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Ryan's Daughter (1970) or "David Lean... What Happened, Old Chap?"

Ryan’s Daughter joins a long list of other films from the 1960s and ‘70s that I’ve owned on DVD for years, discs that usually sit on my shelves until I discover there’s no room for new acquisitions. Before last week, I’d estimate I’d owned Ryan’s Daughter for at least two or three years.

Part of my hesitation in watching it was probably due to the fact that the film is (1) over three hours long, (2) not well-regarded by most critics and audiences, and (3) hated by many Robert Mitchum fans. But I put all those hesitations aside last week. (SPOILERS ABOUND)


Let me start by saying I’ve researched very little about Ryan’s Daughter (loosely based on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). I also have a long, but unusual relationship with David Lean’s films. I saw The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) on WTBS (years before we had TCM) one Saturday afternoon. I loved the film, especially the performances and the examination of a man who realizes too late he’s made a monumental mistake.

I was in college when A Passage to India was released and totally fell into the film. (I didn’t read the E.M. Forster novel until many years later.) I loved the picture, the characters, the cinematography, and the fact that Alec Guinness appeared in both.

In watching the film while it was in theaters, I knew that Lean was a director I would want to explore further. I believed he was one of the current masters who would probably be gone soon. (Indeed, A Passage to India was his final film, not counting the 1979 documentary Lost and Found: The Story of a Cook’s Anchor). I felt I was watching a work of greatness from a gifted director just before he vanished forever.

Later I saw some of Lean’s other epics such as the stunning Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago (which I didn’t really care for), and was in awe of them, especially visually. I hoped that Ryan’s Daughter might tread on familiar territory. For the record, I’ve only seen two of Lean’s films before Kwai: Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946), both of which are masterful. (I know, this is a problem I must correct soon.)

Back to Ryan’s Daughter

How can you not love the Freddie Young cinematography in this film? It’s absolutely fantastic and certainly deserving of its Oscar win. There’s nothing in the look of the film that lessens my enjoyment in the least.

I can’t say that about the picture’s other aspects. The cast is a mixed bag, but that’s not totally the fault of the actors. (More on that in a moment.) Christopher Jones as the British Major Doryan is the weakest link, but at least he doesn’t have to do very much.

Even though Robert Mitchum is woefully miscast and playing as far against type as you can get, I enjoyed him in the role. It’s just so foreign to him, like asking a duck to play wide receiver. Mitchum had an awful time on the film, which you can read more about in his biography Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server.

Sarah Miles (nominated for an Oscar), Trevor Howard, John Mills (Oscar winner), Leo McKern, Barry Foster, and others are all mostly fine, and I’ll get into a bit more of the actors in a moment.

The Maurice Jarre score is equal parts wonderful and embarrassing. Jarre worked with Lean from Lawrence through A Passage to India, creating some stunning, sweeping musical moments that frequently complement the visuals, and this is certainly the case here in places. Yet Jarre also drops an anvil or two on our heads when he attempts to drive home the point that Mitchum’s character Charles is frustrated by Rosy’s behavior, or Thomas Ryan (McKern) is filled with anxiety about his secret. Why did Lean and Jarre think such blatant aural reminders were necessary? Did they not respect the audience enough?

The biggest disappointment for me with Ryan’s Daughter is its script. It’s all over the place. If the film is sprawling, that’s one thing. But if the film and the script are sprawling, you’ve got a long, uncontrollable mess, and if Lean enjoyed anything, it was control.

So what do we expect from a 3-hour epic? We have to know the characters, their motivations, and what they want. We get touches of this, but just brush strokes.

Mitchum’s Charles is a quiet widower largely uninterested (or unable to be interested) in sexual love. (Again, you would cast Mitchum for this role why, exactly?) He also lives a very routine and, let’s face it, boring life. (Again, you picked Mitchum for this?)

Rosy is filled with excitement and curiosity, but she’s also impatient. She’s going to stop at nothing to get what she wants (or thinks she wants).

From the get-go, Rosy is repulsed by the village idiot Michael (Mills). He sees Rosy as a thing of beauty, like the flowers he often carries. He wants to be close to that beauty, to hold it, kiss it, but Rosy is disgusted whenever Michael comes within a few feet of her. He is, as she will be as the picture progresses, shunned and laughed at by the locals. Unlike him, however, she will be not only shunned, but also scorned and hated by the community.

Michael also becomes interested in explosives, which could destroy not only him, but the entire village. He doesn’t know what he’s doing until Major Doryan shows him what even the smallest of explosives is capable of doing. Rosy also is flirting with disaster with Major Doryan, and the consequences of her acts are far more explosive to her and the community.

These are aspects of the film that don’t need to be overplayed, but could’ve been given a little more attention. I could explore these characters and how the screenplay could’ve made these connections stronger, but we also have the subplots of the hatred of the Irish locals for the occupying British, the local informer, the storm and its aftermath, Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster) and his small band of Irish Republican Brotherhood men, and the themes of waning respect for religion represented by Father Collins (Trevor Howard), the future of Ireland, and more.

But I want to now focus on a few things I noticed about this film and Lean’s next and final non-documentary film A Passage to India. (SPOILERS HERE AS WELL)

Both Rosy and A Passage to India’s Adela Quested (Judy Davis) are interested, if not obsessed, with their quests. (Quested. I see what you did there, E.M. Forster…) Rosy’s quest: to land a husband, an acceptable way to satisfy her desires, and Adela’s, to experience “the real India,” but there’s much more she wants to experience. Both women have similar features: fair skin, the same shade of brown hair, a pretense of the niceties of society. Yet while Rosy is primarily pursuing a blind passion, Adela is filled with quiet anxiety over her upcoming marriage to Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), the British magistrate in Chandrapore.

It’s been years since I’ve seen A Passage to India, but there’s a scene where Adela explores a wooded area by herself. She comes upon a series of statues depicting sexuality. This scene provides an awakening in Adela that we don’t see in Rosy (at least not quite in the same way). It also prepares us for Adela’s accusation that her new friend Dr. Aziz Ahmed (Victor Bandejee) attempted to rape her inside the Marabar Caves. (Interestingly, Ryan’s Daughter has a brief shot of a cave, suggesting that Rosy and Major Doryan enjoyed a tryst there.)

That element of mystery in A Passage to India is one of the driving forces of the film. Since we, the audience, don’t get to experience that moment, we’re always wondering what really happened up to (and beyond?) the film’s ending. The elements of mystery in Ryan’s Daughter are far lesser. We may be surprised that Rosy and Charles are together at the film’s end, but how long will they be together? The biggest mystery at the conclusion is whether anyone will ever discover the identity of the village’s true informer.

Other comparisons come to mind, but I have already taken what I thought would be a short post and turned it into a length approaching Leanian proportions.

I don’t believe Lean was necessarily trying to “fix” the problems that plagued Ryan’s Daughter in making A Passage to India, but the latter film is more satisfying to me personally. In a manner of speaking, I love Ryan’s Daughter and wish it had been better. I’m sure A Passage to India has it’s problems, those I’ve forgotten or have yet to discover, but it is a film I treasure, perhaps due to when I saw it and where I was in my personal and cinematic journey. (There's a reason I call this Journeys in Darkness and Light.)

I’m sure we all have such films. Feel free to share yours. Thanks for reading.

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A very perceptive, well-written, and balanced review. Thank you for sharing your insights!

May 19, 2023
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Thank you, and thanks for reading! Stop by anytime.

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