On “Ryan’s Daughter”

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We thought we’d acknowledge St, Patrick’s day by plugging an overlooked film with an Irish setting that’s not The Quiet Man. 

Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was David Lean’s fourth “historical-romantic epic” in 14 years, following The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Dr. Zhivago (1965). It was also his penultimate dramatic film, the last being A Passage to India (1984). In between, he’d tried to get a film about the H.M.S. Bounty made; it was eventually shot by Roger Donaldson. 

Still, the 14 year gap following Ryan’s Daughter seems significant, as does the fact that Lean’s previous three epics are screened frequently (thus most movie buffs have seen them), but this one never is. The mystery becomes more curious when we note that the film won two Oscars and was nominated for two more. As we probe into it, we learn that though the film did respectably at the box office, critics were harsh towards it when it came out. Lean was so stung he didn’t start working on his Bounty project until seven years later.

Another mitigating factor may be the fact that the film launched just as The Troubles were starting in Northern Ireland. The film takes place in a village in Dingle in 1916, during a period when the Irish were agitating for Independence and Britain, though in the thick of fighting World War One, had occupying forces in Ireland to maintain law and order. As in all of Lean’s epic’s though, these large political and social forces are like natural disasters, too big to comprehend; the story focuses on the human toll on those being buffeted about. With The Troubles ongoing in 1970 when Ryan’s Daughter was released though  the moment probably needed a film that pushed the political question front and center rather than making it a backdrop. It also could have used some actual Irishmen in the principal roles (rather than English and Americans) and a more sympathetic treatment of Irish village life. Despite these problems (and critics of the time had still others which I’ll address) this is still a David Lean movie, and I feel that it’s one that absolutely stands up and rates a place next to his better known and respected works.

The story: “Ryan” (Leo McKern) is the village publican, the richest man in town, and as it happens, a spy for both sides of the Anglo-Irish conflict. His daughter Rosy (Sara Miles) is a dreamer, in love with the local schoolteacher (Robert Mitchum), a man who is twice her age. This is some of Mitchum’s best acting, startlingly good, against type, vulnerable, and in a fairly decent Irish accent no less. Mitchum’s character Shaughnessy is a sensitive provincial intellectual. He’s stirred up a lot of romantic notions in Rosy’s head about Byron and Beethoven and now she wants to marry him. Against his misgivings, he does so. She almost immediately regrets it; he doesn’t have the energy or the temperament to give her much excitement in the bedroom. And then into her lap falls the new English commander of the local base (Christopher Jones, from Wild in the Streets). The two have an affair, which becomes truly complicated when her father blows the whistle on a gun-smuggling operation headed up by a Dublin Republican named Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster, from Frenzy). The village blames Rosy and persecute her for it. She and Shaughnessy must flee the village, for their lives basically. Jones blows himself up with TNT. Other major characters in the film are the village idiot Michael (played by John  Mills, who won an Oscar. My research on him a few weeks ago is what led me to this film) and Trevor Howard as the local ass-kicking, no-nonsense priest.

See any Irish names amongst all those stars? Well, McKern maybe, but even he comes by way of Australia, and is known for doing a kind of cartoon, comical Irishman in an accent that is not his native one.

What are the bleeding selling points then, since you’ve heard all this criticism? One is that the film is gorgeous. Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. It won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and that was well earned. Ireland never looked more beautiful and that’s one of the reasons I’m comfortable plugging the film today. At its most basic level, look at the beauty of Ireland.

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The film was shot in widescreen (Super Panavision 70). This creates an admitted thematic disconnect. This is really a small. human story that could easily have been shot on a small budget with a tiny crew, and with very intimate set-ups. The theatrical equivalent of Lean’s approach would be using a cavernous Broadway house to stage a black-box show. Critics disparaged this aspect, and though I don’t disagree, I also don’t regret the way it was shot. Lean’s whole thing is to show humans dwarfed by huge forces. Not just history but nature itself are always mechanisms in his films. The canvas he painted on was an artistic choice, not a “mistake”, and I think it is a choice that can be defended.

Likewise the film’s three-hour length, another sticking point for critics of the time. I watched the film carefully with this in mind last night, and I honestly couldn’t spot a frame in the film that was dead weight, that didn’t belong there. By 1970 though critics may have been getting tired of MGM bloat, and the film comes complete with an overture, an intermission, an entr’acte, and exit music. These frills had been big in the late 50s and 60s, they were designed to make you feel as though you were at a theatrical event as opposed to watching television, cinema’s chief threat at the time. But by 1970, younger film makers were going in a different direction — lean and mean. Ryan’s Daughter must have seemed to critics of the time as one too many Lean “bores”. In 2014 we get to look at it on its own terms; shapewise it seems just right to me.

Another interesting factor. In this movie Lean tries some more symbolic, allegorical elements than you typically find in his work. The Christ-like “Holy Fool” played by Mills is an obvious one, but there are many others. There is the storm scene, which inevitably makes one think of Shakespeare in this context. And there is his stylized use of the villagers, who seem to function as a chorus, as one unit, almost in a Brechtian kind of way. This has its unfortunate aspects that Lean probably didn’t intend. Ryan’s Daughter began life as a screen adaptation of Madame Bovary by screenwriter Robert Bolt. It was Lean who urged the transplantation to another setting. Thus his choice of Ireland in 1916 can be seen as almost random — the main thing to him is the love story. (Look at the poster above! And look at his previous film, Dr. Zhivago). So he sees the ugly mob that the villagers turn into in a more abstract way…they are stand-ins for judgmental people all the world over. The problem is, Lean IS English and he has made this particular unwashed, hateful and ignorant mob a bunch of apparently jobless, shiftless Irish. He might argue that he has balanced this portrait with the priest, the teacher and Rosy, but my! Those three certainly are outnumbered.

And at the same time, the occupying English are kind of warm and fuzzy. The outgoing captain (Gerald Sim) is a coward who trembles at the thought at being sent into battle. And his replacement (Jones), is not only dashing but sensitive and shell-shocked. One wants to wrap him in a blanket and give him hot chocolate. (Unlike, say, the manipulative and hard criminal Irish rogue, O’Leary). Jones’ character perhaps unintentionally becomes a symbolic figure in the film as well. I say unintentionally because Lean cast the young actor sight unseen and was alarmed to learn that he delivered his lines in a weak voice. He consequently trimmed the character’s lines to a bare minimum and had Jones’s voice dubbed by an English actor. The Major thus becomes similar to the Fool in this story, a sort of mute for us (and Rosy) to project our ideas on. “The Romantic Major”, as opposed to Mitchum’s middle-aged frump whose hobby is pressing flowers in books.

Anyway, I like rich, problematic movies that make you think and grapple with them and try to figure them out. The Quiet Man TELLS you to love the Irish and kind of shoves it down your throat. This movie made me come to the defense of the Irish, made me think and grope my way towards staking out that position, and it made me do in an extremely well acted and written story, gorgeously shot in a landscape that I can’t get out of my head. Listen: I spent three hours in a village that has one street and a beach! If you blindfolded me and dumped me there right now, I would know my way around.

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