Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

David Lean’s Ryan's Daughter (1970)


In a small Irish village during the 1916 Easter Rising, a young woman (Sarah Miles, Blow-Up), who is married to a local school teacher (Robert Mitchum, Out of the Past), sets in motion a series of tragic events when she begins a clandestine love affair with a British officer (Christopher Jones, Three in the Attic).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Don’t nurse your dreams, Rosy…”

Much-maligned romantic epic is in desperate need of reappraisal. Ryan’s Daughter, a loose adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, was heavily criticized for its grandeur. The criticism was so severe that director David Lean, humiliated and embarrassed, went into a fourteen-year exile, and the bad press further damaged moribund MGM, the studio that had bankrolled the film.

Now we can all sit back, relax, and evaluate Ryan’s Daughter for what it is, not for what people were expecting. I personally think that not only was most of the criticism unwarranted, but also nonsensical — if this is what failure looks like, please, give me more of it! On the surface, Lean appears to be showing off his skills as a visual storyteller, but that’s not the case. There is so much going on here.

Ryan’s Daughter raises important issues that are still relevant today. The soldier’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and his inability to cope with life after combat are things we understand much better now. Ryan’s Daughter also works as a coming-of-age story — the young bride does a lot of growing up throughout the course of the movie.

In addition to all that, Ryan’s Daughter explores the interaction between individualism and collectivism. I even learned a thing or two about the Irish-British conflict. Lean and writer Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago) mixed together these elements in a fluid manner. So, in my opinion, anyone who accused Lean of delivering an overly padded storyline is not paying much attention.

There is one thing that everyone agreed on: Ryan’s Daughter is a big production with truly spectacular visuals. The grand sets feel authentic (an entire village was constructed in Dunquin, Ireland) and Freddie A. Young’s (You Only Live Twice) Oscar-winning camera work is gorgeous, moody and stylish. Young developed a special technique — he modified a ship’s clear screen — in order to capture a storm. Maurice Jarre (A Passage to India) provides another brilliant music score.

The acting is top-notch. Sarah Miles (Mrs. Robert Bolt) gives a tremendously effective performance. John Mills (Hobson’s Choice) received an Oscar for playing the proverbial “village idiot,” but I thought Trevor Howard’s (Brief Encounter) no-nonsense Catholic priest was even better — interestingly, Howard won the part only after Sir Alec Guinness turned it down because he found the role “offensive.”

Lean had a lot of problems with Robert Mitchum (Lean wanted Paul Scofield, A Man for All Seasons), whose reputation for being lazy drove the perfectionist director crazy. Lean also clashed with Chris Jones. But Mitchum and Jones are very good, so the behind-the-scenes problems didn’t affect the final product. The cast also includes Barry Foster (Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy) and Leo McKern (Richard Donner’s The Omen).

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Ryan’s Daughter is not as good as The Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia, but I liked it better than Doctor Zhivago. Because of its length — 3 1/2 hours — the film requires commitment from the viewer, but I think it is time well spent. By the way, this is a perfect film to watch on St. Patrick’s Day. Color, 206 minutes, Rated R.

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