RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH, who died on Sunday, was one of those
sceptics who could not leave religion alone. He was fascinated by
it, drawn to it time and again in the parts he played, and more
obviously in the films that he directed and produced.
One of his earliest roles was that of an aircraft pilot entering
heaven and full of wonder (A Matter of Life and Death,
1946), but it was Brighton Rock (1947) that established
his reputation with an astonishing portrayal of Pinkie the
Attenborough, in this personification of seemingly unredeemed
evil who is convinced of his eternal damnation, somehow manages
also to be the embodiment of its writer Graham Greene's belief in
"the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God".
He went on to act in a string of British and American movies.
These included another portrayal of evil in the shape of the serial
killer John Christie (10 Rillington Place, 1971),
mitigated by Attenborough's tacit hints about the causes underlying
such behaviour. But he was also superb at presenting goodness on
screen, without any of the cringe-making elements seen in lesser
performers - whether it be decent British officers (The Great
Escape, 1963), or a principled working man (The Angry
Despite his mistrust of religious practices, he was also willing
to star in films brandishing their faith credentials - as Santa
Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1994) and Jacob in
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999).
It was clear from his philanthropic and crusading interests that
he needed to take charge. Moving into production, he was soon
making Whistle Down the Wind (1961), a story in which
three children mistake an escaped convict for Jesus. As with
Brighton Rock, we are entertained with the possibility
that Christ is to be found even in the most unpromising of people.
The film, a bit like the man himself, was compelling, if a touch
There was, however, steely determination in Attenborough's
character. There had to be for other projects that he championed to
succeed. His debut as a director came with Oh! What a Lovely
War (1969), in which he turned a highly theatrical piece about
the First World War into something not just cinematic, but
ORDINARY people's displaying extraordinary bravery, talent, and
foresight became keynotes of subsequent movies he directed.
Attenborough may not have shared Gandhi's religious convictions,
but it did not stop his being sensitive and admiring of the faith
that drove the campaigner. His 1982 film is a remarkable
Cry Freedom (1987), about the death of the
anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko, once again highlights
Attenborough's concerns for justice. In making this film, the
director became involved with Christian activists. Speaking of some
of them, he said: "As an agnostic, I have known very few men of the
cloth. But, with the notable exception of Nelson Mandela, of all
the extraordinary people I've encountered during my life, the
church leaders I was privileged to meet through Cry
Freedom - Beyers Naudé, Trevor Huddleston, Desmond Tutu and
David Sheppard - were without doubt by far the most inspiring."
I think that, with Attenborough, it was not so much that
personal belief eluded him (although it seems to have done so) as
that he disliked what he called "organised religion".
Paradoxically, of course, it was times when an individual's beliefs
sparked off a revolutionary movement which gave him hope for the
Shadowlands (1993), the film about C. S. Lewis and his
wife, Joy Davidman, is a far cry from questions of social justice,
but it is Attenborough at his most tender. It reveals an outsider
looking in on a death that tests, but ultimately strengthens, the
I TRIED to write a biography about Attenborough. HarperCollins
were interested in my doing it, but Richard was not. He was firm
that only he would write about himself.
When we met, I put it to him that he was one of our great
spiritual film-directors. He was flabbergasted.
"You're always making films about heroes," I said, "- people who
put their faith into action."
"Yes, I suppose I do," he admitted.
In my language (although not necessarily in his), that would be
a case of seeking the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.
The Revd Stephen J. Brown is a retired priest in the diocese