Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" is a film of rare and startling beauty, hauntingly presented as docudrama. Attenborough does not disguise his goal: this is an unmitigated tribute to Mohandas Gandhi. That, of course, is fine, since Gandhi was a unique statesman who brought India its independence through his tactics of passive resistance against British colonial rule. What aren't so fine are the generalizations that emerge from the film--generalizations, I might add, that do seem warranted by Gandhi's extraordinary success and Ben Kingsley's sensitive portrayal of India's hero. But the audience comments --e.g., "That's what we ought to do against our enemies"--are sadly lacking in historical perspective.
That passive resistance was successful against English rule is as much a statement about the British as it is about Gandhi's followers. Notwithstanding their moments of brutality, the British were put in the reluctant position of having to escalate the violence of their rule in order to maintain control. That price ultimately became too high for any British government and for the sensibilities of the British people. They succumbed to Gandhi's strength and his tactics. But consider this same scenario with Soviet colonial rulers. Would passive resistance work against "yellow rain"? Do these tactics have any application for Afghan freedom fighters?
In the film, Gandhi is quoted as having said, "ultimately tryants are defeated by love and truth." When he is confronted by an interlocuter who asks if he would apply his tactics to Hitler, he responds by saying, yes, even a Hitler would succumb to this approach. What is not asked is what happens to that generation overrun by Hitler's armies? Is passive resistance an appropriate reaction to extermination camps? The difference between passive resistance against an essentially democratic foe and against a totalitarian enemy was not considered in the film and not really considered in Gandhi's philosophy.
What Gandhi could do against the British--namely, appealing to the fair play of the people--would not be possible if his adversary were the Nazis or the Soviets. Would the Soviets invite Gandhi to their automobile factories in Moscow to lecture the workers on the evils of colonialism?
The British response to Gandhi's violation of the law was imprisonment, not once but several times. Surely this must have been shattering to Gandhi; but he was released. Suppose he were found guilty of sedition in the Soviet Union today. The likelihood is he would be swallowed into the bowels of the Gulag, another Sakharov or Scharansky, never free to influence his followers again. Ramsay MacDonald made some egregious errors when he was prime minister, but can he be compared to Andropov?
These differences, which should be apparent to any sensible person, are unfortunately beclouded by audiences eager for peace and simple solutions. Gandhi gives them that and more. He is undoubtedly a heroic figure whose spirit looms monumental against the historical backdrop of Western colonialism. He is a spiritual father to the civil rights movement and to the student rebellion of the late '60s and early '70s. But his influence can only be evaluated within the context of flawed democratic societies, societies that were embarrassed by racism and colonial rule.
To suggest that Gandhi's methods are universal is to confuse wishful thinking with thoughtful approaches to change. Against a totalitarian enemy, passivity is considered weakness. When a nation abdicates self-defense for passive resistance, it plays into the hands of an aggressor. In the extermination camps, the Nazis had no respect for passivity.
Ultimately, of course, Gandhi may be right. Love may triumph. But his reading of the past is far too selective to ensure this end, and his spiritual nature did not provide him with answers to eschatological questions. What this film leaves us with is an inspiring figure with relatively few prescriptions for our time.
Attenborough has served the art of film, but he has not served the goddess of moral realism. In the final analysis, we will be judged by how well we defend ourselves and our institutions.