How do you sum up a life and career as successful and enduring as Richard Attenborough’s? With over 60 years in the film industry, a knighthood and a peerage, his life seemingly could speak for itself. In addition to his contributions to the movies, he’ll also be remembered for his charity work, particularly in the fight against muscular dystrophy and as an advocate for education. But for us film buffs, we’ll honor him for his excellent work on the big screen, whether in front of the camera or behind it.
Richard Attenborough’s career is largely divided into three periods/sections, each with its own distinct style. He started his acting career in the 1940s, though he didn’t rise to prominence until the 1960s. And while he featured in many great films in that era, including Doctor Dolittle and The Flight of the Phoenix (I’ve always personally had a soft spot for The Sand Pebbles), his biggest role was of course The Great Escape. In many ways, his role in the film as Bartlett, the leader of the escape plan, was the glue that held the film together. In many ways, the movie is full of isolated stories of individual characters, whether the relationship between James Garner and Donald Pleasence, or Charles Bronson and his claustrophobia, or Steve McQueen versus the entire German military. Comparitavely, Bartlett has little in the way of character development, but he makes up for that by tying these separate story threads together. Yet he still manages to make an impact on his own, in a large part because of his ability to mesh so well with a wide variety of actors and styles. So few actors could hold the screen opposite McQueen, Garner, and the others, but Attenborough does so and manages to make an impression with the audience while doing so. He comes off in the film as a generous actor, content to not have the flashy role and cede the spotlight to others, but he still shines in it all these years later.
The middle part of Attenborough’s career is mostly defined by his contributions behind the camera. While Chaplin and Cry Freedom are certainly noteworthy, the highlight of his directing career has to be Gandhi. The 1982 film, starring Ben Kingsley in his own career-defining performance, has faded some from prominence over the last 30 years, despite winning eight Oscars, including two for Attenborough, Best Picture and Best Director. Kingsley’s performance is still remembered fondly, but the film itself isn’t as widely praised, in part because it is a very straightforward and rather glowing biopic. However, to simply write it off as such is to do an injustice to Attenborough’s work. He directed the film (and all of his films) in a style that is intentionally unflashy, allowing the work of the actors to shine through (a skill most frequently found among actors turned directors). But the most impressive aspect of Gandhi is the amazing scale, both emotional and literal, of the story being told. The project was a work of passion of Attenborough, and it took an extraordinary amount of vision and skill to bring the film off successfully. Few directors could balance an intimate study of a remarkable man with the effort and logistics of directing scenes featuring 300,000 extras (the funeral scene holds the record for the largest cast of extras in film history). It’s easy to write off his directorial talents because he chose to let the talents of others shine through, something that fit perfectly with his acting style.
For those of my generation, however, his most memorable role was as John Hammond in Jurassic Park. The film stands out among his later work not only because it was such a hit, but because of the quality of his performance. The film’s visual effects are still some of the most impressive of all time, but what has given it such staying power and an iconic status after twenty years are it’s characters, and none are more important than John Hammond. Hammond could so easily have been the film’s villain, an investor with no conscience, unconcerned with the consequences of his actions. But Attenborough turns him into a visionary, who made mistakes not because he didn’t care who got hurt but because he was blinded by his dream. You can see this in his masterful scene with Laura Dern, where they discuss the park over melting ice cream. He tells the story of his flea circus, an excellent bit of showmanship that was hollow. With Jurassic Park he wanted to create something real, not just an illusion, “something not devoid of merit.” You can tell as he delivers his speech that so much of his self worth is tied up in this dream, as a way to convince himself that his vision has meaning. Yet as the film goes on he realizes that the things he has created have intrinsic value and are not simply worthwhile because of how he is able to sell them to others. As Ian Malcolm tells him in the sequel, The Lost World, as he has now devoted himself to protecting his creations in their natural habitat, “You went from capitalist to naturalist in just four years.” In many ways, Jurassic Park is about Hammond’s journey, and it takes a special actor to be able both to stand out from such a remarkable film but also to do his best to help others to shine. Thirty years after The Great Escape he was still showing how well he could mesh with a variety of styles, able to hold the screen both with Jeff Goldblum’s crazy mathematician and Laura Dern’s fiery paleobotanist, not to mention Wayne Knight and Samuel L. Jackson.
If I was forced to describe Richard Attenborough’s style as an artist I would say he always showed generosity of spirit. He had immense talent, but whether in his acting or directing he always allowed others the room to shine. It’s the sort of attitude that seems almost foreign among today’s sensibilities, but it’s something modern artists would be wise to emulate. That sort of generosity allows the best film possible to shine through, setting ego aside for the greatest good. Richard Attenborough left a lifetime of work both for study and our enjoyment, with many classics both in front of and behind the camera, and I’d recommend anyone unfamiliar with his work to seek his films out as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed.