From Brighton Rock to Jurassic Park - 21 of Richard Attenborough's best-loved films
PUBLISHED: 18:08 29 August 2018 | UPDATED: 18:09 29 August 2018
It’s 95 years since British film legend Richard Attenborough was born, on August 29, 1923. Sadly, he died in 2014 just before his 91st birthday, but he left a unique legacy of classic films.
From childhood on, he was dedicated to film and drama. Lord Richard Attenborough dominated British cinema for more than 50 years, with an enthusiasm that shone out in everything he did as actor, director and producer.
Born in Cambridge in 1923, he started his acting career as a teenager, and immediately made an impression with his small debut film role as a terrified young deserter in the Noel Coward and David Lean’s wartime classic In Which We Serve (1942). Just 18 at the time of filming, he might have been uncredited, but his convincing performance shone out and made his part one that people remembered.
However, his breakthrough role came in 1947 as Pinkie in Brighton Rock, adapted from the Graham Greene novel, where his white-hot intensity led to an unforgettable performance.
Attenborough could easily have found himself typecast as a criminal, but instead he went on to star in everything from comedies and musicals to war films.
Late in his career, he was discovered by a whole new generation when he starred in Jurassic Park, and even played Santa in a much-loved remake of The Miracle on 34th Street.
As well as starring in The Angry Silence in Ipswich, Attenborough also for many years strived to make another film with an East Anglian connection, about Thomas Paine, the Thetford-born revolutionary, but he was unable to get the funding.
In addition to his screen roles, also appeared on stage, including in 1952 being a member of the original cast of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which is famously still running.
In a BBC tribute after his death, colleagues’ tributes showed how much affection there was for him across the industry. Lord Julian Fellowes commented: “He was born focused, and I don’t think that there was ever any wavering. He had that extraordinary ordinariness.”
As a director, Attenborough made films which ranged from musical drama A Chorus Line to Second World War epic A Bridge Too Far. However, the project he was most passionate about was his greatest success, Gandhi.
Both Gandhi and Cry Freedom took on challenging topics, but Attenborough had a determination, belying his “darling Dickie” image, to bring subjects like this to a worldwide audience.
As he himself said in a lecture, quoted in the TV tribute: “Preaching to the converted is boring. There’s no point in doing that. I want to reach the unknowing and the uncaring, and even the antagonistic.”
And Gandhi star Sir Ben Kingsley summed it up, “For Dickie, compassion was in his DNA.”
Attenborough as Actor
1. Brighton Rock (1947)
It’s easy to see why this powerful slice of British noir, directed by John Boulting, made Richard Attenborough into a household name. He is utterly compelling as tormented young gang leader Pinkie Brown, and indeed just looking at one of the film’s dramatic posters, with his face staring out, gives a flavour of the character. Adapted from Graham Greene’s novel, this murder thriller set in 1930s Brighton has religious undercurrents. Although the updated 2010 remake also has many admirers, the original is still the best.
2. The Ship That Died of Shame (1955)
Although Ealing Studios are best-known for their comedies, they also made many fascinating dramas, including this quirky seaborne crime film, based on a story by The Cruel Sea author Nicholas Monserrat. The former crew of a Naval gunboat decide to buy their beloved boat after the conflict ends. At first they use the craft saved from the scrapyard for minor cross-Channel smuggling, but the crew become increasingly concerned over some of the contraband they are carrying. George Baker and Bill Owen star alongside Attenborough.
3. Dunkirk (1958)
Christopher Nolan’s recent award-winning drama was not the first blockbuster to bring the events of Dunkirk to the screen. This earlier epic, the last war film from Ealing Studios, has recently undergone restoration and was released on DVD and Blu-ray last year. Leslie Norman directed the 135-minute drama. John Mills plays an easygoing corporal, with Attenborough as a businessman on the Home Front who has been making a profit out of the war, and Bernard Lee as a journalist. Attenborough and Lee take their boats across the Channel when the call comes.
4. I’m All Right Jack (1959)
Before he starred in serious industrial drama The Angry Silence, Attenborough appeared in a very different, satirical factory tale. Mention this Boulting Brothers comedy, and you’ll immediately think of Peter Sellers’ hilarious performance as overbearing union shop steward Fred Kite. But the whole cast of British character actors is brilliant, including Terry-Thomas and Margaret Rutherford. Attenborough’s character is the wonderfully-named Sidney de Vere Cox.
5. The Angry Silence (1960)
This powerful drama is well-remembered in East Anglia, since it featured many scenes filmed at the then Reavell works in Ranelagh Road, Ipswich, later Compair Reavell. Attenborough plays family man Tom Curtis, a young factory worker who refuses to take part in a wildcat strike. As a result, he finds himself ostracised by his workmates. Attenborough again shows his emotional intensity in this drama, as the tension builds to breaking-point. Pier Angeli stars as Tom’s wife, Anna.
Many staff in the workshop at Reavell were extras in the film, and it had a gala premiere at the Ritz Cinema in the Buttermarket in Ipswich (later the ABC). Former Ipswich mayor and council leader Peter Gardiner started work at Compair Reavell in 1963, a few years after the film was made. He recalled that staff often talked about it, and said, “It was certainly a major topic of conversation in the place for several years.”
6. The League of Gentlemen (1960)
Critic Mark Kermode has just paid tribute to this great comedy-drama, directed by Basil Dearden, in his Secrets of Cinema TV series. He showed how it embodies many of the key tropes of the heist movie. Jack Hawkins plays a recently demobbed lieutenant-colonel, who decides to organise the perfect bank robbery. He gets together a band of disillusioned and disgraced former army officers to carry it out. Attenborough plays Edward Lexy, a somewhat spivvy character.
7. The Great Escape (1963)
One of the most popular war films of all time, this epic with its stirring Elmer Bernstein theme tune became a TV Bank Holiday regular. Attenborough is one of a star-studded cast which includes Steve McQueen, James Garner and Charles Bronson. Despite all his previous UK successes, this film was the one which made Attenborough’s name in the US. Directed by John Sturges, it is loosely based on the real-life mass escape from German PoW camp Stalag Luft III in 1944. Attenborough plays squadron leader Bartlett, nicknamed “Big X”, a character based on Roger Bushell, who masterminded the real escape. It’s enormously long at 168 minutes, but entertaining, even if you know it all off by heart.
8. Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964)
Attenborough took the BAFTA best British actor award in 1965 for his performances in this unusual crime film and the military drama Guns at Batasi. Directed by Bryan Forbes, Seance on a Wet Afternoon stars Kim Stanley as Myra, a backstreet medium. She persuades her reluctant husband, Billy (Attenborough) to help her carry out a kidnap, so that she can then “find” the victim. Attenborough gives a compellingly understated performance as the meek Billy.
9. The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)
This is yet another of the ensemble films which Attenborough made during the 1960s. This time, he plays one of a small group of men who face a battle to survive after their plane makes an emergency landing in the Sahara desert. It’s quite surprising now to realise that Robert Aldrich’s disaster film was originally seen as a flop. However, it has built a cult following since. Attenborough plays the navigator of a cargo plane piloted by James Stewart. The film was remade in 2004 starring Dennis Quaid, but the original is more highly rated by critics.
10. The Sand Pebbles (1966)
Attenborough won the best supporting actor Golden Globe for his role alongside Steve McQueen in this action drama, which was a hit with both critics and the public. Directed by Robert Wise in widescreen Panavision, it follows the adventures of a US naval engineer who is transferred to the USS San Pablo gunboat in war-torn 1920s China, patrolling the Yangtze River. The film was largely made on location in Taiwan. Attenborough’s character is a sensitive petty officer, who befriends McQueen when most of his fellow sailors turn against him.
11. Doctor Dolittle (1967)
It might be surprising to realise that Attenborough won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in a musical. He plays circus owner Albert Blossom, and performs the extremely catchy song I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It along with Rex Harrison, who stars as the eccentric doctor who can talk to the animals.
12. 10 Rillington Place (1970)
Sir David Attenborough revealed in an interview that he could never bring himself to watch true crime drama 10 Rillington Place, because he couldn’t bear to see his “dear brother” playing serial killer John Christie. However, there’s no doubt that a plump, bald Richard Attenborough gives a spectacularly creepy performance as the apparently unassuming character. John Hurt and Judy Geeson also star as Christie’s neighbours Timothy and Beryl Evans, caught up in a tragic sequence of events which led to one of Britain’s most famous miscarriages of justice. A mini-series, Rillington Place, revisited the case in 2016.
13. Jurassic Park (1993)
Attenborough had devoted himself to directing for 14 years until Steven Spielberg, a big admirer, tempted him back in front of the cameras, and introduced him to a whole new generation as an actor. He said that probably more people had seen him in that film than in all his other films put together! Attenborough is as convincing as ever as tycoon John Hammond, who creates a theme park of cloned dinosaurs. He also appeared in sequel The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).
14. Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
This was another late-career role which became one of Attenborough’s best-loved parts. In this remake of a 1940s classic, regularly repeated on TV at Christmas, he plays Kris Kringle, the department-store Santa who insists he is the real thing. With his twinkling eyes and white beard, it’s hard not to be convinced! Mara Wilson plays the little girl who isn’t sure whether to believe.
Attenborough as Director
15. Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)
Attenborough made his debut as director with this satirical musical about the First World War, adapted from the Joan Littlewood stage production. Filmed on location around Brighton, the film has an astonishing cast which seems to include just about every great British actor of the day, including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Maggie Smith and Dirk Bogarde. Many scenes are memorable, particularly the devastating ending with an apparently endless field full of crosses. In this pre-digital age, every cross needed to be installed by hand.
16. Young Winston (1972)
As well as being entertaining in itself, this historical epic is also interesting as the first biopic directed by Attenborough, ahead of later films like Chaplin and his masterpiece, Gandhi. Although uneven at times, this strengthened Attenborough’s growing reputation as a director and made the name of star Simon Ward. Unfolding through flashbacks, it aims to show how Churchill’s personality was shaped by his early experiences.
17. A Bridge Too Far (1977)
This classic Second World War drama traces Operation Market Garden and the bid to capture a number of bridges in the Netherlands, including the bridge at Arnhem. Like The Great Escape, which Attenborough had previously starred in, this has another all-star cast. Although some critics complained about its length, fans disagreed and it is frequently named as one of the greatest war films of all time.
18. Gandhi (1982)
The making of this film was an epic in its own right. It took Attenborough many years of tireless work to get the finance together, but it was all worthwhile, as it scooped a total of eight Oscars, including best film and best director, as well as best actor for star Ben Kingsley. Mahatma Gandhi ages 50 years over the inspirational biopic, which traces his long campaign of peaceful civil disobedience. Among the most memorable scenes is Gandhi’s funeral, with hundreds of thousands of extras lining the route,
19. Cry Freedom (1987)
Following the success of Gandhi, Attenborough took on another demanding subject, turning the spotlight on the life of black activist Steve Biko in apartheid-era South Africa, Filmed in Zimbabwe and Kenya, the movie saw Denzel Washington, who plays Biko, receive an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Kevin Kline also gives a strong performance as journalist Donald Woods. Like Gandhi, this film takes on themes of discrimination and oppression.
20. Chaplin (1992)
This glossy account of Chaplin’s life didn’t do well at the box office and got a mixed reaction from critics, but Robert Downey Jr’s lead performance gained him an Oscar nomination. As with Young Winston, Attenborough lets the story unfold through flashbacks, with an elderly Charlie Chaplin looking back at his life. It doesn’t give a strong flavour of what Chaplin was like on screen, but it’s an interesting look at the highs and lows of his career, including more controversial aspects. Attenborough’s passion for film-making also comes across.
21. Shadowlands (1993)
Despite all the epics he had made, some critics have argued this more intimate drama (though it still runs for more than two hours) is Attenborough’s finest moment as director. Based on the play by William Nicholson, it follows the relationship between academic and Narnia author CS Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and American poet Joy Davidman (Debra Winger). Attenborough was frequently moved to tears on set, and the film’s tender and tragic quality has the same impact on viewers.