Movies
3:06 pm
Mon August 25, 2014

Director Richard Attenborough Brought Intimacy To Big Ideas

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 6:53 pm

When Steven Spielberg was looking for someone who could make dinosaurs seem plausible in Jurassic Park, he asked fellow filmmaker Richard Attenborough to do something he hadn't done in almost 14 years: act. Plenty of performers could look at green screens and convey a sense of wonder. What Attenborough could do while playing the owner of Jurassic Park, figured Spielberg, was flesh out the bigger picture — the why. And when he did, it sounded almost as if he was stating the filmmaking credo he'd lived by all his life.

"I wanted to show them something that wasn't an illusion," Attenborough's park owner tells Laura Dern, as his dream comes crashing down around them. "Something that was real ... something they could see and touch."

That is more or less what Attenborough had been doing for five decades at that point, ever since 1947, when he was so persuasive in a British film noir called Brighton Rock that he risked being typecast as a thug when he played a baby-faced but coldblooded teenager who killed his friends as casually as he killed his enemies.

If raising goose flesh was what Attenborough did at the start of his acting career, raising consciousness was his aim once he stepped behind the camera. He personalized cautionary tales in Oh! What A Lovely War and A Bridge Too Far, his epic about military miscalculation.

And he spent 20 years and all of his personal fortune, even mortgaging his house, in a struggle to bring a story about nonviolence to the screen. It was a story Hollywood was convinced would never sell, about how the British empire was brought virtually to its knees by a frail wisp of a man named Gandhi who employed passive resistance and hunger strikes to demand "that the fighting will stop."

That plea was echoed five years later in Cry Freedom, when Attenborough engaged audiences in the struggle against apartheid by concentrating his story on the words and personality of South African activist Steve Biko.

When Attenborough tackled less weighty subjects, the fire sometimes went out of his filmmaking. His movies Chaplin and A Chorus Line didn't connect with audiences. Shadowlands did, although it was arguably a tougher sell — a story of cancer and Christian theology that briefly turned Oxford academic C.S. Lewis into a matinee idol, mostly because Lewis had big ideas

And big ideas were what fired the imagination of Richard Attenborough — ideas that he could turn into something an audience could see and touch.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The filmmaker Richard Attenborough took on big subjects - South African apartheid in his drama "Cry Freedom," the struggle for Indian independence in his Oscar-winner, "Gandhi." Attenborough died last night, at the age of 90. And what he gave those films, says critic Bob Mondello, was intimacy on an epic scale.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When Steven Spielberg was looking for someone who could make dinosaurs seem plausible in "Jurassic Park," he asked fellow filmmaker Richard Attenborough to do something he hadn't done in almost 14 years - act. Plenty of performers could look at green screens and convey a sense of wonder. What Attenborough could do, playing the owner of Jurassic Park, was flesh out the bigger picture - the why. And when he did, it sounded almost as if he was stating the filmmaking credo he'd lived by all his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JURASSIC PARK")

RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH: I wanted to show them something that wasn't an illusion. Something that was real. Something that they could see and touch.

MONDELLO: That is more or less what Attenborough had been doing for five decades at that point - ever since 1947, when he was so persuasive in a British film noir called "Brighton Rock," that he risked being typecast as a thug. He played a baby-faced but cold-blooded teenager who killed his friends as casually as he killed his enemies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIGHTON ROCK")

ATTENBOROUGH: These banisters have needed amending for a long while. It's a good thing we have a nice, respectable lawyer like you on the spot, who saw the accident.

MONDELLO: If raising goose flesh was what Attenborough did at the start of his acting career, raising consciousness was his aim once he stepped behind the camera. He personalized cautionary tales in "Oh What A Lovely War" and his epic about military miscalculation, "A Bridge Too Far." And he spent 20 years and all of his personal fortune struggling to bring a story about nonviolence to the screen, a story Hollywood was convinced would never sell, about how the British Empire was brought virtually to its knees...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GANDHI")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What do you want?

MONDELLO: By a frail wisp of a man, named Gandhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GANDHI")

BEN KINGSLEY: That the fighting will stop; that you make me believe that it will never start again.

MONDELLO: That plea was echoed in "Cry Freedom," where Attenborough engaged audiences in the struggle against South African apartheid, with the words and the personality of activist Steve Biko.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRY FREEDOM")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Steve Biko) We demand confrontation.

IAN RICHARDSON: (As State Prosecutor) Isn't that a demand for violence?

D. WASHINGTON: (As Steve Biko) Well, you and I are now in confrontation. But I see no violence.

MONDELLO: When Attenborough tackled less weighty subjects, the fire sometimes went out of his filmmaking. His movies, "Chaplin" and "A Chorus Line" did not connect with audiences.

"Shadowlands" did, although it was arguably a tougher sell, a story of cancer and Christian theology that briefly turned Oxford academic C.S. Lewis into a matinee idol - mostly because Lewis had big ideas and big ideas were what fired the imagination of Richard Attenborough. Ideas that he could turn into something an audience could see and touch.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.