Ryan’s Daughter: David Lean’s unfairly maligned masterpiece finds the great British director returning to his roots to create his most personal and ambitious epic

Ryan’s Daughter (1970) is considered to be the great British director David Lean’s lone artistic misfire. But this film, an epic romance set on the wild west coast of Ireland and starring such stalwarts like Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, John Mills and Sarah Miles, is one of Lean’s most personal and ambitious films.

In a long wide shot we see a huge cliff towering above the ocean, with the ocean waves lashing at its feet; we then see the tiny figure of Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) running towards the edge of this cliff: she’s chasing her parasol that is floating down the cliff towards the sea. She runs hard but she’s unable to grab the parasol and, from her perspective high above the cliff, we see the parasol being swallowed up by the waves below. This is how David Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter” begins, with one of the most breathtaking shots in movie history. The way Lean frames the figure of Rosy Ryan in tandem with the natural elements – mountain, wind, the sea, the sky – in this opening sequence is brilliant, and brilliantly cinematic, befitting the director who has committed some of the most visually astounding sequences ever to film. Without using a single line of dialogue, Lean establishes the character of Rosy, and the importance of the part played by these natural elements in the development of the lead characters and the film’s story. “Ryan’s Daughter” is Lean’s least-plot-heavy and most visual film. It is based on an original screenplay developed by Lean and his frequent collaborator, the illustrious screenwriter Robert Bolt. After making three back to back mega epics – “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” – that were all adapted from works of literature, Lean was ready to make a purely visual epic that will not be bogged down by excessive plot or dialogue. The film also finds the British director getting back to United Kingdom to tell a story set in Ireland- as opposed to his previous trio of films that told stories that were set in Asia and Russia. Also, after a series of epic adventure films centered around its masculine heroes, the director, who started out by making small-scale British films that more or less centered around its proto-feminist heroines, as in “Blithe Spirit” or “Summertime,” was going to tell a story that centers around a feisty heroine again- as the title itself suggests. Though, like all Lean films, the women’s character will be analyzed in relation to the men who surrounds her.

Ryan’s Daughter” is basically a triangular love story set in 1917 on an Irish coastal village named Kirrary, located on Dingle Peninsula. The titular character, Rosy Ryan, is a 20-year-old Irish girl, who is the daughter of a pub keeper (and overtly IRA sympathizer) Tom Ryan (Leo McKern). She is married to a gentle but diffident schoolteacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum), who is 20 years her senior. Unhappy in her sexless, passionless marriage, Rosy falls in love with a young British officer, Major Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones)- a cripple suffering from PTSD after his stint on the Western Front. The ‘Quasimodo’-like village idiot, Michael (John Mills), is also in love with Rosy and, in his attempt to win over her love, he unknowingly uncovers evidence of Rosy’s indiscretion. As news of Rosy’s affair with Doryan spreads through the village (filled with nationalists, who publicly taunts the occupying British soldiers), Shaughnessy chooses to remain silent and wait patiently for Rosy’s infatuation to pass. Things go from bad to worse when a group of IRA insurgents are arrested by Doryan after Rosy’s father (who is secretly a paid informer for the British) informs on them. The villagers assume that Rosy is the informer, and publicly humiliates her:  by shearing off her hair and stripping off her clothes.. Realizing that his very presence has caused disgrace for Rosy, Doryan kills himself. Rosy and Shaughnessy decides to separate, and they also leave the village for good.

When David Lean set out to make “Ryan’s Daughter” in the late 1960s,he was at the peak of his career. He was the highest paid, and one of the most respected and decorated directors in the world. He had three back to back critical and commercial blockbusters behind him, not to mention a string of highly respected small-scale British films he made prior to that, including adaptations of works of Charles Dickens and Noel Coward. On “Ryan’s Daughter,” Lean was once again working with all the master craftsmen who made his preceding films special. Bolt (who had adapted both “Lawrence..” and “..Zhivago”) was writing the script, the great cinematographer, Freddie Young, who won Oscars for “Lawrence” and “Zhivago,” was cranking the camera, and Maurice Jarre, whose ‘Lara theme’ for Zhivago had become an international sensation, was composing the music. Also, the story of (an adulterous) doomed romance set against revolution was filled with Lean’s pet themes, and provided him with all the raw material necessary to make a visually and literarily compelling film. Above all, Lean, being the most powerful director in industry, had all the freedom, time and money to make the film the way he wanted: he spent almost a year developing the script with Bolt, and then spent a grueling 20 months or so on locations shooting it without compromising a bit – if he wanted a storm he waited for a real storm; if he wanted a white beach with clear skies, then he went looking all over the world for it, and wouldn’t shoot until he had found the perfect location; and he had an actual village set build, complete with real (and not facades) houses, pubs and streets, so that he can shoot the interiors on location. In short, “Ryan’s Daughter” should have been the grand culmination of Lean’s career. But, today, the film is considered by many to be Lean’s worst film- some don’t even know that the maker of “Lawrence” and “Zhivago” actually made a film called “Ryan’s Daughter.” Upon its release, the film was met with universal critical derision; the criticism was so severe that it drove a proud Lean into exile for almost 14 years. His next (and last) film “A Passage to India” will be released only in 1984. This despite the fact that the film was a popular hit; contrary to the general perception that the film was a flop, which is mainly fuelled by the critical backlash, the film was the 4th highest grossing film of the year internationally- the returns being almost double that of its investment; though it’s true that the film was not as successful as either of his three preceding epics.

So what went wrong?. For starters, Lean made a film that was very different from his previous epics. Despite its lengthy running time, and the story of romance playing out against the backdrop of tumultuous historical events, “Ryan’s Daughter” is a very small, intimate film that was more interested in the very subtle rhythms of life and character interactions. In his previous epics, Lean was tackling grand, eventful stories. What Lean did with those stories was to find an intimate core to them. Here, he goes in an artistically opposite direction: he has a pretty uneventful and very simple story at his disposal, and he is trying to give an epic dimension to this story. He is using the large canvas filled with natural elements like sea, sky, storms and mountains to visually depict the emotional state and emotional relationship of the film’s characters. There is absolutely no large scale battle scenes here, like the ‘raid on Aqaba,’ or the blowing up of the bridge. The film also does not have a dynamic and charismatic personality, like T.E. Lawrence of Col. Nicholson, holding center stage. The film is full of characters that subverts the usual archetypes that populate a stirring epic; characters are flawed, passive and damaged, with the eponymous heroine being the most unsympathetic. Nothing explains Lean’s subversive tendencies more than the casting of the ultra-masculine Robert Mitchum as the timid and sexually-unconfident school teacher; or the casting of the very refined and polished John Mills as the mute, ugly half-wit. For once, Lean wanted to create an epic of moods and emotions- and not created by featuring a cast of thousands, showing horses and camels thundering across spectacular snowy\desert vistas, or thrilling scenes of derailing trains and massive military maneuvers.

One of the greatest set pieces that Lean creates for the film (and no, it’s not the fabled storm sequence, which of course is magnificent, but that’s typical of a Lean epic) is Rose and Shaughnessy’s wedding sequence. The sequence starts somberly enough, with a tense Shaughnessy, with trembling hands, putting the ring on Rosy’s finger. After that, the whole village joins in for the wedding celebrations, as the bride, groom, bride’s father and the parish priest, Father Collins (Trevor Howard), looks on sitting across a giant table. And, with every passing minute, the celebrations become rowdier and rowdier, as the tension inside the bride and groom – in anticipation of the wedding night – grows. Finally, the crowd parts as the bride and groom head toward the bedroom to consummate their marriage. But before that there is one last ‘ritual’ to be completed: the drunken (and by now, after the almost orgiastic feasting, in throes of a sexual frenzy) village youngsters takes turn to kiss the bride- who’s already close to a nervous breakdown in trepidation of her first sexual experience. The moment almost devolves into a ‘gang rape’ of sorts, with the amorous young men literally forcing themselves on a shell-shocked Rosy. Shaughnessy somehow manages to extract her from the revelers, and takes her safely to the wedding chamber. But their troubles are not over: even as they undress and begins to make love, the revelers continue noisily partying below, pelting their window with corn, and subtly mocking Shaughnessy’s inability in satisfying the bride. It goes without saying that the resulting sexual encounter turns out to be a huge disappointment for Rosy, as a nervous Shaughnessy penetrates her quickly and, after making sure she’s all right, slides off to sleep with his back turned to her. The camera lingers on Rosy’s bewildered face, who can’t believe that what just transpired was the moment she has been so luridly fantasizing all this time. This sequence, more than all those breathtaking shots of tiny figures set against magnificent landscapes, showcases Lean’s unique gifts as a filmmaker. The way he builds up the contrasting moods of fervent anticipation and trepidation in the newly married couple of their first sexual encounter is phenomenal- the framing, camera movements, lighting and above all the brilliant editing of visuals and sound being pitch perfect. Not to mention the fact that the sequence is one of the best depiction of weddings as a debauched tribal ritual. The scene is Lean’s grand polemic on the sexual hypocrisy and the nature of marriages in a conservative society- the bacchanalian nature of the wedding feast brilliantly contrasted with the later sequence when villagers publicly humiliate Rosy for her sexual transgressions\presumed betrayal. In both these cases, there is a sense of Rosy being publicly ‘raped’ and, in the latter case, she is actually disfigured, her old virile, sexually aggressive self completely destroyed.

One also has to admire Lean for how well he uses natural elements to represent his characters. The sea represents Rosy’s untameable spirit, and when she finally goes out of the confines of her marriage (and the conservative society) to have an adulterous affair, there literally is a sea storm, which would alter her life forever. Most of Shaughnessy’s sequences takes place on the beach – the point where land and sea meet. It’s where he first meet Rosy, and then later, it’s from the footmarks left on the beach that Shaughnessy discovers his wife’s extramarital affair- the moment, presented as a ‘dream\hallucination sequence,’ is truly unique and something far removed from what Lean had ever done. Doryan is symbolized by land, very rough-hewn and scarred, and thereby establishing his romance with Rosy as something forbidden. The only time the film moves away from the sea (and the coastal village) and into the dark, green woods is in the sequence where Rosy and Doryan makes love for the first time (another beautiful sequence that was mocked by the critics of the day as being too corny, but something that i find mesmerizing, where (again) natural elements are very effectively used). We hardly see Doryan with the sea in the background, and the only time he is pictured against the sea is when he commits suicide – his ultimate sacrifice to protect the honor of the woman whom he can never fully possess. The Rosy-Doryan romance can also be seen as a metaphor for the love\hate relationship that exist between the Irish and the English; the English may occupy the land, but the only relationship that they can establish here is an ‘adulterous’ one, which will end in tragedy for both. All this only confirms the fact that, with this film, David Lean made another great epic, where the ‘micro’ story of a small group of people in an Irish village informs on a larger ‘macro’ politico-historical tale in which the ‘elements of nature’ plays an important part- the Dingle peninsula is practically a supporting player in the film (and (indirectly) won an Oscar through the win for Freddie Young’s splendid cinematography). But it is a very different kind of an epic; an impressionistic epic that does not sweep you of your feat, and demands a lot more involvement from the audience. Perhaps, Lean became a victim of his own image: people came to see more of what he had already given them in his previous epics, but what they got was what they least expected from him.

Of course, the other reasons for the film’s lukewarm reception are more obvious. By 1970, cinema was changing, and people were moving away from the very refined, sophisticated and grand films that Lean was making. Critics (and audiences) were preferring rough, stylized and gritty, small-scale movies like “Midnight Cowboy” and “Easy Rider.” that were made on the fly and on shoe-string budgets. A very classy, meticulously crafted and classically made 3 hr.+, 70mm roadshow epic must have seemed like a fossil back then. But truth be told, “Ryan’s Daughter” is a more envelope-pushing movie, either stylistically or thematically, than any of the New-Hollywood films made at the time; and while those films had dated pretty badly – i find it impossible to sit through “Easy Rider” today, “Ryan’s Daughter” has aged pretty well, and is a film that continues to give me immense pleasure every time I watch it. And just to expand on those points, New-Hollywood cinema may have been progressive on several fronts, but one thing that they always lagged behind is in creating strong, multidimensional female characters. Jane Fonda in “Klute” or “Coming Home” or a Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown” is more the exception than the rule. “Ryan’s daughter” has an individualistic girl\women at the film’s narrative center. The film is her ‘coming of age’ tale, in the course of which, where we see her abandoning many of her romantic notions about life and being forced to confront life’s harsh realities. We also see her exerting her sexually aggressive side in a very conservative and masculine world where a women is either a daughter or a wife, and nothing more. Though she ultimately gets punished for her transgressions, the punishment becomes more an act of self-sacrifice from her part to protect her cowardly father, whom she realizes has betrayed his people. We see her go from a girl into a woman; from being someone’s daughter to being someone’s wife and then somebody else’s lover, and finally, being her own self, after being stripped off all her relationships (and literally stripped off her former self). This kind of narrative arc for a female character is something that we rarely find even in a classic Hollywood\British films, leave alone a New-Hollywood film. The film’s technical flourishes are obviously awe inspiring any day, with the meticulous care given to every filmmaking department, while many of the New-Hollywood films, with their avant-garde technical aesthetic of shaky camera work, down & dirty production design & lighting techniques and non-linear (and sometimes downright confusing) editing style has aged very badly. David Lean is a master technician, and there is nobody who can compose a frame better than him, every frame in the film is as beautiful as a painting; the film is worth watching purely for its sensory pleasures alone.

This is not to say that “Ryan’s Daughter” is a flawless masterpiece. Nope, this is not “Lawrence of Arabia,” which, for me, is a perfect film by all standards. There are a few things that isn’t quite right with this film. Maurice Jarre’s score has its moments, but its rather muted and even pedestrian in some portions, it doesn’t hit you like his previous scores for Lean films. Perhaps it was Lean’s idea not to have a lush score, but the film would have benefitted from such a score, with a more Celtic, folk music bent. The film also seems to go on a bit too long by the end; the last quarter hour or so could have been tightened; “Doctor Zhivago” also had the same pacing problems in the final act, but “Ryan’s Daughter” is a much more cohesive film than “Zhivago,” which got pretty disjointed by the end because of its abundance of events and characters. Here, Lean manages to focus squarely on the human story, and pushes the ‘revolution story’ and its participants pretty much to the background – almost to the level of window dressing; though the characters who are part of that story are much more interesting, and i would have liked to see them explored more- like the hypocritical, cowardly and two-faced Tom Ryan, the domineering father of Rosy, played superbly by Leo McKern; as well as Barry Foster’s intensely gritty IRA leader Tim O’Leary.

But the film’s biggest flaw is the casting of Christopher Jones, who, despite looking the part, is terrible in his role- stiff, wooden and mostly disinterested; Lean has done his best to cover up the actor’s deficiencies by using imaginary framing, BGM and lighting as well as dubbing his lines with another actor to convey the emotions that the actor fails miserably to convey, but still the actor’s performance is a sore spot in the film. Another performance that does not work for me is John Mills’ Michael, the actor struggles with a role that’s not well written, and is sometimes downright irritating playing a cross between a love-struck Quasimodo and a pantomiming Sherlock Homes like sleuth unearthing evidence of sinister activities in the village. I’m also not fully convinced of Sarah Miles central performance. There are times when it works really well; she expresses the restlessness and sexual frustrations of Rosy as well as the obsessiveness of her affair with Doryan pretty well, but there are times when she comes across as too hyper and a big cry baby. The two best performances in the film comes from Hollywood screen legend, Robert Mitchum and British thespian, Trevor Howard. Howard’s brilliant performance as the fiery Father Collins, the moral center of the village (and the film), is understandable; he is cast in a role that plays to his strengths. But Mitchum, one of the most masculine stars and the king of cool impenetrability, is absolutely convincing as a gentle, sensitive and even feminine school teacher. His casting is one of Lean’s daring artistic maneuvers that works splendidly; Mitchum’s performance in this film is one of the greatest in his career. Ultimately, “Ryan’s Daughter,” for me, stands today as David Lean’s most daring, ambitious and personal film. This is a film where he was trying to reconcile his past and his present as a filmmaker- the film is both a throwback to the small, intimate British films that he used to make at the beginning of his career, as well as the massive spectacles that he had become famous for in the latter part of his career. Though the critical consensus at the time was that he failed in this endeavor (overproduced, crumbling under its own weight etc. where the terms used by critics to describe the film), I believe he succeeded spectacularly.

7 thoughts on “Ryan’s Daughter: David Lean’s unfairly maligned masterpiece finds the great British director returning to his roots to create his most personal and ambitious epic

  1. David Lean made many films which I enjoy immensely – ‘Great expectations’, ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘Hobson’s choice’, ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘A Passage to India’, etc.

    I am not sure, however, that I number ‘Ryan’s Daughter ‘ among them. Yes, I take the point that Lean was trying to match visual symbolism brilliantly to emotional and political clashes in Ireland, and to characterisation. But I think the point alluded to, that an intimate story like this may have been better told without such a long running time, is a valid criticism. For that reason, I don’t think the film deserves the description ‘masterpiece’. I know a film like ‘Summertime’ is a pleasant romance rather than the tragedy of ‘Ryan’s Daughter’. It may not be a fair comparison therefore. But I enjoyed it far more than this epic- even though ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ is sometimes listed as among the significant films made in Ireland.

    At the same time, though I am not in a hurry to re-watch it, I agree that the film is unfairly maligned. The film should not have been vilified in the way it was by malicious critics.

    Brian Wilson.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Brian. I myself had mixed feelings about this film when i watched it the first time, but with every viewing it has grown on me, and, today, I do believe it is a truly great film,. It’s flawed, and it’s imperfect, and it has length issues as i mentioned in the piece, but i would still say it is a masterpiece, yeah, an imperfect one for sure.

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  2. This has always been one of the best and lingering films I have ever enjoyed. Sorry there wasn’t a way to say this to David Lean decades ago. Still think it a complete winner.

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  3. I found your article very interesting- thanks for posting it. The film is one of my favourites: great cinematography and locations. I did find Michael irritating and the soldier boring – couldn’t see why Rosey would go for him – other than there was no other candidate.

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    1. I am a huge fan of David Lean and his contribution to the movie industry. I agree that Ryan’s daughter was not recognised as a great movie initially, but it has to be watched at least 3 times to appreciate a master at work.

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    2. Yes I agree. Even I didn’t get it the first time I watched it. Because it was different from Lean’s previous films. But by the third time I was addicted to it

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