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Opinion

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Understated, effective - Attenborough

If you like movies – good movies – you will be saddened by the death of Richard Attenborough this week, just days short of his 91st birthday.

Like everyone else in the film world, he has made or has appeared in a few dismal movies. But almost every one of them had ambitions to be something better.

His most famous movie as a director was “Gandhi,” an epic that embodies what the Independent Movie Database said of Attenborough: “Philosophies include believing in content as opposed to style and sincerity rather than intelligence.”

The movie was more than three hours long, and there was not a stylistic indulgence to be found. Like all Attenborough's movies, it was straightforward story-telling. The main reasons it is so admired are the scope – from racist South Africa to the drive for India's independence – and, of course, Ben Kingsley's performance. Attenborough kept the audience attention on Kingsley, not on gimmicky camera angles, not on trendy film editing.

The filmmaker, who was knighted in 1976 and in 1993 made a life peer (as Baron Attenborough, of Richmond-upon-Thames), also did some of his best work in filming stories about the British imperial instinct. Besides “Gandhi,” he did “Cry Freedom” (about South Africa) and “Grey Owl” (Canada).

The movie that most showed off his organizational skill was “A Bridge Too Far,” an underrated 1977 World War II film that perhaps wasn't so successful as some had hoped because it ends with an allied failure. According to William Goldman, the screenwriter, the shooting of the American-led assault on a bridge in Holland was called the Million-Dollar Hour.

Because of heavy traffic, the crew had permission to film on the bridge between eight and nine o'clock. If the scene didn't work, it would have required rescheduling at a cost of at least $1 million.

The scene was shot. Attenborough brought the movie in on time and under budget.

World War II – in which Attenborough served – was the background for one of his best movies as an actor, “The Great Escape.” He played the military officer who held the prison camp together and captained the title escape. As usual, Attenborough, playing opposite Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn and Charles Bronson, was understated and effective.

Exactly how you would describe Attenborough and his movies.

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