Richard Attenborough has long been recognised as a significant figure in British cinema history and film culture. After his screen debut in the war-time film In Which We Serve, Attenborough's cinema career developed through acting and later through producing and directing to become one of the industry's most renowned figures. Concentrating on his work behind the camera, this book explores his initial role as a producer, including his partnerships with Bryan Forbes in Beaver Films and with Allied Film Makers. Attenborough's own belief and affection for the genre has arguably been responsible for establishing the biopic within the pantheon of recent British cinema. Thus Young Winston captures elements from the action and historical genres, Gandhi and Chaplin from the political and historical, and Cry Freedom the political and action film. Shadowlands combines the heritage, historical and romance, In Love and War the historical, romance and war and Grey Owl the historical and nature/conservation film. A similar fusion of genres can be detected in Attenborough's two war films which both offer an anti-war revisionist perspective. Oh! What a Lovely War merges the historical and action genres, while A Bridge Too Far, in contrast, is a serious and vivid portrayal of war merging with the historical and action genres. Closing the Ring, although based on a true story, merges fiction and reality within a romantic setting.
Richard Attenborough has long been recognised as a significant figure in British cinema history and film culture. After his screen debut in the war-time film In Which We Serve, Attenborough's cinema career developed through acting and later through producing and directing to become one of the industry's most renowned figures. Attenborough's entry into production stemmed from a desire to make films that had purpose and social relevance. Despite his artistic background, Attenborough's films with the exception of Oh! What a Lovely War, cannot be described as innovative in style. While Oh! What a Lovely War and Shadowlands have also been popular successes, others have been either nominated or have received national or international awards. Attenborough's influence has also been nationally recognised through his being officially honoured three times, initially as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE), then knighted and finally ennobled for his contributions.
Richard Attenborough's first appearance in the cinema, in the Noel Coward and David Lean co-directed production, In Which We Serve, was one that went almost unnoticed. Attenborough's acting career was significantly affected and also influenced by the Second World War. Attenborough's acting career was given a further boost when he reinstated his relationship with the John Boulting brothers in 1956. Unlike many of their contemporaries, the Boultings flourished in the 1950s, especially with their satirical comedies which poked fun at certain British institutions. In reviewing Private's Progress, which satirised the army, the Monthly Film Bulletin welcomed the 'general irreverence of the film' and considered that Attenborough, along with Terry-Thomas and Kenneth Griffith, all played 'clever character sketches'. Attenborough's original character, Private Sidney Cox, is elevated to the grander-sounding Sidney de Vere Cox, the change reflecting the higher status the character achieved in his post-war career in industry.
The start of Richard Attenborough's career as a filmmaker began during the 1950s, a decade which was his most prolific as an actor but one in which the British cinema entered a period of stagnation. The sharing of his concerns with fellow actor Bryan Forbes resulted in their decision to take control over their films by forming their own production company, Beaver Films. By employing Attenborough's financial acumen and Forbes's writing ability they combined their individual talents to form a creative production team with Beaver Films and later, as part of the independent production company, Allied Film Makers (AFM). The concept of Beaver Films originated during an enforced break in the filming of Sea of Sand caused by a sandstorm in the Libyan desert. Attenborough's association with Beaver Films and AFM was sufficient to establish him as a leading producer of the time.
Oh! What a Lovely War is Richard Attenborough's most innovative film and one of his finest productions. The film is notable for its stylised scenes and a cast that included the elite of British theatre, giving it a significant cachet. At the time of release there were adverse comments through a polemical review and critique from Alan Lovell in the Brighton Film Review. Oh! What a Lovely War is based on the musical stage play Oh What a Lovely War! produced by Joan Littlewood for the Theatre Workshop Company first performed in 1963. The film explores the First World War in a vivid and impressionistic portrayal which is presented through a mixture of quasi-reality and fantasy. King and Country shares a complex narrative structure with Oh! What a Lovely War by attempting to show a distinction between the higher officers and the lower officers.
Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977) and Magic
In the 1970s Richard Attenborough consolidated his move into directing by completing three films, all different in style and subject. Two were British productions: Young Winston, a portrayal of Winston Churchill's early life, and A Bridge Too Far, a re-enactment of the Battle of Arnhem, a significant Allied defeat of the Second World War. Both films are notable for their high production values, stellar casts and complex narratives. They also demonstrate Attenborough's development as a director both in his skilful control of epic sequences and his subtle approach to human interaction. The third film, Magic, a contemporary thriller, is distinct by being both a fictional story, significantly smaller. The critical success of Oh! What a Lovely War had highlighted Attenborough as a promising director. The most contentious sequence in the film involved the demarcation of the Anglo-American roles in the capture of the bridge at Nijmegen.
Gandhi (1982), A Chorus Line (1985) and Cry Freedom (1987)
The 1980s marked the apotheosis of Richard Attenborough's directorial career in which he fulfilled his twenty-year ambition of realising a film on the life of Mahatma Gandhi. As well as being a personal achievement for Attenborough, Gandhi represented a key moment for the British film industry through its success at the box office. Whereas Gandhi looks to racial concerns of the past, Cry Freedom explores the contemporary issues surrounding apartheid through the film's focus on the friendship of Steve Biko and Donald Woods. The film made a significant contribution to raising global public awareness of the realities of the apartheid regime of the time. Sandwiched between the two political portrayals, Attenborough directed his second American production, A Chorus Line, a musical adaptation of the stage play, which focused on contemporary racial and social concerns in America.
The 1990s was Richard Attenborough's most prolific decade, directing four films with varying success. Despite all his efforts, Attenborough was unable to recapture the same degree of success he had enjoyed with Gandhi. One significant reason could be the change from the serious socio-political themes that had dominated Attenborough's productions, to one focusing on the people whose artistic talents held a particular personal interest for him, and, perhaps, less so for others. Of the four films two explore lives related to acting: Chaplin and Grey Owl. Chaplin focuses on the comic silent screen star, actor and director, Charles Chaplin. Grey Owl recounts the 'pseudo' life 'acted' by Archibald Belaney, an Englishman who masqueraded as a half-bred Native American Indian in Canada. The contradictions between the public and perceived identities which Grey Owl explored were also a significant factor in the film's lack of appeal to both critics and audiences.
Shadowlands (1993), In Love and War (1996) and Closing the Ring (2007)
Shadowlands and In Love and War continued Richard Attenborough's interest in historical individuals by exploring the lives of two famous authors. Shadowlands, which portrayed the late-in-life romance of C.S. Lewis and the American Joy Gresham, was both critically and popularly acclaimed and became acknowledged as Attenborough's second most successful film. In Love and War was also thematically linked to Attenborough's final production, Closing the Ring, filmed ten years later, in portraying a brief romance against a background of war. The brief wartime romance was remarkably close in subject to In Love and War as well as forming Attenborough's third 'Brief Encounter' film. Brief Encounter, the story of a romantic relationship between two already married people, gives no outward display of emotion as decorum dictated at the time, with both characters remaining equally restrained.
Richard Attenborough has employed his many skills of negotiation, persistence and patience to achieve many of his objectives. By directing twelve films and by producing a further five, he has shown that he has been able to adapt to both the far-reaching changes within the film industry and in the nature of popular film culture. Attenborough's career might have taken a different path if he had continued with the innovation in style and technique demonstrated in his first film, Oh! What a Lovely War. In many of his own instigations, including Gandhi, Cry Freedom, Chaplin and Grey Owl, Attenborough has employed the biopic in the manner of Lord Reith 'to inform, educate and entertain' his audience as well as fulfilling his personal ambition of projecting his heroes on film. The title of Attenborough's last film, Closing the Ring is a prophetic title with which to end his directorial career.