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Attenborough: spiritual director?

29 August 2014

Richard Attenborough was fascinated by faith, although sceptical, recalls Stephen Brown

"A fine callousness": as the Church Times reported in 1948: Attenborough with Carol Marsh in Brighton Rock

"A fine callousness": as the Church Times reported in 1948: Attenborough with Carol Marsh in Brighton Rock

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 gangster.

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 Silence, 1960).

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 sentimental.

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 poignant, too.

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 achievement.

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 world.

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 protagonists' Christianity.

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 of York.

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