Bright Lights Film Journal

David Lean’s Problem Child: Gorgeous but Flawed Ryan’s Daughter on DVD

For maximum effect, see it when you’re 13

The 1965 epic Doctor Zhivago was a Brobdingnagian success and the highest-grossing film at MGM since Gone with the Wind. Director David Lean could do whatever he wanted as an encore. He chose Ryan’s Daughter, another triangular love story set against social turmoil. Key Zhivago personnel Maurice Jarre (composer), Robert Bolt (screenwriter), and Freddie Young (director of photography) all came back. So far, so good. But Ryan’s Daughter and its Irish Rebellion of 1916 could not compare with Doctor Zhivago or Lean’s earlier Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia for historic spectacle and narrative involvement. Released in 1970 with a running time of 206 minutes, it justified another kind of rebellion. With its colossal budget of $14 million smelling like ill-spent ripe cheese, Ryan’s Daughter was thrashed by critics and widely perceived to be a box-office dud. It wasn’t; it turned a small profit, but Lean was mortified. He did not make another film until A Passage to India in 1984, which was his last. He died in 1991.

I confess a strange affection for Ryan’s Daughter, not because it’s Lean’s red-headed stepson, but because of its intersection with my life. I first saw it at 13, an age to discover the power of sex and cinema. I was ravaged by its forthright sexuality, and spellbound by its footage of the rugged Irish coast and its constantly shifting light, clouds, sand, and sea. Jarre’s score, too perky for this sober tale and unequal to his classics for earlier Lean movies, nonetheless bumped around my head for several days. Young’s cinematography Oscar validated the images I could not shake.

The movie’s problems are more glaring all these years later. Ryan’s Daughter suffers from, among other ailments, Zhivago envy. Compare, for starters, their marketing. The taglines read “A love caught in the fire of revolution” (Zhivago) and “A story of love . . . set against the violence of rebellion” (Ryan). In both we have a beautiful duo oversized amidst unruly crowds. In both there is a third party sidelined by cuckoldry. The Zhivago lovers are clothed and upright, melancholy but alert to the world, while Sarah Miles and Christopher Jones of Ryan’s Daughter are pivoted 90 degrees, stripped, supine, and fornicating. We have not only an attempt to wed Ryan’s Daughter to its older first cousin, we also have a graphic reminder that movies discovered sex in a big way between 1965 and 1970. But in the case of Ryan’s Daughter, human sensuality is diminished by Lean’s preoccupation with awesome displays of nature.

The characters fail to pop off the screen. While Lawrence is heroic and psychologically complex and Zhivago is kindly and soulful, Ryan and his daughter possess few compelling attributes. As played by a pre-Rumpole of the Bailey Leo McKern, Ryan is a detestable man ready to sacrifice his child to a troglodytic mob. In the demanding role of naive Rosy, Miles often tries too hard, her face overworking to convey fear, innocence, confusion, or whatever emotion suits the moment. Still, she was Oscar nominated. (It should be noted that 1970 was weak on actresses. Ali McGraw was also nominated for Love Story, okay?)

An unrecognizable John Mills is the village idiot who, sure enough, reveals a tender heart behind a misshapen face. The Academy bestowed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar on him as a flagrant back-handed compliment. At least this fine British thespian was recognized in his long career, but did he have to get it for playing a dimwitted mute? His character provides a literal dumb show whenever Bolt’s original screenplay failed to summon up needed motivation and plausibility. Lean’s direction also failed Mills by allowing mannerisms to run amok as they did with Alec Guinness’ miscalculated Indian mystic in A Passage to India. Trevor Howard as a tough-minded peasant priest and Robert Mitchum playing against type as a man of genuine modesty pull off the best acting in the film.

The sluggish pacing of Ryan’s Daughter is suited for the small screen, where prolonged close-ups and a banal love story do not produce audience zombification as they do in a theater. The film’s greatest asset, its visuals, is enhanced by a crisp DVD transfer. Ultimately, however, our concern for Ryan, his daughter, and everyone else fades into the grandeur of what the eyes behold. The story more befits the modest scope of Lean’s exquisite 1946 chamber piece Brief Encounter. With Ryan’s Daughter, elephantiasis had set in. So much is too big and obvious. Outlaw lovers screwing in a fecundating coastal forest astride dewy spider webs and airborne seedlings is pure self-parody.

The extras on disc two merit attention. To the credit of surviving cast and crew, no one denies the critical drubbing Ryan’s Daughter suffered on its original release. Odd, however, that the interview soundtrack for a 2005 documentary should perform double duty as the film’s audio commentary. Miles and Lean’s widow engage in wish-fulfillment by freely sprinkling their assessments with “classic,” “timeless,” “brilliant,” and “masterpiece.” True, Ryan’s Daughter may sear the memory. But can a movie discount its literary and theatrical constituents and become too cinematic? The uneasy results of Ryan’s Daughter suggest that it can.