Tuesday, January 17

Good 70s Films: Ryan's Daughter

1970 Drama
From MGM
Directed by David Lean

Robert Mitchum
Sarah Miles
Trevor Howard
Christopher Jones
John Mills
Leo McKern
Barry Foster

All of the people mentioned above and the film itself should have gotten a fairer shake. Lean, of course, thought he was making another masterpiece.  When your last three films were The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Dr. Zhivago (1969), one might reasonably expect that one is onto something.

The critics, however, were merciless. Perhaps they thought they'd be damned if' they'd sing the man's praises four times in a bloody row. But what most critics said was that it was simply too damned long. How long was it?  I am so glad you wanted to know.  What does 3 hours and 26 minutes do for you? Achy?  Twitchy? Annoyed? Well, the truth is that neither the length nor the critics kept the public from flocking to it.

More to the point, the general consensus was that Lean's film was far too long to say so little.  While that's not my point of view, I get it.  It is long... who would think otherwise?  And it's also a little story about a love triangle and worse, I suppose, all three are either dull or indecent or both.  It is clear to me that while Lean did indeed want to tell about a little love triangle, he wanted to do it on a large, immensely gorgeous canvas. And there's the big gripe. Did this story really warrant 266 minutes of screen time?  No, but for me, I was taken with the superb acting, finely-tuned writing and was completely enraptured by the beauty of the piece and the wonderful feeling that washes over me.  I thought and still think that Ryan's Daughter was a lovely film, unworthy of its detractors' sniping and a member in good standing in our good 70s films catalogue.   

In some ways it actually reminded me of Zhivago.  That film also concerned itself with a love triangle played out against the Russian Revolution starting in 1917 while this one is focused on the political turmoil of Ireland in 1916.  An odd piece of this film, however, is that when the IRA sequences occur, there's no sign of the two leading actors.

Ryan's Daughter came about when screenwriter Robert Bolt (who had collaborated with Lean on Lawrence and Zhivago) had written his own version of Flaubert's Madame Bovary and submitted it to Lean.  The director demurred but later said that if Bolt could come up with something more original, he might consider it.

The story opens in the wilds of Western Ireland with a young virgin who is determined not to be.  Rosy Ryan (Miles) tells the local priest, Father Collins (Howard), that she wants to marry because she especially wants to feel the flesh.  She appears to be so out of joint with sexual frustration that she sets her sights on a man who is probably not her best choice.

He is an older widower, a schoolteacher who at one time taught Rosy.  Charles Shaughnessy (Mitchum) is cultured, handsome, shy, used to keeping his own counsel and not at all like the idiots in the village.  He has a home attached to the schoolhouse which sits atop a cliff overlooking the sea.  It seems like an ideal life to Rosy although it's clear that she imagines a life where she will be ravaged daily... as soon as school lets out and again before turning out the lights and when the sun comes up.

Ooops.  Wrong guy.  We go on the wedding night with them and it is, to say the least, a misfire.  Charles does the best he can but he leaves Rosy depressingly unfulfilled.  She spied a few more potential problems as she notices Charles spends his time grading papers, pressing flowers in books and listening to Beethoven. Busts of the composer are strewn about the house.  As clear as it is that Rosy is dissatisfied, Charles is head over heels in love.

A subplot, that of the skirmishes between Irish rebels and the British army, brings about Major Randolph Doryan (Jones) who meets Rosy in her father's (McKern) pub and they fall into immediate lust.  That first scene in the pub was done exquisitely well.  Lean may have had a taste for spectacle, but he sure knew his way around an intimate scene.

Soon Rosy and the major embark on an outrageous affair.  She may feel a little sorry for him because he is wounded, walks with a limp and is shell-shocked but it's part of the attraction and bond because she feels wounded too.  He waits for her often at the top of the hill above her home.  She sees him out her window and goes to him. There is a famous lovemaking scene in the woods that is beautifully filmed in more ways than one.

Let's just say this is the beginning of the scene

Charles is aware of the affair but manages to keep things in check. Not so the people of the village.  One wonders about them.  Why do the women all look like hookers and the men their pimps or johns?  Why do they all hang out in a large pack?  And really, what in the hell do these people do for work? Nonetheless, they are aware of Rosy's affair, too, and are enraged because the major is the enemy.

Father Collins, the custodian of what's right and wrong for the locals, certainly doesn't approve of Rosy's conduct but he stands up to the village about her every time he feels the need.  He also stands up for Michael (Mills), a deformed mute who sees and knows everything and is obviously hopelessly in love with Ryan's daughter.

The local leader of the rebels (Foster) comes to Ryan, a longtime associate but whose ardor for the movement has cooled considerably, for help in securing a shipment of arms about to arrive via the sea. Unfortunately all does not go well because of a fierce storm and because Ryan has informed on them.  But as it turns out, Rosy, because of her involvement with the major, gets the blame.

Charles has finally decided his patience has worn thin and advises Rosy that he is going to leave her.  Before he can put that into action, the townspeople descend upon the Shaughnessy home, drag both residents outside and force Charles to watch as the women work over Rosy, including cutting off her hair.

Charles and Rosy decide to leave the area, walking through the village to boos and hisses.  Their support team, Father Collins and Michael, accompany them.  Rosy tenderly kisses Michael goodbye and when Father Collins asks Charles as he boards the bus if he's going to still leave Rosy, Charles says he doesn't know and the priest encourages him to stay with her.  As the bus snakes over the curvy mountainous roads, we're not sure, but we think they will remain a couple.

One of the main reasons I loved Ryan's Daughter is because of the great beauty of it. Freddie Young wheeled his Super Panavision 20 cameras over great stretches of pristine sandy beaches, jagged cliffs, across beautiful skies and generally pampered viewers' senses.  He won an Oscar for his stunning visuals on this film as he also did for Lawrence and Zhivago. Young is the best as one realizes in viewing Island in the Sun, The 7th Dawn, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, Lord Jim and Nicholas and Alexandra.  Any film he's involved in is worth a look. 

Also beautifully filmed was the storm scene which seemed to involve most of the cast.  It was breathtaking in its ferocity and caused a number of mishaps including Leo McKern losing his real glass eye in a scene where he is tied to a rope around his waist as he wades into the raging sea for the cache of weapons. The majority of the filming was actually done on the west coast of Ireland on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry.  But the area posed untold weather problems which may have a little something to do with why it took 11 months to complete filming. Bad as the weather was, it wasn't bad enough to produce that storm so the company packed up and went to Capetown, South Africa.

The musical score was sumptuously provided by Maurice Jarre who also won Oscars for his work on Lawrence and Zhivago but not this one.  As memorable movie musical themes go, this is high on the list for me.  Gorgeous.  Listen for it in the clip provided.

Bolt was on the set and often seen conferring with Lean. Dialogue was changed, scenes added or deleted as they went along and by all accounts, the two argued constantly.  It was Bolt's original script but Lean made lots of changes to it along the way and certainly claimed overall ownership as the director.  Bolt had more going on than simply his writing credit.  The title role went to his wife and he was immensely proud of watching her work every day. Technically she was sixth-billed but she was clearly the star of Ryan's Daughter.

Bolt was not the only one who had trouble with Lean.  The director would have admitted himself that he was hard on everyone on all his films.  He originally had doubts about Mitchum's casting and he was disgruntled because he thought his two leads had little chemistry.  He treated most actors as little more than the hired help and actually gave them little direction.  He said something when he didn't like what they were doing and almost never when he did like something.

Mitchum, of course, was nothing like his character and could be cranky and insulting. He loathed the inactivity of movie-making and would forever say there was never a film more crazy to make than this one.  Lean was meticulous, obsessive about details, which made Mitchum go bonkers.  The actor said on numerous days they would be dressed and ready to film on the beach and would wait and wait and wait because Lean said there needed to be more seagulls in the shot. Other days they waited for better cloud formations.  He would reshoot an interior scene because he thought a shadow should be on a door.  And after watching the dailies, he would often refilm entire scenes. Mitchum said Lean worked at the pace of a pyramid builder which helped account, of course, for the long shooting schedule.  The actor found solace in booze (often with the alcoholic Trevor Howard) and as for the director, who had a prickly sensitivity to criticism, Mitchum went for weeks without talking to him, both often using Miles as a go-between.

I suspect both actors would appreciate you noticing the seagulls

It's been alleged that Mitchum also found solace in Miles, but she, the only still-living member of the main cast, has denied it. How they could have accomplished it with her husband and Mitchum's longtime wife in attendance most all of the time is anyone's guess but we all know players work it out. 

The entire dreary and lonely-appearing village was built in the nine months before shooting commenced.  Forty-three separate structures were erected to Lean's specifications.  The look of this forlorn village was certainly a counterpoint to everything else served to us.

As glorious as the beauty is, as stirring as the music is, as fierce as that storm and as sensuous as that love scene are, there is some lovely acting.  Naysayers of the film beware.  This six actors laying it out.

At the top of the cast and delivering one of his finest, most nuanced and heartfelt performances is Mitchum.  He thought he had retired when he was offered the role and he said no.  But Lean's persistence paid off and Mitchum took on the most unusual role of his long career.  He has never played someone with this kind of vulnerability or sensitivity nor has he ever been seen being so precise with his careful mannerisms or even kind. (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was close, however.)  When have you ever seen the barrel-chested one stand at a mirror and fuss with his hair? Imagine then watching him lovingly put his wife's lingerie back in perfect order after he's rifled through them looking for something.  Or (again), pressing flowers in a book.

Lean said he originally thought of (the brilliant) Paul Scofield to play Charles Shaughnessy but decided against it because people would have said well, of course, who else?  Scofield is Charles.  It wouldn't have been a stretch for him and he would have provided no surprises for us.  But we're constantly surprised with Mitchum in the role. After an hour, we're finally convinced he isn't going to hit or shoot someone or say something nasty to them, and so we're surprised.  And we stay interested to see where the actor, more than the character, is going to go.  He doesn't disappoint.  I thought it was just wrong that he didn't cop one of the film's four Oscar nominations.

Whether or not Mitchum was besotted with Miles offscreen, he certainly was onscreen. One does not usually see a cuckolded husband act quite so passively, and again, we would expect Mitchum to carve up the interloper into little pieces.  But all he does is love this woman, knowing (painfully) that he will not be able to fully give her what she wants.  The character likely hopes that she will pull herself together and that his love will see them through.  Even when he eventually says he is going to leave her, there's no doubt this is the most painful thing Charles has ever said.

I have never been a huge Sarah Miles fan but must say that I thought she was terrific casting as Rosy.  Perhaps some of that has to do with the fact that the role was written especially for her by a husband who knew her well.  Miles, while not beautiful in any classic sense, has a most expressive face. Most people would talk in circles and not reach a pinch of what this actress can do with her face.  Rosy is an emotional creature... spoiled by her father, lonely in her daily meanderings, confused about sex vs love, suffering in her ill-thought-out marriage, castigated by her neighbors and desired by her lover.  It's all there, wordlessly, on Miles' face.  You will forgive me, won't you, if I say her best face was the one she showed on the forest floor?  Smartly, she was nominated for a best actress Oscar.

Trevor Howard got the part because it required someone who was bossy and cantankerous.  He and Lean had worked together before so each knew what another experience was going to be like.  In another story, his Father Collins would have been the mayor or a cop but here he is an in-your-business priest, certainly the moral conscience of the film, and Howard was casting perfection.

John Mills did win a supporting Oscar for his portrayal of the dim-witted Michael and it was well-deserved.  The win brought the workman-like actor a lot of deserved attention.  He said in subsequent interviews that he never worked so hard as an actor and this is without having a single word of dialogue.  Watching him trying to express his love for Rosy is so touching.

Leo McKern as Rosy's duplicitous father and one knows that he is basically a good man but he was faced with a tough decision and in some ways certainly made a tragic choice. I've always liked his ability to portray both gruff and tender in the same character.  It is hard to believe that he wasn't really one of those villagers.  Barry Foster was spot-on as the lead gun-runner.

Finally, there's Christopher Jones.  He was at the height of his brief fame and working for a big director in a big film (it had entrance and exit music and an intermission) but the experience was a disaster.  He and Lean didn't get along at all.  Jones had the same problems with the director that Mitchum did (the fastidiousness, slowness) but handled it very poorly by arguing and pouting.  Jones also could not stand Sarah Miles and it was quite mutual, which may point up how well they handled those love scenes.  He could be interesting to look at but a more wooden actor would be hard to find.  I thought he was miscast (were the English actors all busy?) and Lean wound up having all of his dialogue dubbed.

I don't think you could say I have run away from the criticism of this film.  I am aware of it and I even started this piece with that very point.  It's just that I don't agree.  I am also not saying this film is as good as Kwai, Lawrence or Zhivago... it isn't.  But it in no way deserved the ill-tempered, very personal battering it received. What the critics found fault with-- the little love story set on a large canvas-- was precisely what Lean wanted to accomplish, as he always did in the second half of his career.  I think he did that and I am quite happy with him and the result.  His films, no matter how big or small (there was 1945s Brief Encounter, 1946s Great Expectations and 1955s Summertime on the smaller side), were always inspired by the dramatic look of the setting and the story would simply find a way to fit into that. Nonetheless, Lean was so upset over the critics' reception of Ryan's Daughter that he didn't make another film for 14 years.  That turned out to be his last, A Passage to India.

Here's the trailer:

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Movie review

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm. Ryan's Daughter reviewed by Ryan's Father.