RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970)

  • Director: David Lean
  • Writer: Robert Bolt, based on the novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Starring: Sarah Miles, Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Christopher Jones, Leo McKern, Barry Foster, Gerald Sim, Evin Crowley, Marie Kean, and Arthur O’Sullivan
  • Accolades: 2 Oscars (Best Supporting Actor – John Mills, Best Cinematography), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actress – Sarah Miles, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video and YouTube

Sometimes, when directors make a movie or a series of movies that are wildly successful, people stop being able to tell them “no.” There’s a whole successful podcast devoted to the movies that result from this sort of thing called Blank Check. I think that David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter might be this sort of movie. It has its moments, certainly. Any David Lean movie that includes an opening credit of “Filmed in Panavision on the West Coast of Ireland,” for me, is going to be worth watching for the visuals alone. In fact, Lean had his own windswept Irish village constructed, and would often delay scenes for months because he was waiting for exactly the right weather. The movie is so long that, in a first for me, the DVD I got out from the local library has the movie split over two separate discs. Not a separate disc for special features, mind you, but like some old movies on VHS, you literally have to change out the DVD at the Intermission because the movie is so long. I’m sorry, David Lean, but if The Return of The King can fit on one DVD, so can Ryan’s Daughter.

Despite all of this, few “epic” movies I’ve seen have done so little to justify their own scope. Ryan’s Daughter is a cheesy, melodramatic story (loosely based on Madame Bovary) of a woman cheating on her husband. Sarah Miles does an interesting job in the title role, but neither of the two male leads (Robert Mitchum as her milquetoast schoolteacher husband and Christopher Jones as the handsome-but-damaged British soldier she cheats on him with) are even remotely operating on her level. Jones’ performance received such bad reviews that it apparently contributed to his retirement from acting shortly thereafter, and Lean’s frustration with his inability to do a convincing English accent was so great that he eventually dubbed over Jones’ voice during post-production. Then there’s John Mills, who won an Oscar for his, well, offensive, by modern standards, performance as the “village idiot,” Michael. Mills probably did a great job of what he was being asked to do, but every scene he’s in is just painful to watch. It doesn’t help that the vast majority of the characters in this movie are just unrelentingly terrible to his character.

And there are a lot of these scenes, as the cut of this movie available on DVD is over 200 minutes long. This is made to feel much longer, I’m sorry to say, because of a bizarre and incongruous score from Maurice Jarre, who I usually love. It wavers between the background music at a circus and vaguely comical military parade ground marching tunes, even at otherwise very serious moments. Despite having to carry an Overture, Intermission, “Entr’acte,” and closing music, the music never finds an actual orchestral theme in those 200 minutes. It is just sort of background tinkling, worthy of a Doctor Who episode from about ten years later.

This is made more maddening by the fact that I can see a real kernel of a movie (albeit probably one half as long) somewhere in here, about rural society in World War I-era Ireland. There’s a great scene on a beach where Miles’ Rose tries to explain to the village priest (Trevor Howard) why she’s feeling unhappy. He ticks off the reasons why she should be happy: her husband, lack of money trouble, and her health. She says there must be “something else,” to which he replies, “There is nothing else.” “But there must be!” “Why, because Rosie Ryan says so?” She collapses on the beach in tears. To use current Twitter parlance, I felt seen.

Young Rose marries Mitchum’s schoolteacher, at least in part, it’s clear, because she really wants to bang someone and she’s tired of waiting. We get another scene with that priest on that beach, where she asks him if the “physical act of love” will make her a different person. He assures her no, but she asks, “what if I want it to?” while staring up at the seabirds high above. But her husband seems mostly uninterested in sexy times, leading Rose’s eye to wander in desperation to Major Doryan (Jones). The movie’s central scene might be the one where their characters make love in a moss-covered forest, a scene that must rank high in the echelon of movie moments directed within an inch of their lives. We cut back and forth between them doing stuff and sunlight dappling through leaves or a single strand of spider-silk blowing in the breeze.

Where Jones really falls flat is in his completely over-the-top portrayal of shell shock. I have never personally met any World War I soldiers suffering from shell shock, so I suppose I can’t comment on its accuracy here, but Jones’ wild shaking and sweating feels more comical than dramatic. He was also involved with the most infamous incident related to this movie, after he reportedly refused to participate in the forest love scene with Miles. Jones was dating actress Olivia Hussey at the time and said he “wasn’t attracted” to Miles. This was eventually solved when Miles and co-star Mitchum conspired to sprinkle drugs in Jones’ breakfast cereal, an account later confirmed by all parties involved, and then the scene was filmed while Jones was drugged. As neither of those people was actually a doctor, Jones ended up overdosing, and was “near catatonic” during the shooting of the love scene. And as no one told him he was on drugs, he “thought he was having a breakdown,” tried to drive away from the set, and got into a car accident. This may also have contributed to Jones’ retirement.

Mitchum, for his part, clashed with Lean throughout, complaining that working with the director was “like trying to build the Taj Mahal out of matchsticks.” He is perhaps the most laconic of movie stars, which sometimes works for me, in movies like Out of the Past and Cape Fear, and sometimes does not. He reportedly was known to mark many of his scenes “NAR” in his scripts, which stood for “No Acting Required.” Honestly, I would say his role here is pretty thankless. The bigger problem with the movie is, well, pretty much everyone else. The townspeople are portrayed for much of the movie as little more than a braying mob, with nothing better to do than to torment the handicapped en masse. Only Howard’s village priest seems to think there’s anything wrong with them.

Large sections of this movie were filmed on the wide, cliff-lined beach at the far end of Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, between Dunmore Head and Slea Head. I once had afternoon tea at a cafe overlooking this beach, and so was interested to see it in “Panavision” here. But unfortunately, if there was ever proof that some movies should not be 200 minutes long, it’s Ryan’s Daughter.

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