Director: David Lean
Screenwriter: Robert Bolt
By Roderick Heath
A contradiction of Ryan’s Daughter is that, in spite of the sheer expansiveness of its style and production, it’s an often painfully intimate tale. The film’s antiheroic romanticism is nailed solidly together by two rigid spikes: one, a bolt of irony that borders on cruelty as the characters’ fantasies seem to be fulfilled only to be snatched away to leave them squalidly floundering, and the other, a steely insistence upon moral backbone. David Lean’s penultimate film, the calamitous reception of which drove him from the cinema screen for more than a decade, nonetheless carries the flavour of a crucially personal piece of work—more personal, indeed, than the mighty but disjointed Doctor Zhivago (1965), his big previous success.
Although it retained the vast cinematic expanses of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter was, in many ways, a return to his roots, a point illustrated by his bringing back Trevor Howard and John Mills, who had been leading men in his Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946), as character actors. Like Encounter, Ryan’s Daughter is about an adulterous affair. Like Madeleine (1950), it follows a transgressive heroine who is harshly punished for the perception of that transgression. Unlike the crisp domestic simplicity of those earlier films, however, Ryan’s Daughter appropriates the whole of Ireland as its canvas, essaying in lustrous sprawls of earth, sky, and sea. Although, like Zhivago, it contrasts private passion with civil conflict and elemental force, the film’s far more focused, and the way those aspects relate are more acutely paradoxical.
It’s 1916, and Ireland vibrates with the spirit of revolt and detestation of the occupying English soldiers. Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) is the spoilt, starry-eyed daughter of Thomas (Leo McKern), the publican of a small coastal village where everyone is essentially faced with the same problem: soul-crushing boredom. Rosy reads romantic literature and harbours a crush on her former teacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), the closest thing to a bohemian in the district. The most respected figure in town is Father Hugh Collins (Howard), embodiment of muscular Christianity; the least respected is the deformed, childish Michael (Mills). But they are two men united in their love of fishing and their protective impulses for Rosy, and, like she and Charles, distinct from the townsfolk.
Rosy declares her love for Charles, and he, despite his misgivings over their age difference and his own lackluster temperament, gives in. Their wedding night is a calamity, and Rosy is soon driven in wayward circles by her dissatisfied yen until fate tosses her a dubious answer to her prayers: Major Doryan (Christopher Jones), a shell-shocked, limping British war hero who takes over a base situated close to the schoolhouse Charles runs. Charles waits moodily for their affair to burn itself out, and the townsfolk, getting wind of it, ostracise her, but a tenuous balance continues until an IRA hero, Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster), comes to retrieve a shipment of arms dropped off the coast by German ships.
Ryan’s Daughter’s genesis was when Lean and writing partner Robert Bolt planned to adapt Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Upon hearing that a rival version might beat theirs, they decided on a looser adaptation, and relocated the tale to a more dramatic location, while retaining the tart flavour of Flaubert’s work. For anyone paying attention, Ryan’s Daughter is often excruciating in the proliferation of humiliations small and large—sexual, emotional, and social. The hugeness of nature’s overflowing force contrasts the pettiness of the people, and yet connects to their slow-burning passion. For Bolt, the script was a love letter to star Miles, his wife, and for Lean, the film seems almost an emotional autobiography. At the time it might have looked out of date, but today it seems more a riff on certain clichés that inverts their meaning.
The characters, except for Doryan, who merely snatches at opportunities to alleviate his shellshock, are defined by attachment to private myths, but these can manifest in very different ways. Doryan, for lacking them, chooses self-annihilation. Rosy is the obvious linchpin, her expansive nature intricately connected to the rhythms of the world. Charles, too, is defined by his fantasies, as hinted by his love of Beethoven, and manifesting when he traces the prints Rosy and Doryan have left on the beach, imagining Doryan in the dress uniform of another era’s cavalier and Rosy in a refined yellow dress, as Maurice Jarre’s intelligent score spirals in Beethoven-ish vigour. It’s a scene that bares the workings of Charles the man, and explicates his reaction to Rosy’s adultery, feeding as it does his own need for oversized gestures even as it tortures him. Michael is tormented by his adoration for Rosy, thinking, in his childish way, that if he does as the other men do at Rosy’s wedding, or if he imitates Doryan, that he might appeal to her. He tends to reflect the lacks of others back at them: the villagers’ casual cruelty in tearing off a lobster’s claw; the foolish enthusiasm in love of Rosie and Charles and of the villagers again in playing with weaponry; and echoing Doryan’s gammy leg when following him. The villagers cling to a different fantasy of transcendence, that of the rebellion, a fantasy consummated in aiding O’Leary haul the weapons from the grip of an apocalyptic storm.
To approach Lean’s “epics” without a sense of his use of landscape as not merely backdrop but a spiritual barometer for his characters, a pantheistic linkage of human nature and elemental rhythm, is to miss much of their point. But it’s there in the throb and rush of the trains that drive through Brief Encounter and in Madeleine, where the electrified, sensual reels of the poor dancers offsets the surrender of bourgeois Madeleine to sexual passion. It’s present in the clawing trees and blasted spaces that terrify Pip in Great Expectations, and the manifestation of Miss Havisham’s diseased psyche that is her house, which Pip, unlike his counterpart in Dicken’s novel, awakens to and revolts. Lean, the product of a Quaker upbringing in which a private ethical compass is paramount, rebelled and led an often errantly sensual life himself, full of fractious unions. He gravitated to such fraught tales of friction between just such a compass and fervent impulse. In his later films, there is a larger contrast between that sort of private confusion, and larger, less easily perceived patterns of duty and manipulation. In Ryan’s Daughter, Rosy’s need for eruptive passion hands the villagers a scapegoat when O’Leary is caught and the guns impounded right at the moment of their triumph. His capture was the fault of Rosy’s own father, equally given as he is to proselytising for the rebellion but happy to collect money as an informer who, finally, is forced to betray O’Leary.
At the film’s heart is sex—indeed, bad sex: subjects still new to the mainstream cinema at the time, the latter hardly tackled directly before. Specifically, it highlights the crushing failure that is Charles and Rosy’s wedding night, when he, crippled by anxiety and repression, and she, hoping for a transcendent glory, are both left stewing, having passed through a Hogarthian nightmare of a wedding feast in which the bored, horny locals mock the anxious couple, subject Rosy to a parade of meaty kisses, and pelt the windows of their room with grain. And yet, Charles is a strong, virile man—he’s Robert Mitchum, after all—and Rosy and he have a charged exchange when she encourages him to sit without his shirt after a day’s digging during tea so she can enjoy the sight of his body. Later, when Rosy and Doryan rendezvous for their first coupling, they ride into a dark forest, the floor of which is lined with purplish flowers, tinged both with unknowable threat and promise. Ironically, the following sexual coupling is the only misjudged one in the movie, using corny, natural motifs to reflect the tides of Rosy’s orgasm.
Rosy’s search for personal bliss explicitly contrasts the town’s search for communal excitement, cut off as it is from direct expression of passions. “It’s either married or virgin ‘round ‘ere,” Doryan’s predecessor as commander of the camp (Gerald Sim), warns him. Early on, the lads and lasses of the town stand on opposite sides of the single street, eyeing each other in teasing, frustrated ranks. When Michael comes between them, brandishing the colossal lobster he’s caught that seems to encapsulate both his own personal ugliness and the arbitrariness of cruelty, the young men fall on him to the wailing, hysterical delight of the girls. It’s a sexless orgy that anticipates the great communal frenzy on the beach, and then Rosy’s Calvary, during which the whole town delights in stripping off her clothes, cutting off her hair, and mocking her sensuality.
Despite the film’s breadth, the most telling details come in small, even barely perceivable gestures: when Doryan strips off his overcoat, halting a typist’s labours in recognising the telltale red ribbon on his tunic; when Rosy realises that her father is the traitor everyone thinks she is; the sand that confirms Rosy’s adultery, caked in her hat; when Rosy rushes out to greet Doryan in the night, thinking Charles is asleep, and a cut back to Charles watching them from their house immediately severs the romantic intensity of the moment, halting the swooning surge in the score with the force of a punch in the belly. Ideas are filtered through chains of imagery and totems of character.
How Lean shoots his characters, especially in the first 15 minutes, encapsulates their relationships to both the world and themselves. Rosy reigns on the clifftops and meadows, adrift like her wind-snatched parasol. Hugh and Michael are at home in the bitter honesty of the sea. Charles is constantly walking the sand of the beach, between the two realms, and discerns Rosy’s affair through the marks it leaves there. Doryan, when he arrives, is insistently associated with stark, rough-hewn stone and the ruins of the ship in which he finally destroys himself in an auto de fé. The townsfolk always appear in masses, sliced through by or enveloping the major figures. Like Zhivago and the Dickens works he adapted early on, Ryan’s Daughter is droll, but increasingly, unamusingly barbed in its caricature of self-important, self-appointed apostles who shrink before individuals whose authority of spirit is unquestioned, but, like termites, overwhelm the heroes with their numbers.
It’s perhaps legitimate to criticise the film for conflating disparate ideas—D. H. Lawrence sensuality in the woods abutting a Flaubertian scorn for provincialism and private fantasies, with some of Synge’s roughneck poeticism and acid portraits of the Celtic character for flavour. And yet it’s precisely the film’s contrapuntal rhythm contrasting those different aspects that is its soul and point, the alternations of whimsy and tragedy, ardour and humiliation. The smallness of gestures revealing the largest of failings, the contrasts that interrogate rhetorical tropes like “love” and “bravery,” the latter as crucial an element as the former. “A brave man’s a brave man,” Ryan says to Doryan as both compliment and rebuke when he comes to drink in the pub, “whether in Irish green, British khaki, or German grey.” Ryan works himself to a pitch of heroism in pulling guns from the eye of the storm, after calling up his English masters who will wait to deflate the heroic moment. Doryan, in listening to the Captain’s account of his own fear that he’ll disgrace himself in battle, can only tell him: “You don’t know what you’ll do.” All he remembers of battle is cowering and squirming in the muck. It becomes clear in the end that Charles, with his unflinching capacity to face the worst in himself and the world and still stand up, is the bravest chap around.
Mills won a Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Michael, and he does it supremely well, but it’s a gift considering the role, and Howard and McKern would have been just as rightly rewarded if they’d gained the statuette. Mitchum’s presence in the film is odd, and yet, on reflection, it’s hard to see anyone else doing a better job; his Irish accent is fine, and that resolutely down-to-earth style he possessed as an actor serves his character’s gentleness perfectly. Miles was Oscar-nominated, but lost to Glenda Jackson’s similarly lusty, ambitious character in Women in Love. Still, Miles plays Rosy beautifully, achieving that most difficult of arcs in film acting—not just growing older, but growing up. Broader, but enjoyable performances come from Marie Keen and Arthur O’Connell as the village’s chief bigots, Mr. and Mrs. McCardle, and Evin Crowley as the tarty, nasty Moureen, who blooms in girlish joy when she gets an excited kiss from O’Leary. Jones practically disappeared after this film, by his own choice, but he was extremely effective here, perhaps even more than Lean’s original choice Marlon Brando might have been: his Doryan is deeply alienated, almost operating on a different time scale to the rest of the characters, and certainly living in a different reality to them. He vaguely portends Michael Sarrazin’s Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), insofar as he looks like a romantic hero and yet is crudely stitched together, an alien being created by the shock of modernity.
It’s confirmed in the finale that heroism can be the opposite of what it can appear to be. Charles and Rosy have to muster real courage and walk out of the town pretending that their marriage is solid and that they don’t care about the locked doors and jeering whistles that send them off. They continue to maintain their self-possession even when the wind snatches away Rosy’s hat, revealing the horror that is now her hair to a stunned Michael. The end is, in a way, a cleansing fire, and, interestingly, Charles and Rosy are the only characters in a Lean epic to emerge in one piece, galvanised in personality and outlook. In bidding them farewell, Hugh crossly tells Charles that if they’re thinking they’re better off splitting up, “I doubt it! That’s my gift to you—that doubt!” It’s not much of a comfort, but we still feel like cheering.