The one that knocked David Lean of his epic perch and left him licking his wounds – and, in the course of which, failing to get The Bounty off the ground – for more than a decade. The best you can say of Ryan’s Daughter is that there are compensations. Compensations for the title character resisting audience identification and sympathy, largely because Robert Bolt and Lean have failed to give Sarah Miles sufficient breadth of character to instil the same. As such, I don’t think she’s especially to blame – “The role requires a star” said Pauline Kael – so much as there’s no insight into Rosy’s agency beyond being told, in the first scene, that she’s a fantasist. Of course, being set all of a flutter by the shirtless, moobtastic Robert Mitchum tells us something about her state of mind too.
Perhaps Kael’s theoretical star could have done that, simply by presence alone, but Lean appears to have made things studiously, perversely difficult for himself. Casting Mitchum in the interior, straight-jacketed role of genteel school teacher Charles Shaughnessy was asking for trouble (Charles goes ahead and marries Miles’ Rosy Ryan, despite deftly capturing his unsuitability when her feelings become clear). Mitchum, the pot-smoking troubadour, acquits himself serviceably enough, but his presence is symptomatic of odd choices that include Christopher Jones replacing an unavailable/ hesitant Marlon Brando as the shell-shocked English army major Rosy begins an affair with, to the ire of the village folk.
All involved testify to Jones’ limitations – Freddie Young, the cinematographer, said he couldn’t act. When his inability to master the necessary accent was observed, he was dubbed – and while the remote stiffness that ensues works to the extent of a man out of touch and on the edge, very much the silhouette on the hill, it all succeeds in underlining the incontestable emptiness at the heart of the picture. If Shaughnessy is abidingly reserved, and Doryan (Jones) is remote and broken, Rosy really needs to be relatable in some way, however impulsive she may be. Instead, she seems as amazingly witless and oblivious in her behaviour as ghastly villager Moureen (Evin Crowley) is in her cruel baiting and abusiveness.
Perhaps the novel Madame Bovary, from which Ryan’s Daughter is loosely inspired, successfully furnishes an interior life for its protagonist – I expect so, given its status as a giant of literature. And perhaps something of that has been transposed to (some of) the various straight adaptations. Robert Bolt originally went to Lean with a direct take on the novel, and Lean should probably have extended his rejection to turning the entire idea down; presumably the waves of tragic romance that had done them so well (boffo box office) on Doctor Zhivago got the better of him, and he foresaw maximum swoon.
There are successes here, then. Just not ones that justify three-and-a-half hours, although Young’s Oscar-winning photography is undoubtedly some compensation in that regard (I have to question the wisdom of the sunset match cut, however, as it comes across as a lazy copy of Lawrence of Arabia). Lean originally went to Alec Guinness to play Father Collins, but I can’t imagine his refined qualities having conjured anything as effective the wind-blasted, brute physicality Leslie Howard brings to bear.
Guinness objected to the perceived errors in the screenplay’s portrait of Catholicism, which he put down to Lean’s tendency to romanticism. Lean and Bolt saw Collins as a man “with tunnel vision… He knows the difference between right and wrong – no two ways about it…” and this blinkeredness, and as a consequence, ineffectuality, come through strongly. He’s good at reproving, and his position is feared, but no one respects him or the institution he symbolises: “The villagers are treated as sheep… Trevor Howard keeps rounding them up and telling them they’ve been bad again while they bleat apologies”. Well, not so much the last bit.
Leo McKern – who, per Paul Benedict Rowan’s Making Ryan’s Daughter, was in the habit of popping out his glass eye and placing it on the bar when he went for a piss, so as to watch over his drink – is as sterling as you’d expect as Rosy’s publican father and informant to the English. However, you can’t help wonder if his final cowardice – failing to speak up when she’s punished as the informant – wouldn’t have been more powerful if we’d seen something of their relationship prior to this (as it is, she appears to know he’s an informant, judging by her look at him during that scene).
Ryan’s Daughter also receives a much-needed prod up the backside when Barry Foster is on screen as IRB leader Tim O’Leary, but his is very much a subplot. It’s symptomatic of the movie’s issues that the film’s major set piece – the perilous storm that saw most of its prize footage captured by a reluctant but dutiful Roy Stevens while Lean was away in South Africa, earning the latter’s jealous ire: “He didn’t talk to me for the rest of the picture” – barely features the leads. There’s too much demarcation between the world neither Rosy nor Charles concern themselves with and the one the locals and occupying force obsess over. Which means it’s both fundamental to the time & place and simultaneously incidental – until it isn’t – to characters’ concerns. Foster’s the spit of Sean Pertwee here, whereas he resembles Jon in Frenzy (it’s the bouffant in the latter). Also in the cast is Barry Jackson (The Armageddon Factor’s Drax), a good friend of Robert Bolt, who helped him secure the role of the British corporal. Jackson bought a house near Dingle during the production and did it up himself. He also learnt Irish, did his best to help Jones along during their scenes together, and tried to stop Miles getting into too much hot water during the South African filming.
Most iffy of the film’s iffy choices is John Mills’ portrayal of village idiot Michael. Basically, he’s giving us Ben Stiller’s Simple Jack, going “full retard” with grotesque, gargoyleish make up and “supported” by a witlessly jaunty Maurice Jarre score that only ever seems highly inappropriate. In opening the floodgates – although one might argue that was Cliff Robertson in Charly – to subsequent decades’ fawning, award-strewn adulation of portraits of disabilities by able-bodied performers, by virtue of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, one might suggest Mills (and Lean) has a lot to answer for.
There are clearly thematic notes throughout the picture regarding appearance, superficiality and insight – Rosy, repulsed by Michael, will eventually kiss him goodbye; Doryan, recognising a fellow victim, treats him with kindness – but the effect is only ever facile and so serves only to underline that the character is a cheap device (there’s also that factor that one now gets the eerie impression Bob Mortimer has drawn on the performance for some of his Vic & Bob characters).
It’s been suggested Ryan’s Daughter is “condescending to the Irish”, but it’s clearly more gauged towards the insular sensibilities any small community incubates, the kind of thing you might find to varying extremes in the likes of Deliverance or Straw Dogs, or on Summerisle. To that extent, Ryan’s assessment “Unemployment is the matter with them” is simply an excuse for a more endemic affliction. Spiritually bereft, they lack basic humanity and empathy with their fellows; they are hardened, cruel and quick to find scape goats and objects of hate. This side, then, is well drawn by Lean. Indeed, it’s the sense of attitude, place and atmosphere that holds the attention with Ryan’s Daughter, much more than the dramas involving the main characters; the final incident of mob justice, as they descend like raging Bacchantes, can’t help but be affecting – even if, as Kael notes, it seems as if they’re poised to be far heavier going than a haircut – in spite of the failure to instil Rosy with sufficient pathos.
Lean‘s shoot was drastically over-extended by the vagaries of weather, and he ended up filming many of the beach scenes in South Africa. The entire village was a set, but – in a move that surely has everyone in the area kicking themselves retrospectively, given the obvious tourism goldmine – it was bulldozered when no agreement could be reached on its maintenance. Making Ryan’s Daughter, an excellent resource for wild stories of misconduct and profligacy, includes an anecdote from Eoin O’Súilleabháin, a local actor employed as a consultant and dialogue coach, who spent most of his time and income, like many in the cast, down the pub(s) due to the interminable delays: “I was getting £10,000 [£128,000, inflation adjusted] a year from it. I had to get a loan of £30 to get there and £30 to get back”.
Young, as reported in Kevin Brownlow’s David Lean, believed the expense of the production was a key to the pasting the picture received (jealousy). Lean believed it was the “mood of wild romance”, the sudden change in photography that greeted Rosy’s subjective affair, that tipped critics against it. Unfortunately, the picture’s problems are more endemic than that.
Kael was never overly impressed with Lean’s epic bent – “taste and colossal are – in movies at least – basically antipathetic. Lean makes respectable epics, and that’s a contradiction, and self-defeating” – but the problem isn’t the form, which regardless of her gripes is never less than masterful. Rather, as suggested previously, it’s the fundamental requirement to hitch it to a central character – and performer – that supports the treatment. Lean’s first two in this spirit are masterpieces because they achieve this; Zhivago, loved as it is by many, is flawed because it flounders in this regard. Daughter fares even less well, since its rudiments of story are, ultimately, also ill-served by the grandiose treatment. Not because it couldn’t necessarily support the Lean approach, but because too many bum choices tip the balance against it. As such, accusations that Lean is “Humourlessly meticulous… [with] no driving emotional energy, no passionate vision to conceal the heavy labour” are somewhat by-the-by; there IS an essential magnetism to Lean’s filmmaking, even in Ryan’s Daughter, but it needs the human core to exert real traction.
Kael’s tirade, though, was characteristic of critics: “Ryan’s Daughter is an expensive movie, but it’s a cheap romance. Lean and Bolt are probably the leading exponents of bourgeois romanticism – gush made respectable by millions of dollars ‘tastefully’ wasted”. Anthony Holden detailed the litany of denouncements that accompanied its release: “an all-star six-million-quid bore” (The Sun); “too bad even to be funny” (The Times). Tom Milne in Time Out would later dismiss it as “an awe-inspiringly tedious lump of soggy romanticism” and “Banal, utterly predictable and ludicrously overblown, it drags on interminably”.
Worst for Lean was his attendance of the National Society of Film Critics meeting, one where critics quizzed directors. Chairman Richard Schickel quickly lost any control as Kael tore the film a new hole, “a brutal critique, and this opened the floodgates”. Lean later called it “one of the most horrible experiences I ever had”. Nic Roeg confirmed how profoundly the mass slaughter affected him: “He was in a state of catatonic shock from it. He couldn’t believe it”.
Ryan’s Daughter still made money, but its ilk was not the business MGM, recently bought by Jack Kerkorian, were looking for any longer. It also received Oscar attention. Perhaps, had Lean a Weinstein to sell it, it would have amassed more than four Oscar nods (it isn’t as if the ceremony could boast refined tastes that year, not with Airport in the final five). Mills’ performance was dismissed by one critic as “too much make-up and on too long” (the actor didn’t say anything for his Oscar acceptance). The saddest aftereffect, though, is that Lean only made one further film during his subsequent two decades. Perhaps the ’70s wouldn’t have been the most fitting period for his brand of shameless romanticism, but I suspect there was still room.