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Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

by on July 31, 2017
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A lot of people were very upset about “Ryan’s Daughter” when it came out, though feelings toward the romantic epic have warmed considerably with time.

Director David Lean was so hurt by harsh criticism of the film — including some from the people who worked on it — that he vowed never to make another. (He would, but only one more, “A Passage to India,” 14 years later.)

Robert Mitchum said working with Lean was “like constructing the Taj Mahal with toothpicks.” Others had already declined the role, including Pete O’Toole, and Mitchum nearly did so too, telling Lean he was contemplating suicide as an alternative. (Later, he would call Lean one of the best directors with whom he had ever worked.)

Leo McKern lost his glass eye and nearly drowned while braving the crashing waves for a scene, and grumbled about the stretches of downtime on Lean’s famously long, meticulous shoots.

How obsessed was Lean with getting a shot just right? He reportedly waited for an entire year for a sufficiently violent storm to film one of the most memorable scenes, when an entire Irish village turns out to help Irish Republican Brotherhood rebels retrieve weapons that have been dropped from a German ship for them.

Probably the person with the best case for complaining, though, is co-star Christopher Jones, playing the physically and spiritually mangled British soldier who falls for the Irish schoolteacher’s wife. “Ryan’s Daughter” effectively marked the end of his acting career.

Jones was already struggling with the death of ex-lover Sharon Tate in the Manson murders, and he repeatedly clashed with Lean on the set. Jones and star Sarah Miles detested each other to the extent that Lean struggled to shoot their love scenes together.

After Jones refused to film the famous forest tryst, Mitchum and Miles conspired to lace his morning cereal with a hallucinogenic, possibly with Lean’s consent, rendering him virtually catatonic and pliable. (No “allegedly” qualifier necessary; Miles herself confessed the deed in her autobiography.) Unaware of the drugging, Jones thought he was having a nervous breakdown, and crashed his car afterward.

As the final insult, Lean thought Jones’ line readings were too flat, and had his entire vocal performance overdubbed by Julian Holloway. Jones didn’t even find out until he saw the movie. The vicious reviews made a point of singling him out — “An actor could hardly express less without playing a corpse,” wrote Roger Ebert — and Jones gave up acting at age 29, spending the rest of his life as an artist and beach bum (not counting a brief acting role in 1986).

The only person who came out of the experience relatively well was Miles, who broke out of a parade of rather obscure screen and stage roles to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She was helped by a bit of nepotism in that her husband, Robert Bolt, wrote the screenplay and pitched it to Lean with Miles in mind for the lead.

Bolt originally wanted to do a film version of “Madame Bovary,” but acquiesced to Lean’s request to change the setting and story dynamics. He chose 1916 Ireland in the days of the Easter Uprising, in the remote fictional seaside village of Kirrary on the Dingle Peninsula, where the movie was shot (though some of the beach scenes were filmed in South Africa.)

The town set was razed at the end of the production, but the ruins of the schoolhouse remain to this day and are a stopping point for tourists.

As you expect from a Lean film, the cinematography by Freddie Young and a lush musical score by Maurice Jarre, both constant collaborators, combine to give us a sense of immense space, and the tiny human contretemps happening as one small part of that vast environment. Young would win an Oscar for his work, beating out “Patton,” among others.

Whatever else you want to say about “Ryan’s Daughter,” it is a ravishingly beautiful movie upon which to gaze.

Rosy Ryan (Miles), daughter of the local publican / pub owner, Tom Ryan (McKern), pines for her former schoolteacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Mitchum), a middle-aged widower. He resists her overtures, citing their age difference and lack of compatibility. She’s a frisky Irish pony, and he’s a dour dabbler in botany, collecting gorgeous native flowers just so he can press them into books no one will ever see.

But they marry anyway, and she is soon bored by a quiet life of little passion.

The local priest, Father Hugh Collins (a terrific Trevor Howard), tries to offer her counsel and comfort, to no avail. He’s up to his ears every day trying to keep his little flock of a couple hundred or so from straying too far into sinfulness beyond a little excessive drinking and carousing. He also protects Michael (John Mills), the resident village halfwit, from the taunts and abuse of the poor, plain folk.

Evin Crowley stands out as Maureen Cassidy, the brazen young woman leading the motley Greek chorus.

There’s a tiny British military outpost nearby, just over the hill from the schoolhouse. Insults are tossed but there’s little threat of real violence. But when a new commander is installed, war hero Maj. Randolph Doryan (Jones), things quickly sour — especially after he’s found to be carrying on an affair with Rosy.

Doryan is a complete wreck, shell-shocked and despondent. He wears the Victoria Cross for some vague heroics, and drags his right leg like a totem of the wounds inside. He even has a vertical scar near the corner of his eye that makes him look like he’s weeping. He’s treated with a slight sense of awe, but the man has nothing but the tatters of his soul.

The coupling with Rosy is sudden, almost violent and inexplicable. He has a flashback to his war experiences while sitting alone in Ryan’s bar, where Rosy is tending while her dad’s away. Cradling the crumpled man in her arms, they kiss fiercely, which revives him instantly. Without exchanging names, they agree to meet again to consummate their passion.

Things go from there. Charles suspects right away, but receives her assurance that she’d never betray him. They carry out the affair more or less in the open, meeting for horse rides and walks, then sneaking off to ruined towers, beach caves or that idyllic forest to have sex.

There’s one memorable scene where Charles’ suspicions are aroused while taking his students on a field trip along the beach, and he spies footprints that he surmises belong to Rosy and the major. (His scraping walk is the telltale heart.) Lean intercuts Charles’ imaginings with the couple playing out his dark fantasy; when Rosy’s footprints turn barefoot, he beholds Doryan tenderly removing her shoes for her.

Eventually, the cuckold and his betrayers are merged onto the same screen; Charles even slides behind a rock to conceal his spying.

He tracks them to a cave, and we expect a violent scene of discovery will follow. Instead, Charles turns away from that forbidding knowledge.

Rather, it is Michael who unwittingly gives them away. Sneaking into the cave — possibly with the same suspicions as Charles — he discovers Doryan’s Victoria Cross in the sand. He pins it to his own chest and parades about town in a military uniform he makes out of junk, and the villagers put two and two together.

Mills would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Michael, in a wordless performance of pantomime, yearning emotions and a mouthful of horrid teeth. He is desperately in love with Rosy, something that is apparent to everyone, though they try to pass off his pleading behavior toward her as characteristic of his quirks. She, in turn, is alternately mean and tender toward him, clearly embarrassed by the attention.

At Rosy and Charles’ wedding, all the men push through the crowd to give the bride a kiss (on the cheek), but when Michael presents himself for the honor, everyone bursts into laughter and Rosy is humiliated. He finally gets that kiss in the end, though.

The role as written by Bolt seems rather antiquated now, not to mention insensitive toward the mentally and physically challenged. In addition to his simple-mindedness, Michael drags one leg around in a clear mirror of Doryan’s. Both are wounded souls pierced by the arrows of outrageous fortune, who have little left to give. Their affection for Rosy is their one redeeming quality.

The storytelling moves along with the re-arrival of Barry Foster as Tim O’Leary, a famous Irish rebel who has decided to start a beach head of revolt on this quiet stretch of shore. He turns to Tom Ryan, the local publican — a sort of small-town office dating back to medieval times — for help in rounding up some good lads to help.

What nobody knows is that Ryan is secretly on the payroll of the British. You’d think somebody would be curious about his (relative) wealth in the poor fishing town, wearing smart suits and even buying an expensive mare for Rosy to ride. Faced with going turncoat against his people or being exposed by the English, he chooses to have it both ways — with dire consequences for the village, and the tragic love triangle in particular.

Admittedly, there’s not a lot of story for a film stretching past 3½ hours, including musical interludes at the beginning, middle and end. Much of the criticism of “Ryan’s Daughter” upon its initial release focused on its indolent plotting. Ebert again: “Lean’s characters, well written and well acted, are finally dwarfed by his excessive scale.”

Some movies require the right moment and mood to be truly enjoyed. By today’s standards, “Ryan’s Daughter” is rather slow-paced and self-obsessed, stretching out shots that could be three seconds into 30.

But I just think that’s part and parcel of the David Lean aesthetic. The man just didn’t do small pictures. So even an intimate portrait of an Irish lass on the wrong side of love is churned up into a maelstrom of rent emotions and deeper meaning.

Whatever devastation it wrought on the lives of those who made it, it’s a storm worth witnessing.

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