(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
Starring: Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Martin Sheen, Edward Fox, Candice Bergen, John Mills and Trevor Howard
Directed by: Richard Attenborough
Running time: 191 minutes
Year of release: 1982
During an interview for Iron Man 3 (and if you’ve seen that movie you can understand the context), Sir Ben Kingsley talked about how he studied Hitler and Stalin as much as Mahatma Gandhi in preparation for the high water mark of his amazing career. Dictators, he said, always claimed to be men of the people… but you never saw them down among the masses. They stood on podiums surrounded by microphones and yes-men, throwing up barriers and standing high above the crowds. Gandhi didn’t. He walked among his people, lived in their poverty, shared their pain, and felt their hardscrabble path with his own sandaled feet.
That insight proved at least part of why Kingsley’s performance held such power, and revisiting it in the era of Trump can be an overwhelming experience. The film itself easily serves as a whipping boy for the Oscars: stodgy and respectful in a year full of amazing movies that never had a shot at the Academy Awards. But watching it again for the first time in over a decade, I was struck by how little varnishing it needed. With a superb script from John Briley and a strong visual eye conveying the grandeur of India, director Richard Attenborough had all he needed to convey the singular leader’s extraordinary ethos with elegance and dignity.
Of course, the film mostly serves as a fulcrum for Kingsley, whose is-it-live-or-is-it-Memorex turn is arguably the greatest ever put on film. It’s remarkable not only for its evocation of the real man, but for its understanding of his vision. He saw right and wrong with absolute distinction, armed with a lawyer’s understanding of how to codify it and insight into human nature that approached the messianic. His will – his sheer unbreakable desire to do right – found the perfect time and place to manifest, and in so doing showed us what one man of conviction could accomplish.
Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence is justly celebrated, but the movie goes beyond that to demonstrate how he induced an entire nation to embrace his approach. He didn’t suppress his anger at the injustice and suffering around him. He wasn’t blind to the savagery at humanity’s core. He simply channeled it all into a tool of breathtaking moral force, then used it to bring the greatest empire in history to its knees.
The fact that he did it without firing a shot was more than a garnish: it was his secret weapon that made the whole thing work. He demonstrated to his foes not only that they couldn’t beat him or his followers, but that he held the unquestionable moral high ground the entire time. The backbone it took to be hit over and over again and not hit back – the strength that neither broke nor yielded, but literally wore the enemy down through the patience of a mountain – still defies belief. And yet he did it. Not once or twice but again and again until his foes finally cried “uncle.”
The movie aims primarily to demonstrate how such a man could accomplish so much, but also how monumental his task was and how it ultimately claimed his life. For while he sent the British packing, he couldn’t bridge the gap between Hindu and Muslim, in a conflict that continues to this day. The violence that claimed him came in complete opposition to his ethos, but it remains a failing of the larger world, not his.
And through Kingsley’s singular portrayal, he reminds us that death is preferable to cowardice in the face of tangible wrongdoing. He knew there would be a cost and he was ready to pay it. When asked if non-violence could succeed against the likes of Hitler, he responded “Not without defeats, and great pain. But are there no defeats in war? No pain? What you cannot do is accept injustice. From Hitler or anyone. You must make the injustice visible, and be prepared to die like a soldier to do so.”
The film doesn’t shy from the price of that stance, both in personal terms and in the wounded nation he helped free from subjugation. But it also reminds us that inaction carries even more risks: enabling the very injustice that one seeks to avoid. Gandhi held his beliefs as the equal of his very life, and that in and of itself was extraordinary. But as the movie demonstrates, he knew where and when to deploy that strength, and in so doing drew a map for others to follow his example.
This column will feature a number of fictitious figures who display similar courage: whose moral stance is similarly rooted in clear views of right and wrong. But Gandhi was no fabrication, no mythical embodiment of the ideals we all strive for. He lived and died in the real world, and the miracles he worked continue to be felt today. Attenborough achieved so much with this film simply because he knew better than to gild the lily. He simply showed us the man at his best, and encouraged us to listen to the wisdom he embodied.
As a result, Gandhi may be the most heartening film you can watch right now: a beautiful guide to keeping your ethical bearings in the face of adversity and a source of inspiration for anyone feeling the weight of this burned we all carry. Take an evening in the new few weeks and give it another look. (You can rent it or buy it on Amazon.) It will do you a world of good.