David Lean is one of the best directors in the history of cinema. He signed Oscar-winning productions like Dr. Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia, to name just three productions. When he decided to make the romantic drama Ryan’s Daughter, he was at his peak. Nothing could go wrong. But it did.
The story is almost an English version of the classic Madame Bovary, but shot in Ireland, using the conflict with England as a backdrop. American actor Robert Mitchum, in an unusual role, was the biggest star of the cast, which included John Mills, Leo McKern, and Sarah Miles.
In a small isolated town in the north of Ireland, young Rose, inexperienced and without many possibilities to change her life, marries a much older man, even though she is warned that it would be a mistake. She quickly becomes frustrated with the lackluster union and ends up getting involved with a young British major, traumatized by the war.
The love of the two is true, but contrary to the morals of a repressive period and, even more, for being with a man of enemy nationality. What no one knows is that Rose’s father Ryan is actually an informant for the British Army, and when the affair between Rose and the Major is accidentally revealed, she is hounded and humiliated around town as if she were the movement’s traitor rebel.
The film, all shot in loco, took another two years to complete. Behind-the-scenes stories about David Lean‘s perfectionism are legendary, like the one the director stopped shooting for weeks because he didn’t capture the image he wanted of the wind moving the clouds.
The storm sequence alone took a year to be in the exact conditions that David Lean envisioned. The camera used special equipment, a kind of coupled glass that rotated at great speed to prevent water drops from fogging up the lens. It was not for nothing that one of the Oscars that the film won, in 1971, was precisely for photography. In fact, the images of Ryan’s Daughter, filmed in Super Panavision, are so perfect that Ron Howard used them as a reference to make Far and Away, 22 years later.
In addition to the director’s slowness, the cast also had some problems. Sarah Miles, married at the time to the screenwriter (Robert Bolt), did not get along with Christopher Jones, her romantic partner. The actor, also American as Mitchum, had to be dubbed for not getting the English accent right, generating great frustration for all.
Critics lambasted the film, considered it sluggish (more than three hours) and silly. Cult status was almost immediate and Ryan’s Daughter was actually a box office success. What no one dares to criticize is John Mills‘ performance as the handicapped Michael, which won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1971.
Perhaps calling the film a “love story” diminishes what it really is about, the nationalist conflict that leads to the Irish and supports the German enemies in order to fight the British.
David Lean was extremely hurt by the negative reaction to Ryan’s Daughter. He stayed 14 long years without working again until 1984 (when he won another Oscar, with A passage to India). Today, Ryan’s Daughter is basically praised for what had been considered negative.
It’s not an easy movie to find, but it’s worth it.