Let’s Kill Gandhi

NINE HOURS TO RAMA is Mark Robson’s two-hour Gandhi snuff film, a well-meaning, sometimes-skillful fictionalisation of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, gone awry in its own commercialism…

Starting promisingly with a snazzy Saul Bass title sequence, in which Malcolm (BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) Arnold provides authentic-sounding (to me, anyway) Indian music, the movie gets itself in trouble as soon as acting is called for — while numerous small roles are taken by Indian performers, the major parts, except that of Gandhi himself, are played by western stars — I mean stars in films made in the west, not cowboys, fortunately. John Wayne would have been too much.

As it is, Jose Ferrer is remarkable acceptable-looking, and doesn’t try to talk or act in any kind of embarrassing faux-Indian way. In fact, he doesn’t seem to act at all, which makes him rather impressive — just the right kind of figure to lead the policier part of the story. Unfortunately, handsome Horst Buchholtz is not greatly more convincing as an Indian than he was as a Mexican in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, and his role, as a tortured fanatic with a traumatic backstory, calls for lots of histrionics and hysterics. Not only is he fervid and shouty, he’s probably the screen’s most incompetent killer, getting drunk, picking up a prostitute (Diane Baker, typically excellent once you get over the shock of the sari etc), practically telling her his mission, being so pissy to his superiors that they plot his own assassination as soon as he’s finished the job…

Nelson Gidding (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE THE HAUNTING) gives Buchholtz lots of flashbacks to motivate him and build sympathy, which doesn’t work because (1) Horst is inescapably a whiny little bitch in this film and (2) he’s going to kill Gandhi. The movie’s trying to get us to root for him to change his mind, but mainly we’re rooting for him to fall under a bus.

Robert Morley, looking like a rugby ball.

It’s odd, this racial miscasting. One can admit the need to have stars in order to get the film made at all, and so we have Jose and Horst, but were Robert Morley and Harry Andrews really thought to contribute that much of a box office draw? Both good actors, they elicit a shudder of discomfort immediately upon recognition in this unsuitable context. And even allowing that two more familiar names in the credits might have some influence upon an undecided customer pondering which film to see, can the same be said for Francis Matthews or Harold Goldblatt? A shortage of Indian actors can’t be the excuse, since the location work was all performed in India and one can see from Satyajit Ray films of the period that the middle-class characters tend to pride themselves on speaking good English…

Fortunately, J.S. Casshyap plays Gandhi, and he’s excellent, as is the writing in these scenes. It’s inspiring sometimes to have basic stuff about non-violence spelled out by someone who can convincingly embody it. Casshyap, more commonly a writer than actor, underplays magnificently and is as compelling as Ferrer, over whom he also has an ethnic advantage.

Giddings’ solution to writing a series of characters who would not in reality be speaking English is to strip the speech of idiom and contractions, making everybody sound like Data from Star Trek, and then he throws a persistent mannerism of saying “isn’t it?” a lot, so that everybody has that Paul Verhoeven oddness to their delivery. Still, that’s far less damaging than his habit of hamstringing the dramatic tension by jumping back into flashback at every opportunity, so that the promised countdown is devalued — it’s Nine Hours to Rama, then ten years to Rama, then eight hours, then six months…

Robson’s editorial background shows itself in some slick sequences though, and his experience as assistant on CITIZEN KANE no doubt influenced his handling of the flashbacks, cued by long dissolves with theatrical lighting fades which cause Horst’s face to hang about in the frame as his surroundings melt away. This is done rather more obviously than in KANE —

The best bit is the ending — spoiler alert: Gandhi dies. If you don’t plan on seeing this movie, by all means watch the ending here, it’s quite impressive. Horst’s mild-mannered cohort has worried about whether their victim will bless them when he’s killed — such a thing is perversely horrifying to both would-be killers.

Pretty bold stuff. But, from a commercial point of view, if you’re going to do an assassination movie based on a true life political figure where we all know the end result, maybe it’s more satisfying to pick an incident where the assassin doesn’t succeed. Unless the subject is Hitler.

16 Responses to “Let’s Kill Gandhi”

  1. I cannot see Buchholz without thinking of ONE, TWO, THREE. If only Cagney had been cast as Superintendant Das …

  2. david wingrove Says:

    An ex of mine was obsessed with this movie, possibly thanks to the lovely Horst Bucholz? For me, his finest screen moment is Damiano Damiani´s LA NOIA…with Catherine Spaak as his love interest and Bette Davis as the mother from hell.

  3. La Faustin Says:

    Perhaps Horst Buchholz and Helmut Berger could have a Petulant Aryan Beauty contest?

  4. Ah, La Noia, which I also associate with Gli Indifferenti, because they’re both Italian movies with Hollywood divas which I have unwatched copies of. MYST WATCH!

    Horst is gobsmackingly gorgeous. But he seems to have played rather unattractive characters a lot: his misguided fanatic here is the flipside to his character in One, Two, Three. By contrast, Hardy Kruger always seems sympathetic to me, no matter what he’s playing, but I don’t find him sexy.

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    If they ever remake this turkey as a musical (calling all Bollywood producers), it must be titled NINE HOURS TO RAMALAMADINGDONG.

  6. I suspect Bollywood, though not always noted for taste, would shy away from musicalizing the assassination of the Mahatma.

    I’d quite like to see the one they made with Salman Rushdie as the bad guy though.

  7. Nelson Gidding didn’t write The Manchurian Candidate. That was George Axelrod.

    Gidding ddin’t write Odds Against Tomorrow either. He was ‘fronting” for Abraham Polonsky (whose credit was recently restored)

    I’m guessing he did Wise’s (superb) The Haunting — unless someone wants to step forward

  8. Whoops! I guess I made some kind of mental leap from another Sinatra vehicle, Man with the Golden Arm.

    I’m guessing The Haunting and I Want to Live! are authentic Gidding, it fits with his tendency towards the emotionally grueling.

  9. I haven’t done a random comment for a while but here goes went to see the restored version of Lavender Hill Mob on earlier this week at Filmhouse – fabulous stuff – forgotten again that they weren’t allowed to get away with it :( going to see Kind Hearts & Coronets on monday afternoon if you and F are up for it.

  10. Your randomness is always welcome here!

    We’ll see if Fiona’s flu is better.

    Ealing were rather skillful about having their appealing criminals fail to get away with it in entertaining ways so the audience’s fun isn’t spoilt. Kind Hearts and Coronets’ ending isn’t quite as slick as LHM’s, but it’s still pretty elegantly done.

  11. Have you seen some of the actors absurdly cast as Westerners in Indian films? Maybe it’s all payback. I don’t know who started it, though.

  12. Oh, I think we did. Toofani Tarzan, a 1930s Indian Tarzan rip-off, has a balcked-up Indian playing a “native” in a grotesque monkey-like fashion. That’s as shocking as anything in Hollywood films of the time.

    I guess it all shows that every cinema has a degree of suspension of disbelief it invites its audience to engage in. Since that degree changes with fashion, old films are apt to look silly or unconvincing to those who don’t watch many of them, but in reality they’re no crazier than the stuff that passes as normal in contemporary works.

    Everybody knew Robert Morley wasn’t Indian, but they were prepared, it seems, to go along with the gag.

  13. TCM in the US is having a weekly Merchant Ivory night this month. They are showing shorts and things made for TV . One is a documentary about Helen, a dancer in hundreds of Indian films, and often the performer for Asha Bosle songs. There’s a b/w clip from a bollywood film; its a performance in a jazzy nightclub that has a bedazzled Helen dancing around a caged man, in blackface. The man is enraged, but is kept in the cage by other performers in blackface. Its just one of those scenes that burns straight into your skull.
    Of course they didn’t credit the film it was from. Anyone?

  14. Now you’re asking. I get the impression that great scads of Bollywood cinema are ill-catalogued, ill-preserved and lll-remembered. It seems typical that a documentary ABOUT Bollywood cinema wouldn’t bother identifying movie clips. Typical of the Ivory-Merchants too, who obviously feel above that sort of thing.

    I don’t know how many really great Bollywood movies there are, but I’ve certainly seen dozens of amazing bits. And a few gobsmacking horrors like the one you describe.

  15. yes, right. At 2 AM rhetorical questions to one’s self become non rhetorical postings on the internet… apologies…

    Some of the M/I shorts and tv programs have limited M/I involvement and seem interesting on some level.

  16. I would think they’d have some interesting observations about India in their documentaries, and it does seem like maybe they had more interesting cinematic ideas at the outset of their careers, before EM Forster got them in his grip.

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