It Took an Epic Village
I have watched Ryan’s Daughter only once, and have not sought to see it ever again. Not that it was a bad film; it was, and is, in my opinion, a glorious cinematic achievement. The critical reviews of the film, however, so savaged its director, David Lean, that this consummate artist took a break of fourteen years from film-making before directing A Passage to India, which was adapted from the novel by E.M. Forster.
I’ve read A Passage to India, and thus have no desire to watch any film adaptation of this wretched story, even if it was directed by the masterful David Lean. It was the last movie he directed, and the critics loved it!
I’ve chosen not to re-watch Ryan’s Daughter because it is, first and foremost, a 1970s movie, replete with all of the skin-flick tricks of that era. Director Lean tried to keep the nudity to a minimum, and he did succeed in creating an ethereal love scene, as well as an emblematic wedding night. It was his restrained and aesthetic depictions of human sexuality that so triggered the critics into scorning an epic that was valiantly attempted within an intimate setting.
Poor Director Lean. He was so ahead of his time on this one. It took his epic Irish village to spawn the Chick Flick Villages of the Future. The mid-1990s and the 2000s would abound with darkly lit, privately-felt inner sanctums of British motion pictures that are borrowed from historic fictional classics!
Another major reason why I’ve kept my viewing of this movie to One-Time is that I want to keep my youthful, innocent understanding of it intact. A few years after the initial release of this movie, I accompanied an older sister and her husband, one summer, to a theater showing of Ryan’s Daughter. Neither my sister nor I had been aware of the somewhat risqué elements in the movie, but I’m quite certain that her weird husband was well aware of them.
My prudish older sister was more embarrassed than I was, since I was still a rather naive girl who grasped about half of the full meanings of the carnal scenes. About half — and the right half — was all that I needed to grasp in order to appreciate the exquisite cinematography that told a story that was quite separate — and strikingly different — from the personal and political problems of the people in a small Irish village just after the 1916 Easter Uprising, during the Great War.
I do recall the critics panning this “epic” by the famous and formidable David Lean, one that was set in the Dingle peninsula, and not in the deserts of Arabia or in the Urals. The audiences perhaps wanted BIG LANDSCAPE; what they got was an intimate but powerful clash of landscapes:
the public violence of the Irish nationalists pitted against the secret betrayal of a much older husband by a girl who is, inevitably, ruined by her foolish choices, one of which is an affair with a British major, of the Occupying Army.
Billed and promoted as “A story of love . . . set against the violence of rebellion” and “A great tradition returns . . . the motion picture!!” Ryan’s Daughter is nothing of the sort. The MGM producers set this movie up as Zhivago of the Seventies, by-the-Sea. It is, instead, a deftly drawn drama of romance and reality, a sumptuous but sordid tale that speaks more of the crashing waves of the sea than about the beating of the heart of one forbidden lover for another.
Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles, respectively, play the main characters, Charles Shaughnessy and Rosy Ryan. Their acting talents are superb, too superlative for the audiences of the 1970s to have fully appreciated. While Mitchum appears to be cast against type, I’ve always believed that he felt very much at ease with this schoolteacher role. He put in a performance that was gentle and strong, with calm dignity, one that hearkens back to his portrayal in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison of 1957.
Sarah Miles is ideally suited for the part of a young woman who is still very much a girl, even after her wedding to a much-older man. She skillfully portrays Rosy Ryan as a petulant and horrid brat, one who is mildly comprehensible in her immature lust for a carnal love that will equate to her romance story-book knowledge of such goings-on. She craves womanly wings on which to fly; she instead earns her own broken wings, of a spoiled child unable to appreciate whatever it is she claims to want, at that moment in time.
The role of the British Army major was hauntingly realized by Christopher Jones, a young actor who was living his part on the screen. His torment was too real, and if there is one aspect that eerily mars this movie, it is the use of an actor to live out his nightmares on celluloid for paying audiences.
Ryan’s Daughter is a quiet spectacle of gargantuan proportions and wee plot which vilely disappointed the cynical critics of the 1970s. The most simpering among them had become accustomed to the ghastly and gruesome “realism” of Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider. In my opinion, as an adolescent watching the lush and glorious cinematography of Freddie Young, and as an adult novelist reviewing the subtle dynamics of the interactions among the characters of Ryan’s Daughter — director David Lean created a realism that can only be appreciated today, when the Irish are no longer murdering the English.
The Super 70mm widescreen lensing of the stunning Irish coast creates a slow-paced, opulent, and, at times, subtle cinematography. This weighty, highly-detailed and symbolic visual art tries mightily, perhaps too mightily, to surpass anything that Lean had theretofore achieved. There is a storm sequence that is remarkable, with waves crashing against the cliffs, then blowing backwards toward the sea. In another shot, the misty ocean spray surges upwards into the sky. This mise-en-scène of an inexorable sea is set against the actions of the villagers, battling the raging surf in their valiant efforts to rescue the floating contraband (boxes of ammo) from a shipwreck in the so symbolically storm-tossed sea.
It’s a sequence that is unique in silver screen scenery and in its dramatic setting. Lean reputedly waited almost a year for this storm to show up there in the Dingle Peninsula.
The macrocosm is thereby revealed within the microcosm, in a way that only director John Ford could have accomplished, without dialogue, without special effects, without trick camera angles à la Hitchcock. What we have in this cinematic masterpiece is magnificent photography, contrasted with the ugliness of human nature, and the emotional torment of one military man whose ending coincides with the resolutions of the other characters.
The external conflicts — The Troubles — continue to trouble this nation of Ireland, thereby destroying normal existence for those people. The epic here is intimate, not traditional, because of the tumultuous emotional life in a small village that is caught up in the whirlpool of hatred, suspicion, resentment, prejudice, and seething conflict with the occupying army of the British.
It is sadly true that the story line, or plot, feels thin, even weak. The dialogue is uneven, sometimes brilliant, but, at times, unimpressive, even for the rightfully esteemed Robert Bolt. The lack of intensity in any verbal drama by The Screenplay Writer becomes evidenced by the use of symbolic images by The Director to compensate for that weakness of the spoken word.
Within the cinematic oeuvre of John Ford, the absence of words delighted him. He could then employ imagery as metaphor, symbol, synecdoche (use of the part for the whole, as in, boots for soldier). Here, David Lean leans too far in the direction of optical analogy, rendering a potent technique far less potent, and much less artistic, due to superfluous usage of visual motifs that, in earlier productions, he’d mastered through a disciplined method and an intuitive sense of the critical moment.
In his Ryan’s Daughter, those moments mount up to less than the climactic sum of those timely parts.
The dialogue written by the Englishman Bolt is filled with “Irish-isms” that betray a script wishing to be too Irish in lingo, during an era when the Gaelic might even have been spoken by the villagers. Those “Irish-isms” are often generally known. They are not specific in nature, the uniquely crafted words of an individual that emanate as expressions of his distinctive self. This problem results from lack of character development, a charge aptly made against The Epic, especially one where landscape dwarfs the person.
Ryan’s Daughter, however, is a movie of mood, ambiance and atmosphere, not of narration or dramatic articulation. The dialogue delivered by Mitchum always succeeds, whereas the verbal stiffness by Jones does not, except in the sense that a young man in his shell-shocked state of mind, and body, probably does not have much to say.
The introduction of this antagonist/victim occurs quickly within the movie. Lean was wise not to delay this predictable inevitability of the battle-fatigued British major who becomes the lover of Rosy Shaughnessy. The tension ought not be on their illicit relationship, but on the repercussions — personal and political, manly and patriotic — of the people in this small Irish village.
Their love scene is sensuous, but is interspersed with nature shots, a technical decision of the director that was harshly criticized, even mocked, by the professional media carpers. David Lean was a romantic, not necessarily a voyeur. The shots of the forest canopies during this love scene comprise a sincere attempt at creating aesthetic effects during a physical scene that Hollywood in the 1970s would encapsulate in graphic detail. The tonalities of the wind through the trees represent one of the most potent directorial uses of nature to depict profound human emotions. The actual ecstasy of the clandestine lovers might not have reached that psychic niveau!
The perspective of the English soldiers is one of these men doing their duty, while the Irish peasants tend toward, and often exceed, small-mindedness. The IRA kills English police officers in cold blood. This fact was one with which the reality-obsessed social critics of the 1970s took umbrage. Lean and his professional crew did not romanticize the Irishman with misty-eyed sentiment; neither was he degraded as the genetic inferior of the English.
What we have in cultural terms is more the plight of the Individual confronting the Mob, or being assaulted by the angry horde. The horde is vicious and small-minded, not because it is Irish, but because is the pack of bullies, the group that forms the mighty wave crashing upon the lone soul who, in the case of Rosy Ryan Shaughnessy, makes (and will probably continue to make) foolish, even reckless, choices.
Unfortunately, inevitably, Ryan’s Daughter sputters toward its ending because the screenplay has run out of ideas, and Lean probably would have exhausted any directorial feats to achieve those fictional points in a languid story line. The audience, however, needs the break from the tension, the cuckolding, the vicious gossiping and reprisals, the betrayal on the personal and national levels, the village idiot who knows all, the looming mental breakdown of the British major, his drastic demise, and the overall transition of the marriage of Rosy and Charles from superficial spouses to a protective husband and a humbled wife, one who marginally consents to the stability of a routine life, complete with everyday ennui.
Charles did forewarn her!
Regardless of which character one chooses to critique or compliment, the sea is the dominant player in this story. The direction of David Lean, the Academy award-winning cinematography of Freddie Young, the screenplay by Robert Bolt, the film editing by Norman Savage, the acting by all of the principals (including Trevor Howard as the worldly wise but cunning Father Collins), and by the minor thespians — they all excel in their respective endeavours to combine to create a flawed film but almost perfect film art.
Watch this film not for the story line, but for the sublimely beautiful visual telling of the tale.
My sole complaint in the technical ensemble resides with the music by Maurice Jarre, the composer who had worked melodic magic for previous David Lean epics. Some of the compositions are hauntingly lovely; other melodic lines are jarring, with an uneven pacing to match the movement of the plot. The scenes of the village idiot, played by John Mills (who grabbed an Oscar for the grotesquerie) are accompanied by strains bizarrely resembling carnival tunes.
It is possible that the message here is this isolated place and time are of a piece with an otherworldly circus act. My greater sense, however, is that Monsieur Jarre was not sympa, or simpatico, with the wild and untamed land of western Ireland, and with the unstaunched tensions of the Great War, intermixed with the fierce national rebellion against the ruling class of the English.
There are moments of dark intensity that become trivialized and cheapened by the interference of tinny instruments. There are moments of splendour when the sounds of near-silence hold more rhapsody than does a symphony.
The cinematic dilemma for director David Lean was trying to create an epic on the small canvas of a village. The relentless intrusion and the threatening presence of the ocean expand the canvas, but not by much. A shorter movie would have enhanced the story and timeline, thereby relieving the “sense of epic” that seemed to have inescapably imprisoned Lean.
Having created cinematic stories mostly on the wide, sweeping scale of a broad, huge landscape, Lean was forced by the nature of the plot of Ryan’s Daughter, and by the private nature of the details within the plot, to inter-mix two different film genres. While the smaller epic works for most of the movie, the sense of an insufficient dénouement and depleted ending remains with this movie.
Within the fictional celluloid space of 3 hours, and within the film size of 70 mm, it is extremely difficult to sustain cohesion, stamina, vitality and logical unity. Film art that succeeds on the level of sublime beauty can be forgiven deficiencies. For me, the only real weakness attached to the motion picture known as Ryan’s Daughter was the limited artistic vision of those professional critics, whose caustic covetous words, then and now, can be quickly forgotten.