If ever a film was machine-tooled to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, it is Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982). It is a fine picture, to be certain, but one is almost forced to consider how it seems to embody the Oscar more than any other film in history. Indeed, were the anglophile Academy to pick a Best Picture of the 20th Century, it probably would choose this one, since all of the éléments de rigueur are in place a knighted English director; the milieu of the British Empire; a gathering of well-heeled British actors in supporting roles (John Gielgud, Edward Fox, Trevor Howard); a couple of rosy-cheeked Hollywood actors for good measure (Candace Bergen, Martin Sheen); a stunning debut performance from a complete unknown (Ben Kingsley); and a pious historical topic to reassure the Oscar-voting community that they are liberal humanists at heart and not a bunch of greedy overpaid two-bit back-stabbing showbiz louts who spend more on houses and cars and agents and lawyers and plastic surgeons than the entire nation of India itself. Yes, Gandhi is good, but in the way that raw vegetables are good, since this is a movie that's intended to be good for you as well. The 3:10 spin essays the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), beginning like David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia with the titular character's sudden, unexpected death and funeral, where the meaning and import of his life is pondered. We then are transported to Gandhi's earliest days as a young lawyer in 19th century South Africa, where he led a political movement to defend the rights of immigrant Indian laborers. In 1915 he returns to India to tackle more political causes (earning the name Mahatma, or "Great Soul"), and eventually he campaigns for India's independence from the British Empire (finally achieved in 1947, just before his assassination). Attenborough warns viewers in the film's opening moments that it cannot be completely historically accurate, and of course it is not, failing to take into account Gandhi's support of the British during the Boer War and World War I, for which he formed ambulance corps, nor does it look at his years of study in London, where he pored over the writings of Thoreau and Ruskin in his spare time. But the key political events in India are covered, including the infamous 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre of more than 1,000 Indians by Gen. Reginald E.H. Dyer (Edward Fox), the Gandhi-led boycott of British textiles, Gandhi's famous walk to the ocean to make salt (which was illegal for citizens to manufacture under the British monopoly), and the eventual civil unrest that developed as the campaign for independence moved forward and exploded when the Muslim state of Pakistan was carved out by the British before their departure.
* * *Gandhi is a film that is in love with its own historical sweep, with location shooting and thousands of extras and, perhaps inevitably, the story cannot help but falter. The first hour or so is genuinely compelling, with the younger Mohandas still trying to create his political philosophy of nonviolent resistance, but a great deal of it is a result of his unwavering tenacity. Simply put, the young Gandhi is rather pig-headed about civil rights, and heroically so. And as he begins to incorporate the egalitarian commune (or "ashram") into his ethical code, it creates a great deal of tension with his traditional wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangady). But the successes of South Africa transform Gandhi, and by the time he returns to India he has become the conscience of the nation. The British represented in Africa by the affable Rev. Charlie Andrews (Ian Charleson) in India are a series of priggish bureaucrats who barely consider the Indians human beings, while Gandhi becomes even more divine, preaching passive non-cooperation and publicly fasting when he wants to make an important point. As history, it's a remarkable story but as a movie, the elder Gandhi is a difficult central character on which to hang a dynamic plot, and before long the growing India-Pakistan conflict takes center stage over the long-suffering Mahatma (it doesn't help to know how the film ends going in either the final scene would be more powerful were it not divulged in the opening moments). What is clear is that, with nine Oscars to Gandhi's credit, Ben Kingsley's statuette for Best Actor was the most richly deserved. It appears that he's doing more channeling than acting and it didn't hurt that Kingsley was unknown to film audiences, working mostly on the London stage before winning the role that made him an international star overnight. Kingsley has appeared in numerous pictures since this one, but it's unlikely he'll ever escape Gandhi's indelible shadow. Columbia TriStar's DVD release features a clean anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a perfect source print, with audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. Features include a 20-minute interview with Ben Kingsley, four vintage newsreels featuring Mahatma Gandhi ("Gandhi Goes to England," "Gandhi's Farewell Talk in Europe," "Mahatma Gandhi Begins Death Fast," and "Gandhi Talks: First Talking Picture Ever Made By India's Famous Leader"), a photo montage on the making of the film, a brief segment of famous Gandhi quotes, the theatrical trailer, and notes. Gold keep-case in a semi-transparent plastic slipcover.