After spending several decades working as a character actor, Richard Attenborough (born 1923) gained worldwide recognition when he won an Oscar as best director for the motion picture Gandhi, which he also produced. In all, this labor of love, detailing the life of India's great spiritual leader, won eight Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor.
Attenborough's career in the arts dates back to the early 1940s when-after winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art-he appeared in productions of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! and Noel Coward's wartime drama In Which We Serve. After parting from the academy in 1942, Attenborough played in a broad range of West End productions and acted in several films before embarking on his acclaimed profession as a director.
From Cambridge to the Theater
Richard Samuel Attenborough, the oldest of three sons, was born August 29, 1923, to Frederick Levi and Mary Clegg Attenborough. He was raised in a family atmosphere of egalitarian ethics and common sense values. This was reflected in the actions of Attenborough's parents, who, in 1939, adopted two young Jewish girls who were refugees from Germany. His parents' actions made a strong impact on Attenborough, who subsequently led a life that emphasized goodwill to others in his art and everyday life.
Barely in his teens, Attenborough announced his desire to become an actor. He did some acting while a pupil at Wyggeston Grammar School for Boys in Leicester, as well as at the Leicester Little Theatre. In 1940, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London on a competitive scholarship. Two years later, he won the school's Bancroft Medal for fine acting. By then he had made his first stage and screen appearances, in Ah, Wilderness! and In Which We Serve, respectively.
As it did for many young men, World War II interrupted Attenborough's budding career. After making his stage debut in London's West End in Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing and appearing in several other roles, he joined the Royal Air Force in 1943 and flew film reconnaissance missions over Germany. In 1945 he married actress Sheila Sim (they have three children, Jane, Charlotte, and Michael). After Attenborough's discharge from the RAF in 1946, he signed a contract with the motion picture team of John and Ray Boulting. Although Attenborough appeared in a number of films, his career in that medium seemed limited. He did, however, have some success on the stage, especially in The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie's perpetually running murder mystery in London.
Actor Turns Director
Determined to bring himself better film roles by developing his own productions, Attenborough teamed with screenwriter and director Bryan Forbes to form Beaver Films in 1959. The next year the duo completed The Angry Silence, a grim drama featuring Attenborough as an industrial laborer who refused to cooperate when his coworkers strike. With its somber, unflinching depiction of British working-class life, The Angry Silence won acclaim as one of the year's better pictures, and it earned Attenborough renewed consideration as a proficient screen performer.
After expanding their partnership to form Allied Film Makers, Attenborough went on to distinguish himself in a range of productions, from comedy to drama, thrillers to wartime sagas. Considered to be among his best roles of the 1960s is that of a beleaguered husband in the unsettling thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon. For his performance in this 1964 film, he won a British Academy Award for best actor. He also made a distinct impression in a pair of ambitious Hollywood productions: director Robert Aldrich's Flight of the Phoenix, which featured Attenborough as the alcoholic navigator of a military aircraft downed in the Sahara; and director Robert Wise's The Sand Pebbles, a somber epic in which Attenborough won a Golden Globe Award for his portrayal of a sailor whose interracial love affair ends tragically in 1920s China.
In 1969 Attenborough made his directorial debut with the ambitious Oh! What a Lovely War, a fantastical series of vignettes related to World War I. This film, adapted from Joan Littlewood's stage musical, featured a vast array of notable British performers-including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Susannah York, Ralph Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, and Dirk Bogarde. It was roundly hailed as an impressive first effort and subsequently won the Golden Globe for best English-language foreign film of that year.
Attenborough next directed Young Winston, a lengthy account of former British prime minister Winston Churchill's life from his schooldays to his first election to Parliament. Especially impressive in this film is Attenborough's handling of battle sequences, which were generally considered by critics to be exhilarating and breathtaking. Notable, too, were the performances executed by Anne Bancroft, Robert Shaw, Ian Holm, Anthony Hopkins, Jane Seymour, and-as Churchill-Simon Ward.
With his first two works as director Attenborough had proved himself capable of handling both the logistics of epic storytelling and the coordination of sizeable, star-studded casts. In his following film, A Bridge Too Far, he again attempted a narrative of considerable scope-recounting the disastrous Allied assault at Arnheim, Holland, a German stronghold during World War II. Some reviewers lamented that the film was greater in its parts than in its entirety, and some found it dull and contrived. But Newsweek's Jack Kroll contended that the film had "its own power and impact." Lauding Attenborough as "a fine director," Kroll declared: "In only his third directorial effort, Attenborough … has done an excellent job of weaving a strong, clear and often moving tapestry of a thousand details. He deserves great credit for the intelligence and integrity of this film."
Attenborough's next venture was the horror story Magic, featuring Anthony Hopkins as a deranged ventriloquist committing murder at the imagined behest of his profane dummy. Among the film's many detractors was New Yorker's Pauline Kael, who complained that William Goldman's script lacked polish and Attenborough's direction lacked complexity. "The director … grinds along so seriously that there's no suspense, no ambiguity," she wrote.
The Gandhi Obsession
Next, Attenborough turned his attention to a project with which he had been obsessed since 1962-bringing the life of Indian leader Mahatma Mohandas K. Gandhi to the screen. That year Attenborough had received a copy of Louis Fischer's biography of the famous Indian nationalist and spiritual leader and aspired to film the story. The idea of making a film about the pacifist leader proved easier than the actual task. Attenborough went through years of meeting with Indian government officials, attempting to iron out the logistic and legal matters needed for the production's commencement. Along the way he took numerous acting and directing jobs, all to fund the Gandhi film. And, Attenborough's involvement with both A Bridge Too Far and Magic were predicated on the agreement that, for directing those films, he would get a green light for Gandhi from producer Joe Levine who owned the rights to the material. Levine eventually reneged on the agreement, and Attenborough was forced to buy the rights from the producer. Finally, after years of struggle and numerous script attempts, Attenborough was ready to begin filming in the late 1970s.
Gandhi became the film that defined Attenborough's career, nearly eclipsing his work as an actor. The epic traces the Indian nationalist's life from his early activism in 1890s South Africa through his ascent to power in India and his assassination five decades later. Memorable sequences included the 1919 Amritsar massacre, in which innocent Indians were fired upon by British troops; Gandhi's calm exposition of nonviolent resistance before a group of reactionary Indians; his two-hundred-mile protest march to the sea; and his starvation protest against British occupation in India. In the scene depicting Gandhi's funeral procession, Attenborough utilized some three hundred thousand extras to line the streets. In a moment of unplanned synchronicity, the crew shot the funeral scene on January 31, 1981, exactly thirty-three years to the day of Gandhi's actual funeral.
Upon release in 1982, Gandhi won acclaim as a powerful inspiring film. Among its many supporters was Newsweek's Kroll, who hailed its "mixture of high intelligence and immediate emotional impact." Kroll accorded special recognition to John Briley's screenplay and to Ben Kingsley's performance as Gandhi. But he reserved greatest praise for Attenborough's skillful direction and for his twenty-year perseverance on the project. "It's hard to decide what is more miraculous," Kroll wrote, "the fact that [Attenborough] actually made the film or the fact that it's turned out so fresh, so electric, so moving." Citing the film's production values as "impeccable," New Statesman reviewer John Coleman cited Gandhi as an example of "sterling craftsmanship."
In 1985 Attenborough directed A Chorus Line, the film version of Michael Bennett's hugely popular behind-the-scenes musical constructed as a series of auditions. He also published a book on the making of the film. Ralph Novak, writing in People, called Attenborough's book, Richard Attenborough's Chorus Line, "far more to the point than the movie it comes from." Although reviewers found the film well cast and technically impressive, they generally agreed that it failed to match the energy and intensity of the stage version.
Attenbourough next directed Cry Freedom, an account, by Gandhi screenwriter John Briley, of prize-winning reporter Donald Woods' observations and experiences in South Africa's system of apartheid. Apartheid was a network of laws set up by the white ruling minority of South Africa to effectively separate blacks and whites, but the majority of blacks saw the laws as thinly veiled slavery and outright discrimination in an economic, racial, and humane sense. The film begins by depicting the growing friendship between Woods, a white liberal journalist, and Steven Biko, a charismatic community leader and anti-apartheid activist. Through their relationship, Woods learns of the true ravages that apartheid forces upon the black community. When Biko is taken prisoner by South African security forces, he is brutally beaten and dies in prison. Woods sees his friend's battered body and realizes that the government's claims that Biko died from a hunger strike are lies. The film follows his efforts to publicize Biko's untimely demise. For his involvement with the anti-apartheid activist, Woods is banned from publishing in South Africa and he eventually flees the country. New Statesman reviewer Judith Williamson, while acknowledging that Cry Freedom is imperfect, affirmed that it is "a powerful film; far more political than it needed to be," and she deemed it "an impressive example both of the strengths of a liberal mainstream cinema, and of its limitations-and of the strange way in which these are bound together." David Denby, writing in New York, averred, "In many ways, Cry Freedom is a major event in the history of liberal agitation."
Since Cry Freedom Attenbourough has directed Chaplin (1992), Shadowlands (1993) and In Love and War (1996). He also played John Harmond in Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequel Lost World and Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1994).
In accordance with the values he learned from his parents, Attenborough also sought to extend himself in terms beyond the artistic. He has won substantial recognition for his lifelong humanitarian concerns. He has long been involved in a range of charities and has worked in an administrative capacity for various institutions and organizations. In addition, he has donated his personal services to numerous philanthropic enterprises, and he has long been a force in Britain's charitable fundraising endeavors. For such work, he has received many honors, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize and India's Padma Bhushan.
Attenborough's work as an actor, and particularly as a director, is considered by many to be invaluable to modern cinema. Observers view his foray into production, to secure better roles for himself, as influential to many contemporary actors such as Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, and Goldie Hawn. Attenborough's success as an actor is seen as paving the way for his work as an important director. His understanding of acting techniques allows him to relate to his actors and thus draw exemplary performances from them. He is also credited with bringing a level of social consciousness on subjects such as war, pacifism, and apartheid to a large audience. In describing his impetus to bring the story of Mahatma Gandhi to the masses, Attenborough told an interviewer from the New York Daily News: "Not being able to cope very happily with many of the formalities and constraints of organized religion that in many instances result in the most monstrous examples of man's inhumanity to man, I found it an enormous relief to come across someone who said, 'I am a Hindu and a Christian and a Muslim and a Jew and so are all of you'-meaning that if God is truth, then that is what we are seeking and the manner in which we find truth is to some degree an irrelevancy."
Further Reading on Richard Samuel Attenborough
Attenborough, Richard, In Search of Gandhi, New Century, 1982.
Film Encyclopedia, Harper, 1990.
Entertainment Weekly, September 6, 1996.
New Statesman, December 3, 1982; December 4, 1987.
Newsweek, June 20, 1977; November 13, 1978; December 13, 1982; December 30, 1985.
New York, December 11, 1978; September 21, 1987; November 16, 1987.
New York Daily News, December 4, 1982.
New Yorker, June 20, 1977; November 30, 1987.
People, March 10, 1986.