As if it were completing the countdown to a space launch, Britain at 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 15, 1947, hauled down the Union Jack over the subcontinent of India after 250 years, and Mohandas K. Gandhi, a little man in a loin cloth, wondered what he had helped create.
An almost overpowering British-Indian epic film, ''Gandhi,'' has now been launched (with a preshowing in Washington) and the world at the time of turbulence is confronted once again with the riddle nobody can solve, the confrontation between material forces capable of destroying the earth and a half-clothed little man sitting on a pillow and holding a flower.
Searchlights swept the sky in a typical Hollywood opening at a downtown theater here as crowds went in to see the reproduction of a spindly little pacifist in an improbable world of Gurka soldiers shooting into unarmed crowds at Amritsar, India, in April 1919. Then the subdued crowd, including many diplomats, came out again to waiting limousines and a world of Trident submarines, MX missiles, and persistent international strife.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last of the British viceroys, said that of all the people he had met in a lifetime the only man who struck him as sanctified was Gandhi. He said it reverently. Gandhi's hold was such that when he went on a fast to shame the Hindus and Muslims for their civil war, they halted it - for a time at least. Trying to make a plausible film out of such stuff as this - half mystical, half practical at a time of nuclear weapons - is a challenge. On the whole the producer, Richard Attenborough, has met it successfully. The film is 3 hours and 7 minutes long, with a 15-minute intermission and might well be shortened. For many it will be unforgettable.
One scene is the Amritsar massacre. World War I was over and the tide of Indian nationalism was rising. Five Englishmen had been killed. Nobody doubted the British would retaliate, but how? It was forbidden to meet on the streets, but the crowd met anyhow. Brig. Gen. Reginald Dyer carried out orders. You see the tough little Gurkha riflemen dog-trotting like automatons deploying along the top of the garden and kneeling with loaded rifles facing the crowd. Below him the speaker haranguing the crowd does not notice the soldiers behind him; then he shouts to the crowd, ''Never mind, they will not shoot.'' General Dyer gives the command to fire. One record mentions 179 casualties, beneath the domes of the Golden Temple.
General Dyer is recalled, forced to resign, but has strong defenders; he receives a subscription testimonial of 25,000 pounds raised by a newspaper. ''It is an event,'' says Winston Churchill, ''which stands in singular and sinister isolation.'' Gandhi, the sanctified little eccentric who, with a comic touch or two, would seem like a Charlie Chaplin clown, goes into one of his fasts. What he is trying to show is the power of aggressive nonviolence. The British Empire is shaken.
The time comes for Gandhi's own martyrdom. The little man helped bring independence for India, but it has not come as he hoped. There is bloodshed, confusion, and a division between Hindus and Muslims. Gandhi was the son of a palace official in a small Indian princedom, trained as a lawyer in London, Anglicized into a high collar and dark suit and learning to play the violin. He returns to India in 1914. He plunged into the furious world of nationalism. Soon he is dressed in Indian style pledged to poverty.
So now it is 40 years later. India has achieved its freedom with all the turmoil that comes with it and one count is that 200,000 people died in riots.
By 1947 Gandhi had withdrawn from political life into prayer and fasting, but preaching to the crowds, leaning on his staff. Always he appeals for reconciliation in words like Lincoln's.
On Jan. 30, 1948, a young fanatic stepped out of the crowd and killed him with three shots from a revolver.