Posts Tagged ‘Richard Attenborough’

Well, let’s boldly launch ourselves into a new occasional feature which I have decided to entitle Flaunt Your Ignorance, in which I go rather off the beaten track of new films of all kinds and old (mostly) genre movies, and plunge into areas of cinema with which I am not nearly as familiar as I occasionally affect to be. I can speak at quite nauseating length about the defining characteristics and charms of the British portmanteau horror movie, as we saw just the other day, but there are great swathes of the cinematic landscape with which I am only very vaguely familiar. Continental European cinema, for instance, is a bit of a closed book to me; as are most Asian films not concerned with martial arts, samurai, or towering monsters. The best I can do is drop the names of directors like Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu, and Satyajit Ray in an attempt to obscure my own lack of knowledge.

I am pretty sure this is just not acceptable. However, with the Phoenix in Oxford being closed for renovation yet again (fingers crossed they finally get the rake in Screen Two right), I have been looking slightly further afield than usual for movies to watch on a weekend afternoon, and it turned out the rather-optimistically-named Ultimate Picture Palace was showing a revival of Ray’s The Chess Players (original title: Shatranj Ke Khilari), from 1977. Now, all I could definitely have told you about Ray’s work prior to this is that he made some films about someone called Apu (perhaps buried somewhere in my subconscious was the fact he claimed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was ripped-off from one of his unmade scripts), but I did know he is acclaimed as one of the world masters of cinema. So along I went.

The film is set in India in 1856. The Muslim state of Oudh (also known as Awadh) has managed to hang onto its independence, despite the dominance in sub-continental affairs of the British East India Company (at this point in history the British government were effectively sub-contracting the running of much of their empire). However, this is about to change, with the local Resident, General Outram (Richard Attenborough), affecting to be so unimpressed by the devout yet hedonistic king of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan), that he concludes the only responsible thing to do is for the Company to take over the running of the state. Cue much power-politics and many barely-disguised threats of the might of the British army.

Running parallel to all this, on the other hand, is the story of Mir (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mirza (Sanjeev Kumar), two well-off gents who have allowed themselves to become obsessed with playing each other at chess (strictly speaking, shatranj, an ancestral form of the game native to India). The two men play each other all day long, oblivious to everything else around them – Mirza’s wife feels so neglected she hides his chess pieces, while Mir’s spouse encourages his fixation, as it allows her to play about with another man. Neither of them notices the looming political crisis until it is much too late…

Well, here’s the thing: Anglo-Indian relations have left a profound mark on British culture, which is reflected in the fact that we can’t seem to stop making films about the country. Even now, multiplex cinemas are clogged up with Victoria and Abdul, a heartwarming tale of something-or-other which looks from the trailer to be rather like Downton Abbey with added turbans, while earlier this year there was Viceroy’s House, an equally soft-centred take on the partition of India. In recent years there have also been the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, and of course Slumdog Millionaire. I would suggest that only the last of these offers anything resembling a genuinely Indian perspective, and it’s obviously a very contemporary film. So it’s interesting, to say the least, to see a film from an Indian director about the British occupation of his country.

The first thing to say about watching The Chess Players on the big screen is that allowances had to be made: the film is forty years old, it seemed rather like the print we were watching hailed from the late 1970s, too: it was grainy and scratched, with weirdly tinted sections and a slightly crackly soundtrack. It was rather curious to watch a film made in the old Academy aspect ratio, too. The danger, of course, is that all this stuff just gets in the way of the film.

However, this does not quite happen. This is quite a leisurely and thoughtful film, by modern standards anyway, but never too dry or heavy to be watchable. Ray balances the two elements of the storyline well, so that any contrasts of tone are minimal – the story of Mir and Mirza is often played as a gentle comedy, to begin with at least, while the storyline about Oudram and the King is much more serious, and even somewhat tragic. Richard Attenborough, who you might expect to be at least a little out of his comfort zone, is quite as good as you might expect as one of the British imperialists who seems to genuinely believe in the morality of taking over other countries for their own good. Some of the king’s scenes, in which he bewails his lot and (almost literally) beats his breast about his misfortunes, go on a bit, but there is also some singing and dancing here, and no-one does a musical interlude quite like Indian film-makers do.

It’s also notable that the political storyline features a British officer who has learned to speak fluent Urdu and is clearly well-versed in local arts and poetry – it’s also implied he is considered a little suspect for being rather too fond of the local culture, and not loyal enough to the Company. The Chess Players is not soft on the British, being quite clear about the unprincipled avarice which led to imperial dominance in India, but it reserves most of its criticism for the local nobility who sat back and let it happen. This is the central metaphor and irony of the film – Mir and Mirza aspire to be great generals and tacticians, but are so consumed by this that they end up being worse than useless in the actual political struggle going on around them. British control of India, the film seems to suggest, was to at least some extent a shameful self-inflicted wound. (The film concludes symbolically, with Mir and Mirza abandoning shatranj in favour of traditional European chess, in which – of course – the queen is dominant.)

It’s hard to imagine a film by a British director based around such a message, but then it’s almost impossible to imagine a British director making a film about the circumstances in which we ended up running India: it’s one of those things that mainstream culture in the UK is almost too ashamed to talk about. This is an interesting and quietly entertaining take on the topic, and one I’m glad I saw, even if it isn’t your stereotypical Bollywood movie. Hmm: I should think about seeing one of those as well, I suppose…

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There comes a time in every film reviewer’s life when he realises that, having set out to write a series on notable musicals from years gone by, the films actually at his disposal are not exactly a representative bunch: tending towards darkness in their tone, arguably Euro-centric, and mostly hailing from a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s. What can I say? The Sound of Music isn’t on Netflix, and anyway, that one’s about the Anschluss and has nearly as many Nazis in it as Cabaret.

Let’s briefly step away from musicals about the rise of authoritarianism and the insidious creep of prejudice and move on to the lighter subject of… oh. The First World War. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb. Oh! What a Lovely War was made in 1969, directed by Richard Attenborough (his first time in the big chair) and, nearly as interestingly, produced and written by the noted novelist and chef Len Deighton. The project began as a stage production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, and the theatrical origins of the film are fairly apparent to the discerning viewer.


The film’s main conceit is to present the First World War (or, as it’s slightly jarringly described here, World War One) as a sea-side attraction on a pier in Brighton. Field Marshal Haig (John Mills) is manning the turnstyle, handing out tickets to the families eagerly crowding in, most prominently the Smiths, who are the main points of audience identification. Within the pavilion on the pier, more distinguished figures gather – initially heads of state and foreign ministers, later the senior staff of the army.

Initially the tone is cheery and playful, no doubt intended to reflect the enormous public enthusiasm for the war during its early stages, but as the initial battles occur the film grows darker and more sombre, as it continues to do throughout the film. We are surely all aware of the grim progress of the war: a labyrinth of trenches stretching from the Alps to the coast, and slaughter on an almost industrial scale as the commanders settled on a policy of victory through attrition.

So, you may possibly be wondering, where are all the songs? Well, they are present, but one of the things that makes Oh! What a Lovely War a bit of an outlier as musicals go is the fact that it is mainly built around period songs – the popular music of the war itself, with numbers like ‘Who put the Kibosh on the Kaiser?’, ‘The Bells of Hell go Ding-a-ling’ and ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’. These are not the stuff of conventional musical theatre – they’re not strictly speaking ‘I am’ or ‘I want’ songs as they are conventionally understood, and their role in the film is equally ambiguous. They’re not exactly there solely to create atmosphere, but neither do they really advance the plot much.

Not that there really is much of a plot, of course, just a series of vignettes, some strikingly naturalistic, others surreal, detailing the course of the war. One consequence of this is that the Smith family, whom we are supposed to identify with, never quite come to life as people despite being portrayed by some very fine actors (Maurice Roeves, Angela Thorne and Corin Redgrave amongst them).

Rather more striking are the film’s cutaway scenes, generally surreal, featuring other characters – and here Richard Attenborough was clearly able to call upon all his resources as a fixer and a movie star in his own right, for the cast list of this movie is virtually a who’s who of great British actors of the period. The only major performer who seems to have eluded his net is Alec Guinness – the opening scene alone features Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Kenneth More, Ian Holm, and Jack Hawkins. Appearing elsewhere are Laurence Olivier, Dirk Bogarde, Susannah York, most of the rest of the Redgrave family, and Maggie Smith (vamping it up a bit as a music hall singer). Apparently, Attenborough managed to secure his stellar cast after Olivier agreed to work ‘to scale’ (i.e., for the minimum actor’s union wage), effectively obliging all of his peers to do the same.

These days the prevailing narrative of the First World War is well-established – four years of mud, blood, and futility, the death-spasm of the great empires of the 18th and 19th centuries, with clueless soldiers massacred by unfeeling, remote generals. I was about to say that Oh! What a Lovely War adheres quite closely to this view, but then I wonder if it didn’t to some extent embed it in the public consciousness? It is an extremely vivid and powerful piece of film-making, especially in its fantasy sequences. It is eviscerating as far as the generals and upper classes are concerned, but never less than profoundly sympathetic to the lower classes. Jeremy Paxman and others have argued that this line of thinking is a disservice to history and the people involved in the war, but it’s a tough fable to shift, especially when it’s promoted as effectively as happens here.

(And, unfortunately, still resonant in some ways: one sequence has Sylvia Pankhurst addressing a working-class crowd, speaking out in favour of ending the war, doing so in an educated, progressive manner. And, of course, the crowd turns on her, repelled by her arrogance and condescension and perceived lack of patriotism. It occurred to me you could change the words, but the tunes would still serve very well for a film about the British vote to leave Europe, or the rise to power of Trump.)

For a downbeat film with not very much in the way of characters or genuine plot, Oh! What a Lovely War is arguably rather too long at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but it does contain many moments of brilliant cinematic invention, and some extremely powerful images – the final shot, a zoom out by the camera to reveal a seemingly-endless field of crosses, each one marking a grave (I believe 15,000 were used, and this was done as a practical effect) is haunting. Probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, but still a powerful and important movie.

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