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Gandhi

Gandhi, which director Sir Richard Attenborough planned for 20 years, has finally reached the screen. The 3½ hour film traces the life of Gandhi from his early experiences with racial discrimination in South Africa in the 1890s through his career in India and up to his assassination in 1948. It is a richly textured historical saga such as one seldom sees. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi gives one of the most stunning characterizations in recent film history: he ages with Gandhi, not only his face but his walk and demeanor and manner of speech; here, we feel, is Gandhi the man, not an actor. All the other parts are well played, but they pale into insignificance beside his.

The film appeals more to the intellect than to the emotions, which in this case is not a criticism. One is seldom deeply moved but one watches his career, and along with it a period of history, with rapt fascination. There is not the fire or imagery that a David Lean would have put into such a film; Attenborough has chosen to be self-effacing and let the story tell itself, which in this case is undoubtedly the wisest course. He does not tinker unnecessarily with the historical facts.

What is most interesting in this film is the development of the idea of nonviolent resistance and its long-term effectiveness in ejecting the British from India. "But you can't expect us to just walk out of India!" exclaims the British viceroy (John Mills). "In the end that is what you will do," replies Gandhi. "You will just walk out. One hundred thousand British cannot control 350 million Indians if they refuse to cooperate."

The effectiveness of the strategy is repeatedly demonstrated. When his associates recommend armed resistance, Gandhi says, "Terrorism on one side breeds terrorism on the other. And are these the kind of men we would want to lead us after independence?" When the coldly efficient British general (Edward Fox) guns down a crowd of peaceful demonstrators and an Indian leader comes to Gandhi and says, "Now it's an eye for an eye," Gandhi replies, "An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind." When riots break out against the British, he fasts almost to death until the riots cease out of reverence for him. "I want to change their minds," he says, "not punish them for the weaknesses we all possess."

Yet such strategy is effective only if the leader is so revered that followers of conflicting persuasions will unite to do his will. Had Gandhi not already been accepted as a holy figure, such gestures would have been futile. Moreover, a certain degree of toleration by the British is also presupposed: had they been willing to shoot down resisters by the thousands or if they had suppressed all publicity connected with Gandhi's actions, nonviolent resistance would have been ineffective: in Russia, Gandhi would simply have been taken to the Lubiyanka prison and killed, and no one would have known what happened to him. When Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen) asks in the movie, "Would passive resistance stop Hitler?" Gandhi replies, "In the end, but only after much pain." But against huge massed armies and tanks and atomic bombs, one wonders whether the technique of nonviolent resistance, ultimately so effective in India, would work.

It is the main virtue of Attenborough's film that it succeeds in recreating for us a period of history in which the plausibility of nonviolent resistance is not only tested but is victorious. The term thought-provoking can be applied to very few films, but it can be applied generously to this one. For that reason, if for no other, it should not be missed.

The Verdict

Films bearing the directorial trademark of Sidney Lumet are always cause for anticipation. His stories deal with important social issues, usually involving injustice. His characterizations are solid, realistic, complex. He deals with moral problems to which there is no easy solution, and by presenting them in all their real-life complexity, he makes us see both sides of every issue he treats. His direction is always taut, focused, propulsive. Even the smallest parts are cast so well that one feels that nobody but the actor who takes them could possibly have done as well in the role.

His latest film, The Verdict, is no exception. Though not as chillingly suspenseful as his Twelve Angry Men, which takes place entirely in a jury room (about half of The Verdict occurs in a courtroom), it is totally absorbing. Though the complexity of the main character is not as deeply probed as in his 1981 film Pride of the City, the story line is more direct and easier to follow. Lumet's usual locale is New York City; this time it has moved to Boston. An alcoholic has-been lawyer desperately needs the money but refuses a bribe from the Catholic Church that is offered in exchange for his keeping out of court a case in which two physicians at the Catholic hospital have turned a patient into a vegetable by administering the wrong anesthetic. Paul Newman as the lawyer has his juiciest acting role in years, as does James Mason as the smooth, unflappable, and totally amoral attorney for the Church. There are some questionable legal points passed over in the film (why shouldn't a xerox copy be acceptable in court when there is evidence that the original has been tampered with?), but the corruption in both the medical and the legal professions—not to mention the ecclesiastical—is brought home with great dramatic force. Lumet's achievement is, as usual, one of the best films of the year.

John Hospers is the author of Understanding the Arts. He teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California.

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