Director’s Chair Introduction: Richard Attenborough

by Tony Cogan · August 3, 2020 · Director's Chair · 1 Comment

Deadline: 4 September 2020

Send Entries To:

Hello everyone, it’s time to announce this months featured director. This month, I’ve once again teamed up with Rob at Acting School 101 to highlight an actor/director and this month, we’ve chosen to cover Richard Attenborough. Now my focus in this post will be on the films he’s directed only, not the ones he’s acted in, if you want to send in features for those, send them to Rob.

As a director, Attenborough’s first film was the musical Oh! What a Lovely War, an adaptation of the stage play of the same name which was able to transfer the style of the stage show onto the screen which, whilst some critics didn’t think worked as a whole, was still successful enough for the film to be a critical and commercial hit, especially in the UK where it won 6 BAFTAs, along with being nominated for Best Picture and Best Director there. Attenborough followed this with Young Winston, with writer Carl Foreman choosing Attenborough to direct the film based on the success of Oh! What a Lovely War. Originally, Foreman wanted Attenborough to play Lord Randolph Churchill in the film, but Attenborough keeps his acting and directing separate.

Attenborough’s third film was his most ambitious at the time, a large scale, all star war epic about the failure of Operation: Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far. The film was a moderate success critically and a box office disappointment in America, but in Europe the reception was more positive, the film being nominated for 8 BAFTAs and winning 4. Now, A Bridge Too Far is recognised as one of the most historically accurate war movies, with Attenborough being insistent on the film being as historically accurate as possible in terms of showing tactics and equipment the soldiers used, as this video demonstrates, along with detailing some amazing behind the scenes details of the film.

After making another film, Magic, Attenborough went on to direct his passion project, a film he’d been trying to make for 18 years, Gandhi. The film was a critical and commercial success on release, being one of the top 10 highest grossing British independent films in the UK (adjusted for inflation) and one of the highest grossing films of all time in India (at time of release). When awards season came around, Gandhi swept the Oscars and BAFTAs, including winning Best Picture and Best Director, although Attenborough himself believed that ET should have won instead.

Following Gandhi, Attenborough stayed in directing for a while, making the film version of A Chorus Line, to mixed results (mostly stemming from the difficulty of adapting the stage show to film) and Cry Freedom, based on the life of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, who was killed in police custody. Whilst Cry Freedom was acclaimed upon release, special praise going to the performance of Denzel Washington as Biko, the film has been criticised recently for following a purported ‘white saviour’ narrative through the focus on journalist Donald Woods.

Attenborough made further biopics after Cry Freedom with Chaplin, which received mixed reviews overall, although Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Chaplin was heavily praised, and Shadowlands, focusing on CS Lewis, which won the BAFTAs for Best British Film and Best Actor for Anthony Hopkins (although Hopkins was ineligible for Best Actor at the Oscars as he was nominated for The Remains of the Day).

Attenborough’s last few films as director though did not reach his earlier heights. In Love and War, his film about Ernest Hemmingway, and Grey Owl received negative reviews whilst his final film, Closing The Ring, received mixed, albeit more positive reviews.

As a reminder, the films of Attenborough’s you can cover are listed below:

  • Oh! What A Lovely War
  • Young Winston
  • A Bridge Too Far
  • Magic
  • Gandhi
  • A Chorus Line
  • Cry Freedom
  • Chaplin
  • Shadowlands
  • In Love and War
  • Grey Owl
  • Closing the Ring