crew. George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa collaborate to create a beautiful orchestral score, with haunting South African roots. Cinematographer Ronnie Taylor impeccably captures gorgeous African locations. Both dramatically and ascetically, Cry Freedom is an artistic triumph. I regret to say that before viewing Cry Freedom, my knowledge of Stephen Biko was minimal, and many people I have spoken to had never heard of him. While Apartheid ended over two decades ago, I urge all to never forget history; we may be doomed to repeat it. To quote Peter Gabriel’s 1980 “Biko” — an incredible anti-apartheid anthem—“You can blow out a candle, but you cannot blow out a fire.” Thankfully, Donald Woods saw to it that Biko and his cause spread like wildfire, and then Richard Attenborough spread the word through his art in making this powerful film.
CHAPLIN (1992) Richard Attenborough entered the 1990s with another amazing biopic, this time profiling one of the silver screen’s early icons: the legendary Charlie Chaplin. Adapted from both Chaplin’s own autobiography and David Robinson’s book, Chaplin: His Life and His Art, the film chronicles Chaplin’s career—as well his personal highs and lows. In his Switzerland mansion, circa the 1960s, elderly Chaplin works through the manuscript of his autobiography with editor George Hayden. Through lengthy flashbacks, the two recount the various chapters of Chaplin’s life. His poverty-stricken childhood in England, his rise to stardom in early Hollywood, his many friendships and romances, and his denial of re-entry to the United States during the McCarthy era are all depicted.
I have heard the theory that directors don’t age well. I challenge anyone who agrees with that statement to view Chaplin immediately. A rich, sentimental and intimate portrait of an artist, Chaplin marks one of Richard Attenborough crowning achievements. A scene that I found particularly moving occurs early in the film. A young (perhaps 5-year-old) Charlie watches as his mentally fragile mother (played by Chaplin’s real-life daughter, Geraldine) gets booed off an English club stage. Moments later, little Charlie resumes his mother’s routine, winning the crowd over. This sequence foreshadows just how talented Chaplin is. While Chaplin is hardly the first film to depict old Hollywood, rarely have I felt so seamlessly transported to the past as in this film. Throughout the film, Attenborough incorporates various storytelling techniques to great effect (wipes, dissolves, even a fast-paced slapstick sequence) to mimic old-time Hollywood. These devices, combined with a wonderful emotional score by the late John Barry, really help to bring the past to life.
After watching two different actors portray Chaplin through his childhood and adolescence, we arrive at our main Chaplin, Robert Downey, Jr. While today’s audiences may primarily think of him as Tony Stark/Iron Man, it is important to remember Downey’s lengthy career prior to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His Academy-Award-nominated turn in Chaplin is a testament to his versatility as an actor. Kudos to the makeup artist who convincingly ages the then 27-year-old Downey from early adulthood into his eighties. However, it is it truly Downey’s performance that sells me. Downey gives us a Chaplin who is not just extraordinarily talented, but also emotionally vulnerable. Chaplin’s dedication to his craft and his well-documented stubbornness often put him at odds with those around him.
A huge supporting cast of actors portrays Chaplin’s various collaborators and friends, including Kevin Kline as fellow silent-film icon Douglas Fairbanks, Dan Aykroyd as movie producer Mack Sennett, Marisa Tomei as actress Mabel Normand, and David Duchovny as Chaplin’s regular cameraman Roland Totheroh. Milla Jovovich, Deborah Moore, and Diane Lane all appear as Charlie’s first three wives. But perhaps most effective is Moira Kelly in a dual role as Hetty, a young performer and Chaplin’s first love in England, and his final spouse Oona O’Neill. She and Downey play very well together. While I am unsure of why Kelly was cast in two roles, I suspect that when Chaplin meets Oona, he sees something in her that reminds him of his long lost first love.
With Chaplin, it is clear that Attenborough had not lost his touch. While the film received criticism for deviating from fact, any retelling of history is open to dramatic interpretation. Whether it is based in fact or not, a good film should tell a rich story with three-dimensional characters, for whom we, the audience, care about. I am happy to say that Chaplin does just that.
MY BOTTOM LINE:
While there are many talented filmmakers in this world, few use their talent to speak about important topics as passionately as Richard Attenborough.
© Jarrod Emerson (12/12/16) FF2 Media