“I like to have long holidays between movies. I work very hard when I’m doing a movie but I find it terribly difficult to find a subject to film and I search around. I go into bookshops looking for novels and I think within six feet of me there must be a marvelous movie waiting…there never is.”
– David Lean
In the spring of 1970 David Lean arrived in New York to face a delegation of critics who had just had the opportunity to screen his latest effort, Ryan’s Daughter (1970). It had taken Lean nearly five years to commit to this project; something of a follow-up to Doctor Zhivago (1965); at least thematically and in scale. MGM, the studio funding the project had begun this lengthy sojourn with Lean some two years earlier; a mutual alliance that would slightly curdle when Lean’s initial 25 week schedule ballooned into 52 due to chronic inclement weather in Dingle Peninsula in Ireland, forcing the production to relocate to Cape Town, South Africa. Lean had also encountered opposition from his star, Robert Mitchum whose work ethic clashed with Lean’s fastidious need to shoot an abundance of coverage. And Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt, while syncopated in their singular vision to see the project through to completion, had hammered out the details along the way in some legendary rows – hammer and tong; Bolt’s intellectual and wordy prose pared down and finessed by Lean’s impeccable visual style.
Lean had, in fact, made other sacrifices along the way; beginning with several central casting choices. Robert Mitchum was Robert Bolt’s first choice for the role of Charles Shaughnessy. However, when Bolt telephoned the actor to inquire about ‘what’ he was doing, Mitchum’s droll reply ‘About to commit suicide’ was met with a pithy retort; “I’d be happy to afford you the expense of the funeral if you would concede to do our movie first.” In the meantime, Lean had wanted Alec Guinness to play the part of Father Collins, the caustic priest of this narrow-minded conclave – a role eventually assigned to Trevor Howard. Lean had also sought out Peter O’Toole for the part of Michael, the village idiot. But this too would eventually be reassigned to John Mills who won the Oscar for it. The crux of the initial draft by Robert Bolt had, in fact, centered on this mute simpleton; the movie entitled ‘Michael’s Day’.
Bolt came to Ryan’s Daughter second best, having first approached Lean with the idea of doing a remake of Madame Bovary – a project that held absolutely no appeal for Lean who then commissioned Bolt to begin anew on a totally original concept to take place either in India or Ireland. In some ways, Bolt managed to retain at least part of Gustave Flaubert’s framework for Ryan’s Daughter; the character of Rosy Ryan less intensely damned, perhaps, but just as willful and driven in her own youthful follies, ultimately wreaking havoc on the life she might otherwise have cherished. In some ways, by 1965, Lean’s own approach to story-telling had become faintly formulaic, telescoping the thought-numbing grandeur of some great historical unrest into an intimate human saga fraught with tragedy and hardship: in short, creating a grand tapestry of life while humanizing the Hollywood epic.
However, just as Lean feared going into Ryan’s Daughter, the project evolved into ‘the little gem’ class. “You can’t spend a lot of money on ‘little gems’,” Lean explained in an interview. And yet, on Ryan’s Daughter, the director had been rather extravagant. Stephen B. Grimes’ production design created an entire village – rather than simple false fronts – along the Dingle coastline; a magnificent assortment of period shops, homes, a pub and schoolhouse and a military encampment, all from real brick, mortar, thatch and shingles to withstand the elements. Ryan’s Daughter is, as its title suggests, an intimate tale of a naïve woman torn between a dutiful husband and a passionate lover. Occasionally, this slender narrative is threatened by the movie’s sprawling back story of civil unrest, but also by Lean’s desire to create some truly awe-inspiring visuals from the unruly natural splendor of his locations.
At least in hindsight, the evisceration of Ryan’s Daughter by the New York critics seems to have come out of nowhere; perhaps, predicated on their initial disdain for Doctor Zhivago back in 1965 being virtually ignored by audiences who made it a worldwide smash hit. That snub against their own highbrow theorizing was about to be repaid in kind ‘unkind’ attacks on Ryan’s Daughter. Quite literally, their vitriol was incomprehensible to Lean who turned to Richard Schickel, then the chairman of the organization, for clarification. To his ever-lasting dismay Schickel’s response, “I think they don’t understand how the man who gave us Lawrence of Arabia, and Oliver Twist and Bridge on the River Kwai could have made this shit,” effectively devastated Lean’s artistic sensibilities to their core. Immediately following his trial by fire, David Lean effectively went into a self-imposed seclusion. Despite the fact Ryan’s Daughter did respectable business and, in fact, received some glowing reviews elsewhere (and a pair of Oscars besides), the movie would remain – at least in Lean’s mind – a very bitter pill to swallow. He would not make another for the next fourteen years.
In retrospect, Ryan’s Daughter is hardly the excrement Schickel’s callous and misplaced remark suggested. Lean had invested everything of himself to tell the story. Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) has misguided fancies and daydreams about life and love. Inadvertently, these bring the wrath of her village upon her when Rosy is suspected of being a traitor to her people for having indulged in a torrid sexual liaison with British officer, Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones). Robert Bolt had, in fact, written the part of Rosy expressly for Miles; then, his wife. But Miles wisely declined to become its de facto star without first submitting to a screen test among other hopefuls to convince Lean, as well as herself, that she was the ideal candidate.
Lean had also sought out Christopher Jones after screening The Looking Glass War (1969), believing that the actor was on his way to becoming the next Marlon Brando. Although undeniably handsome and possessing certain gifts and qualities, Jones proved difficult almost from the moment he agreed to do Ryan’s Daughter; his method approach clashing with Lean’s own workman-like precision. If Ryan’s Daughter has a flaw, it remains Christopher Jones’ performance; wooden, complacent and wholly lacking in any sort of spark to make Randolph’s affair with Rosy click.
Thankfully, Ryan’s Daughter is a movie of such immense treasures to be found elsewhere, of so many extraordinary moments imbued with David Lean’s trademark visual flair that one can become immersed in the story on other levels. In retrospect, Robert Bolt’s close collaboration with Lean has yielded a minor masterpiece, perhaps not on par with Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even Doctor Zhivago (1965) but nevertheless visceral and engaging. Removing Jones’ from the equation, the performances are uniformly solid, far better than competent and, in some cases, exceptionally well-crafted. John Mills’ idiot, Michael, is the obvious standout; an extraordinary transformation of the cultured, articulate actor into a remote, sad but all-seeing/knowing outcast whose inner torment and outward humiliation are on par with the very genuine insecurities harbored by our story’s heroine.
Sarah Miles is a superbly conflicted enigma; a girl disillusioned in her marital expectations, but shaken to her core by a more earthy passion that will ultimately unravel her entire world. Robert Mitchum’s Charles Shaughnessy remains one of the greatest performances given in the actor’s repertoire; Mitchum’s naturally laconic presence peppered with a modicum of introspection best articulated by a flinch of his shoulders or intonation in a sigh. As Rosy’s cowardly father, Thomas, Leo McKern is a sublime villain; a man of property and some distinction in his own small world who cannot shake the terrible angst of his own betrayals in time to save his daughter its indignation in his stead. But perhaps the most poignant of all is Trevor Howard’s fiery Father Collins; the stern moral compass able to distinguish between moments in life that require sobering thought and those affording a properly clenched fist. Howard’s performance went all but unnoticed by the critics in 1970. Yet, in reviewing it today one cannot imagine Lean’s first choice - Alec Guinness – as fine an actor as he is – doing it equal justice. Howard’s clergyman is an embittered man of honor; one unashamed to use force to convey the Lord’s will when mere words will not suffice. “I knew it would be the best part of a year of misery,” Howard explained in accepting the role, “…but 99% chance of being a great picture.”
David Lean has oft’ been described as a cinematic novelist and in viewing Ryan’s Daughter from this vantage one not only bears witness to Lean’s formidable and unique craftsmanship but can wholly appreciate his contributions as the undisputed grand master of his medium; someone who truly relished the art of movie-making as few of his ilk – and virtually none who have followed him – has been able to duplicate. Lean’s great gift remains his ability to immerse the audience in his story. While today’s movies all too frequently assault the viewer’s sensory capacities with a stifling bombardment of dizzying camerawork that anesthetizes, but never enthralls, Lean coaxes us into his enveloping world. He takes us to places we want to inhabit for more than an hour or two and are often very reluctant to surrender once the screen has faded to black. There is an instinctive, intoxicating textural quality to Lean’s visual art, a ballast of reality – stylized perhaps – but concrete and alive nonetheless – with a thriving intangibility to make us believe and feel and be moved by the experience of seeing his movies for the first time and even beyond.
Ryan’s Daughter opens large – on a stark windswept beach with the precocious Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) chasing after her wayward umbrella as violent tides come smashing onto the shoreline. Rosy’s mind is filled with whimsy, a commodity in short supply in this small-minded community. Father Hugh Collins (Trevor Howard) attempts to educate the girl in the error of her present mindset. But Rosy is willful and stubborn in her beliefs. Her infatuation with schoolmaster, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) is nothing more than an extension of this very shallow imagination. Charles is kind, sophisticated and well-read. But he is also a middle-aged, complacent gentleman who attempts to dissuade Rosy from her quixotic illusions, before inexplicably agreeing to fulfill at least part of them by marrying her.
The wedding night, however, is an extreme letdown to Rosy who credulously has anticipated some splendiferous whirlwind of passion. Instead, she is gingerly stripped of these rather vacuous expectations by Charles’ all too brief, and perhaps even mechanical and perfunctory seduction. For Rosy, it is a crushing moment; one that compounds rather than abates her disenchantment with life in general. Hence, when Rosy is first introduced to Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones); a soldier from the nearby British military outpost, come for a drink at her father’s pub, she is both instantly smitten and yet wholly sympathetic. All of her upbringing has taught her to harbor an intense distrust of the British. But when her father, Thomas (Leo McKern) is called away, Rosy is left to tend bar with only Michael and Randolph at her side. The steady cadence of Michael’s tapping shoe against the wooden booth sets off a repressed memory within Randolph, rekindling his wartime shellshock and reducing him to a cowering mass upon the floor. Rosy rushes to his side and is met by a hot-blooded embrace she cannot deny; the pair momentarily caught into the throes of their coveted lust.
In the meantime, the villagers are stirred by a rumor that Irish rebel, Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster) is afoot in the countryside; having escaped from a British stronghold and at present preparing for a new strategic assault. Having wisely assessed the zeitgeist of popular anti-British sentiment all around him Thomas Ryan (Leo McKern) publicly champions the cause of evicting the British from Ireland. Secretly, however, he is a British informant who will conspire against O’Leary and, in fact, the whole town; alerting Major Randolph and his forces of a conspiracy to salvage stockpiles of weaponry during a violent storm at sea.
While Charles is busy educating his pupils Rosy sets out for the horizon; meeting Randolph in a secluded forest where they consummate their love. As ridiculous as it now seems, Ryan’s Daughter received an ‘R’ rating for this lusty encounter, shot tastefully in a greenhouse under controlled lighting and weather conditions with Lean using nature itself as a counterbalance and metaphor for sexual intimacy. Charles becomes suspicious of his wife’s increasing disappearances but keeps his thoughts to himself. Lean’s moment of brilliant foreshadowing just before the intermission has Charles test Rosy, his suggestion that she might leave him met with a tearful embrace, despite the fact that she has just made love to Randolph; the sound of the generator at the British base growing more prominent, with Randolph pensively seated nearby, thus intruding on Rosy and Charles’ all too brief moment of solace.
The second act of Ryan’s Daughter opens on an uncharacteristic – at least for David Lean – dream sequence. Charles has taken his pupils to the beach; discovering footprints in the sand leading to a cave where he believes Randolph and Rosy are carrying on. While his pupils explore the coastline, Charles conjures the pair before his very eyes; dressed finely and strolling hand-in-glove together. Lean choice to incorporate Charles in these shots creates a rather taut unease; that perhaps at any moment Rosy and Randolph will discover him in their midst or perhaps vice versa.
Unable to satisfy his growing dismay and curiosity Charles explores the cave. He finds nothing to suggest Rosy has been there with her lover, although she is, in fact, very nearby with Randolph. Later on, however, Charles unearths a conch shell in Rosy’s dresser drawer and discovers remnants of sand in the brim of her riding hat. Despite these obvious signifiers to confirm his suspicions, Charles remains circumspect and silent. The town’s folk are neither. “The way I see it there’s loose women…” Mrs. McCardle (Marie Kean) forewarns Rosy after she has come to her shop for household items, “Then there’s whores. And then there’s British officer’s whores!”
Tim O’Leary and his rebels engage the town to rescue a shipment of German arms from the raging sea during a perilous storm; the whole village, including Father Collins, invested in the cause. David Lean waited almost six months, the extras and stars on constant standby for just the right set of circumstances to occur; Mother Nature’s wrath on awesome display. Principles were suited up in wetsuits beneath their costumes and tethered to ensure their safety. But the working conditions endured can only be described as wretched; everyone pummeled by towering walls of water further enhanced by a dump tank, and frigid, howling winds curling against the craggy moors. Having loaded stockpiles of weapons into the back of a waiting truck, O’Leary and the town’s folk are ambushed by Randolph and his forces waiting on the bluffs. In his attempted escape, O’Leary is shot and wounded by Randolph and taken back to the British base camp, presumably for his wounds to heal but also to stand trial for treason.
Meanwhile, Charles has finally worked himself up to inform his wife that he knows of her infidelities. Yet, even so, he is less confrontational than compassionate and tells Rosy he can only hope her infatuation will pass with time and maturity. Although she prudently declares the affair is over, Rosy later skulks away to be with Randolph and Charles – hopelessly deflated – wanders off in his nightshirt in the dead of night to the beach. In the morning, Rosy returns. Fearing the worst – that Charles has drowned himself – she confides the whole mess to Father Collins who sympathetically takes Charles clothes from her before going in search of him. Discovering Charles on a craggy rock facing the bulkhead, Father Collins provides sincerely comfort.
David Lean now moves into his penultimate climax; the brutalization of Rosy Ryan. Having collectively concluded that it is Rosy who tipped off Randolph about O’Leary and the armaments, the town’s folk rush the schoolhouse, forcibly dragging Rosy into the streets. They wrestle Charles to the ground, he unable to watch while they strip his wife bare and sheer off her handsome auburn locks. It is a shocking and frankly barbaric display, one that Charles is powerless to stop and almost unable to endure. The sheer elation of the crowd is diffused only after Father Collins rushes in, parting the leering, jeering and cheering masses to rescue Rosy, who has been left shivering and shell shocked on the muddy ground. Mr. McCardle (Arthur O’Sullivan) attempts to justify the assault but is struck by Father Collins instead. “You overstep your authority!” McCardle begrudgingly warns. “That’s what it’s for!” Father Collins proudly declares chasing the angry mob away.
That evening as Rosy and Charles quietly sit by their fire, uncommunicative and uncertain of their future together, they hear the sudden echo of an explosion on the beach. Michael, having led Randolph to the cache of weapons, including dynamite, has run off. Randolph, unable to come to terms with his own struggles, commits suicide by blowing up the stockpile. The next day Rosy and Charles leave Dublin. He takes her hand with pride as they pass through town assailed by jeers and catcalling. Father Collins and Michael join the couple on the open road where they wait for a bus to collect them. Michael is his usual benign self, moderately playful as he observes Rosy’s rather demure appearance, her near-bald pate appropriately sheathed by a rather large bonnet.
Father Collin’s suggestion of rain approaching prompts Rosy to politely comment that perhaps it is a sign of good luck; all hopes dashed a moment later when a strong gust of wind tears the bonnet loose from her head, revealing to Michael the squalid tatters made of her once beautiful tresses. As the two exchange glances of mutual despair and disbelief Rosy unexpectedly recognizes the parallel in their plights. The moment is fraught with poetic sadness. For at the start of the movie, Michael’s gift of a dead lobster he tears apart in Rosy’s presence had disgusted her. Like all the rest in town, she had then regarded Michael from the vantage of smug superiority and antipathy. But now Rosy gingerly offers Michael a kiss on his cheek – the similarities rather than the differences between them having become much clearer.
In the meantime, Father Collins pulls Charles aside. “I think you have it in your mind that you and Rosy ought to part,” Father Collins informs him, “Well, maybe you're right and maybe you aren't but I doubt it. And that's my parting gift to you. That doubt.” The movie ends with Father Collins and Michael observing as the bus drives off, Collins shaking his head and muttering to himself as he prepares to return to the village that has been forever changed by their departure.
In this twinkling of farewell Ryan’s Daughter achieves the same sense of damnation and finality Lean so eloquently conveyed at the end of Lawrence of Arabia – the triumvirate of Peter O’Toole’s past, present and future running parallel along the parched and isolated desert landscape. The stark backdrop of rain-soaked Ireland is just as enfeebling to our heroine; its earthy-green fertility strangely at odds with Rosy Ryan, whose two-fold deflowering - both physical and emotional - has left her just as friendless, lost and utterly alone as Lawrence. That Ryan’s Daughter lacks the towering presence of a T.E. Lawrence to mark this occasion quite so profoundly does not negate the intensity of the moment itself, as critics of the day seemed too readily to dismiss both it and the movie in totem as an over-embellished love story whose tripe was more overweening and unbearable than its tragedy.
It is perhaps all too easy to misconstrue the ending in Ryan’s Daughter as merely depressing. At the very least it is profoundly introspective – the starry-eyed dreamer brought to heel, yet made to realize an arguably brighter future elsewhere. The narrow-minded conclave Rosy and Charles are leaving behind was always too small for their dreams, both independent and as a couple. And the ending is cyclical to Lean’s own visual designs; opening and closing the movie’s narrative with a celebration of these wide open spaces beyond the town. In these concluding moments Ryan’s Daughter achieves an almost operatic gestalt; the defrocking of our heroine’s beauty a sort of ‘ground zero’ into which some deeper understanding may not only be possible but also foster that divining necessity unencumbered by narrow-mindedness.
For one reason or another Ryan’s Daughter remains the only epic from David Lean’s post Bridge on the River Kwai tenure not to have made the leap to hi-def. Warner Home Video’s DVD is adequate, and, at times even exemplary. But isn’t it about time Ryan’s Daughter came to Blu-ray? The DVD exhibits a fairly crisp image throughout. The movie has been divided at its intermission across 2 discs – forgivable – particularly since it affords a better bit rate and thus visual presentation overall. Colors pop. Contrast is bang on. Age-related artifacts have been cleaned up. The image is smooth without appearing to have suffered from undue DNR or other digital enhancements.
The 5.1 Dolby Surround sounds strong with Maurice Jarre’s memorable themes quite stunningly reproduced. We get a very comprehensive – slightly meandering – audio commentary spread across both discs. Infinitely more pleasing is the 3-part documentary on the making of the film, housed on disc 2, produced by Laurent Bouzereau and featuring intimate reflections from Sandra Lean, property master Eddie Fowley, star Sarah Miles, a litany of film historians and archival footage of Lean, Robert Bolt and Robert Mitchum on the set. Bottom line: Ryan’s Daughter is a David Lean masterpiece – one overlooked and dismissed for far too long. While I would sincerely hope Warner Home Video has a hi-def scan in the works, the DVD has been more than competently mastered. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)