Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
So the big five from David Lean are finally out, five films that span thirty years of filmmaking: Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India and finally this last under-appreciated gem. The fact that Ryan's Daughter came last on DVD tells the tale of its popularity: In 1970 kids my age didn't respond to posters showing girls and umbrellas, and a big section of the adult crowd weren't pleased to see a sex scene in what they expected to be family entertainment. But the critics really slaughtered David Lean's film, calling it an overblown, overlong piffle of a picture. His last epic had encompassed the entire Russian Revolution. What was this all about? The box office failure of Ryan's Daughter contributed sadly to the demise of 65mm as a camera format for widescreen movies.
There are plenty of people who still feel the same way but Ryan's Daughter is actually one of David Lean's better films of his later blockbuster period. 1 As a short story enlarged to epic proportions, it resembles one of Lean's earlier B&W dramas. In the history of attempts by big-time filmmakers to do something different and creative, this stands out -- it's an intimate film on an epic scale.
Publican Thomas Ryan (Leo McKern) spoils his daughter Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) with fineries unheard-of in their impoverished town in the west of Ireland. WW1 is raging on the continent and Irish rebel Michael O'Leary (Barry Foster) plans to import German guns to expel the British occupiers. Shell-shocked officer Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones) arrives to take command of the local army detachment. Rosy's mind is on other things -- she's set her cap for widower Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), the educated local schoolmaster. Although twenty years older, Charles cannot resist Rosy and they plan to be wed. But the town priest Father Collins is dismayed to hear Rosy's "unrealistic" expectations for marriage: She expects marital passion to change her, to "give her wings."
Ryan's Daughter was no Easy Rider; it didn't hook the crowd that was off down the street seeing Woodstock for the fifth time. But David Lean's film has everything going for it as both art and entertainment. Rosy Ryan's story is a universal one and her love scenes are one of the earliest instances where the new MPAA freedoms resulted in Sex equaling Art. Robert Bolt fashions a story where an intimate love triangle becomes inextricably tied to life on several levels: The community, the war, a popular rebellion. Lean's movie is actually more relevant to the Vietnam situation than were the counterculture American films of the time. With millions dying in France, the "traitorous" Irish population would sooner side with the Germans than support the British. And anyone appearing to side with the Black and Tans, such as Rosy and her handsome major, is asking for trouble. According to the vicious (or patriotic) Mrs. McCardle (Marie Kean), "There's loose women, there's whores, and there's British officer's whores."
People claiming Ryan's Daughter is too small-scale are just plain nuts. Just this film's vast empty beach with the cloud shadows moving over it, is worth several features' worth of visuals. Robert Bolt's story has a number of impressive set pieces that just can't be seen in other movies, starting with the enormous storm sequence. Perhaps the best one is an almost wordless scene where Charles discovers tracks in the sand and slowly puts together a sequence of dreaded events, the rendezvous between his wife and her lover on the beach a few hours before. The scene bends time and space when Charles shares the same frame with idealized versions of the lovers as he imagines them. Without the need to fill the screen with entire armies or lavish sets, "old-school" English filmmaker Lean proves himself the cinematic equal of any filmmaker going.
It's possible that today's audience will be less critical of Lean's use of the Maurice Jarre score, than most film students were in the 1970s. Rosy and the Major meet in her father's bar and the screen goes nuts with bombastic music, expressionist lighting effects and shock cuts to battle action in the Marne trenches. After MTV and the rediscovery of Sergio Leone (well, really Ennio Morricone) the new generation is more appreciative of Film as Opera, and Ryan's Daughter's aural excesses no longer seem so jarring, or Jarre-ing.
David Lean is still enamored of symbolism and visual poetics, as seen in a few cutaways to flowers, the lengthy lovemaking scene in the forest and a death wish that plays out at the instant the sun sets. But it's neither ponderous nor precious, as Lean has the sheer size and beauty of his canvas to knock us off our feet. In 2002 the Academy presented a restored 70mm print of Ryan's Daughter and it was simply incredible to see Freddie Young's breathtaking cinematography on a huge screen. Perhaps that format would still be unsuited for some kinds of films, but today's trends are more than depressing: The industry is hitting us with low-res movies either derived from video formats or purposely trying to look as if they were. The eventual digital format for theaters will, I'm sure, be one that suits the needs of studio pocketbooks, and not what maximizes what films can be.
Sarah Miles carries Ryan's Daughter's most difficult role; we never condemn her Rosy or give up on her. Her romance with Major Doryan is indeed a disaster than needs to burn itself out, but while it lasts she's alive in a way she never was before or will be afterwards. This might as well be Bambi for passionate young women ... when nature beckons, reason is tossed away. William Bayer in his book Breaking In, Selling Out, Dropping Dead pegged Lean's handling of Miles' performance as dancing rings around the so-called liberated erotic filmmaking of the time, by saying that her discreet orgasms were more true to the meaning of real sex than anything yet put on film.
Robert Mitchum disappointed viewers that could not accept him as a decent and mild-mannered man incapable of throwing a punch in anger. The only Ireland Americans had seen was the postcard fantasy of John Ford's The Quiet Man, which helped foster the notion that any he-man star behaving meekly is only marking time so that he'll be all the more he-manly when it comes time to knock a few heads together. Ryan's Daughter keeps Mitchum in a real character and audiences felt betrayed when he doesn't put down a lynch mob single-handedly. If you look at Mitchum's career, it's easy to see that there were films he cruised through with his eyes half shut, and other parts he really cared about: The Night of the Hunter, The Wonderful Country, Ryan's Daughter, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Yakuza. The difference in his commitment is impressive. He's really fine in this role, expressing heartbreak while maintaining a quietly hopeful outlook.
Lean's stalwarts Trevor Howard and John Mills create great late-career roles. Howard keeps the plot rolling and Mills becomes sort of a fly-on-the-wall gargoyle watching over the entire story but comprehending almost nothing. He's also he only man shown shedding tears for Rosy. Mills' Oscar win is a fine thing but I tend to be less impressed (unfairly) by a performance made up of a funny walk and a lot of grotesque gestures; to me Ratzo Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy is not that tough to play because he's buried in schtick. However, Mills has to struggle through a makeup job that Lon Chaney probably would have approved of.
David Lean and Robert Bolt must have been perplexed to find out that Robert Mitchum was unwilling to do whatever they told him to do, creating a tension that may have worked in the film's best interest. But they really blew it when they cast Christopher Jones on the basis of his performance in The Looking Glass War. They say that they were surprised to learn that his accent in that film had been dubbed, but anybody could have told them that Jones was an actor born in Tennessee and much better known for the American-International youth rebellion pictures Wild in the Streets and Three in the Attic. Lean must have directed him like a dress dummy, and still had to settle for a performance based totally on looks, which Jones certainly could deliver. A lot of effort, and they ended up with a performance that the average English-trained actor could have done in his sleep. By contrast, Barry Foster's inspiring revolutionary is on screen for about fifteen minutes and is a multi-leveled character. Lean loved directing political fanatics. Tom Courtenay's Strelnikov is the most vivid character in Doctor Zhivago.
Warner DVD's 2 -Disc Special Edition of Ryan's Daughter continues the studio's practice of lavish packages at a bargain price. The transfer is said to be from the 65mm restoration, and overall the visual values are exceptionally good. The soundtrack has been remastered in 5.1 and sounds great, although I have to add to that the caveat that most any Maurice Jarre music track is worth listening to on it own merit.
The extras are prodigious thanks to documentarian Laurent Bouzereau, who fills the audio commentary track with just about every person alive who can comment: Sarah Miles, David Lean's relatives, Robert Mitchum's relatives, crew members and biographers, critics and other directors (see below). Viewers unwilling to sit through the movie again will get an illustrated overview in Bouzereau's long-form docu, that's been arbitrarily sectioned into three parts. Even with so few main creative credits (one writer, one producer - is it possible?) Ryan's Daughter is a sprawl of a production, and the docu finds a clear form that doesn't simplify the filming into generalities.
The feature is thoughtfully spread across two discs, for maximum data use. The end of part one has Intermission music, while the beginning of part two has "Entr'acte" music. Is that for a variable-length Intermission with music at both ends?
The set also contains two featurettes from 1970 and two theatrical trailers. Unless one just can't take a movie that's three and a half hours long, Ryan's Daughter is heartily recommended ... although it's the kind of film for which HD was invented.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ryan's Daughter rates:
Sound: Excellent English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 5.1)
Supplements: Commentary by: Lady Sandra Lean, Sarah Miles, Petrine Day Mitchum, assistant director Michael Stevenson, second unit director Roy Stevens, art director Roy Walker, assistant editor Tony Lawson, location manager Eddie Fowlie, stuntman Vic Armstrong, biographer Stephen M. Silverman, directors John Boorman, Hugh Hudson, critic Richard Schickel. New three part docu The Making of Ryan's Daughter, 1970 featurette docus A Story of Love and We're the Last of the Traveling Circuses, Two trailers
Packaging: Two discs in keep case
Reviewed: February 8, 2006
1. When Douglas Trumbull was filming Brainstorm, I was told that it was the first time (not counting IMAX and ShowScan) that 65mm had been used on a feature film since Ryan's Daughter. After that, there may be only Ron Howard's Nicole & Cruise snooze from the early 90s.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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