Richard Attenborough, the UK movie director who chronicled the end of British colonial rule in India with his Oscar-winning epic Gandhi and performed in more than 50 films, died on Sunday at the age of 90. Once described by Variety as “one of the stoutest pillars of the British film industry”, Attenborough was an alumnus of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and a World War II veteran who became a familiar face in post-war British films. He was equally skilled at portraying wartime heroes (The Great Escape, 1963), hysterical cowards (In Which We Serve, 1942), meek cockneys (Seance on a Wet Afternoon, 1964) and sadistic thugs (Brighton Rock, 1947).
To a later generation, he was well known as the scientist-entrepreneur who clones dinosaur DNA in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and in its 1997 sequel, The Lost World. But it was Gandhi, a project he had spent 20 years pursuing, for which he is chiefly remembered and which remains one of the greatest acts of creative perseverance by a filmmaker. Attenborough also gave a memorable performance as General Outram in Satyajit Ray’s 1977 filming of Munshi Premchand’s story, Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players), in which the crafty governor of Oudh is engaged in wresting control of the province from the Indian king, Wazid Ali Shah. It was a measure of Attenborough’s acting skill that even as he succeeds in checkmating Shah, one could sense that he was aware of the illegality of the manoeuvre.
It is perhaps appropriate that early in his stage career, Attenborough starred in Agatha Christie’s The Mouse Trap, which is celebrated as the world’s longest running stage show. He used some of his earnings from the play to keep “afloat” the project of Gandhi, as he later said. His anti-colonial commitment could be seen not only in the film on the Mahatma, but also in Cry Freedom (1987), based on the life of anti-apartheid crusader Steve Biko.