skip navigation
Ryan's Daughter
Remind Me
,Ryan's Daughter

Ryan's Daughter

David Lean's career divides neatly into two phases – the smaller movies, such as Great Expectations (1946) and Summertime (1955), and the epic ones, including The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Thanks to his cinematic gifts, however, the smaller ones often make major impressions on audiences and the epic ones maintain a character-driven intimacy despite their sweeping stories and photogenic settings. Ryan's Daughter, released in 1970, illustrates Lean's ability to tell a multilayered psychological tale against a backdrop of spectacular beauty that doesn't compete with the plot but actually adds to its expressive power. Still, critics were cool to the picture, and a good showing in the Academy Awards race – Oscars® for supporting actor John Mills and cinematographer Freddie Young, nominations for actress Sarah Miles and the sound technicians – didn't raise its earnings above fair to middling, except in Britain, where it did very well. Disappointed by its reception, Lean didn't complete another film until 1984, when A Passage to India scored a critical hit. The phenomenon of large-scale roadshow productions (which Lawrence of Arabia helped launch) also took a fatal hit, already weakened by the failures of splashy spectacles like Karel Reisz's Isadora and Robert Wise's Star! in 1968. Happily, the film's reputation has risen in subsequent years, and most of its 206 minutes are quite engaging today.

Set in Killary, a tiny Irish village, Ryan's Daughter begins in 1916, when the townsfolk are going about their usual activities amid two large distractions: World War I and the perennial conflict between Irish nationalism and British rule. Three key characters appear in the early scenes: Charles Shaughnessy, a middle-aged schoolteacher whose wife died several years earlier; Rosy Ryan, a bright young woman who persuades Charles to marry her despite their difference in age; and Father Collins, a Roman Catholic priest who uses bluff, bluster, and an occasional clout in the head to keep the villagers on reasonably good behavior. Later we learn that Rosy's father, Thomas Ryan, is an informer for the British, and another twist happens with the arrival of Randolph Doryan, a British major who's been posted to the nearby army garrison. He's a war hero with a shattered leg and shellshock, and no sooner does he enter Killary than Rosy, sorely disenchanted by Charles's lack of passion in their marriage, falls desperately in love with him. Also on hand are a nationalist gunrunner, who reveals his devotion to the cause by shooting down a hapless policeman in an early scene, and a mute village idiot named Michael, who sparks more than one plot development even though he's the lowliest inhabitant in town. The story builds toward two impressive climaxes. One is physical, when the villagers struggle to salvage German war material that has broken loose in the sea during a mighty storm. The other is psychological, when public opinion finds Rosy guilty of a transgression actually committed by her father, who's too cowardly to admit his action and save her from a nasty, unwarranted fate.

Although it's named after a woman, Ryan's Daughter resembles some other films from this period of Lean's career by focusing mainly on men. The big exception is the eponymous heroine, played with sensitivity and charm by Miles, who lost the lead in Doctor Zhivago (1965) to Julie Christie but used early roles in Peter Glenville's Term of Trial (1962) and Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963) to demonstrate her talent for playing frisky women. While she's certainly no shrinking violet, Rosy isn't a troublemaker either, and when Charles turns out to be a colder fish than she imagined – more interested in balancing his checkbook and pressing flowers than having romantic interludes in her arms – it's hard to blame her for turning to Major Doryan for solace. When they sneak off for their first rendezvous, Lean films the encounter with a superb blend of realism and impressionism, using landscape and camera movement to create a scene of true lovemaking rather than mundane sex. The last episode is one of the most touching in the film, hinting at the future of Rosy and Charles just ambiguously enough to let each moviegoer decide whether they'll enter the next phase of their lives separately or together.

Robert Bolt wrote Ryan's Daughter with Miles, his wife at the time, explicitly in mind. He and Lean found the idea of a wholly original story especially enticing after their partnership on Doctor Zhivago, which involved "adapting a big book which takes four days to read and would run for a day if we filmed it all, and chopping it down to three hours," as Lean described it. In the new project, which was loosely suggested by Gustave Flaubert's great nineteenth-century novel Madame Bovary, they used the theme of infidelity to explore what Lean called "the difficulty of growing up" and the "wild and darker side" of human nature, using the untamed Irish coast as both background and metaphor.

Even though it was written to order, filming the picture wasn't easy. According to producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, the availability dates of Miles and Robert Mitchum made preproduction something of a rush, preventing Lean from assembling a proper shooting script. Killary was built from scratch at the tip of a peninsula in southwest Ireland, where the weather proved to be ferocious. Rain sometimes halted the production for weeks – during one ten-day period only a minute of film was shot – and location work dragged on for ten months, with little for people to do but get bored, exasperated, and in some cases drunk. Accidents occurred as well. Christopher Jones, the American television actor playing Major Doryan, totaled his sports car on a winding road. Trevor Howard, playing Father Collins, was hospitalized after falling off a horse. Frogmen saved Howard and Mills from drowning when a fishing-boat scene went wrong. Two vehicles sank in a peat bog. At one point, weather over the ocean was so severe that Lean took his crew to South Africa to shoot part of the tempest scene. When the picture was finally completed, MGM claimed to have five million dollars for promotion, but Havelock-Allan said the studio's financial woes made publicity almost nonexistent.

Many now believe that Ryan's Daughter was underrated in its day, falling prey to overly high expectations fed by the huge popularity of Lean's three previous pictures (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago) and by the participation of screenwriter Bolt, who had written the latter two. Cast against type, Mitchum gives an intelligently nuanced performance as Charles the schoolteacher. Miles is appealing and persuasive as the story's only significant female, and Jones has the right moody look as the battle-scarred lover. Howard hollers and harangues too much as the good-hearted priest, but Mills, in the last of his five movies with Lean, comes close to stealing every scene he's in as the unfortunate Michael, hiding his movie-star looks behind ugly makeup, raggedy clothes, crooked movements, and misshapen poses worthy of a grotesque tramp in a Luis Buñuel movie. It's bravura acting in every way, more than worthy of the Oscar® that rewarded it.

Director: David Lean
Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan
Screenplay: Robert Bolt
Cinematographer: Freddie Young
Film Editing: Norman Savage
Production Design: Stephen Grimes Art Direction: Roy Walker
Music: Maurice Jarre
With: Robert Mitchum (Charles), Trevor Howard (Father Collins), Christopher Jones (Major Doryan), John Mills (Michael), Leo McKern (Thomas Ryan), Sarah Miles (Rosy), Barry Foster (Tim O'Leary), Marie Kean (Mrs. McCardle), Evin Crowley (Maureen), Arthur O'Sullivan (Mr. McCardle), Philip O'Flynn (Paddy), Gerald Sim (Captain), Douglas Sheldon (Driver), Barry Jackson (Corporal), Des Keogh (Lanky Private), Niall Toibin (O'Keefe), Donal Neligan (Maureen's Boyfriend), Brian O'Higgins (Constable O'Connor), Niall O'Brien (Bernard), Owen Sullivan (Joseph).
C-202m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by David Sterritt