When the producers assembled the team for this 1970 reworking of Flaubert's
Madame Bovary, they must have
thought it was going to be a film for the ages. The director was David Lean,
considered the world's most distinguished director of epics. Here's how his
previous three films are rated at IMDb:
Arabia, 29th best of all time.
The Bridge on
the River Kwai, 57th best of all time.
Those three films were all major financial successes. Zhivago had been the #2 film of 1965,
grossing $111 million. Lawrence of Arabia had been the #2 film of 1962, and
River Kwai had been the #1 film of 1957.
The screenwriter on the Ryan's Daughter project was Robert Bolt, who had
collaborated with Lean on Lawrence and Zhivago. The male stars of the film
were Robert Mitchum and Christopher Jones. Mitchum was a screen legend, and
Jones may have been the hottest young actor riding the wave of the
counter-cultural revolution, having had a phenomenal success in Wild in the
Streets, and having attracted fawning articles in the major newsmagazines.
What's that? You say you never heard of Christopher Jones? You can thank
Jones, a mumbly James Dean wannabe who took method acting so seriously
that he married the daughter (Susan) of the acting teacher (Lee Strasberg),
was cast against type as a shell-shocked British soldier stationed in
Ireland. The part was totally wrong for him. Not only was he uncomfortable
in the love scenes, but he could not master a British accent, and all of his
dialogue was post-dubbed by another actor.
Here is the story of how this casting occurred,
as told by Jon C Hopwood at
"After being shown "The Looking Glass War," Lean approved the casting
of Jones, who was offered $500,000 for the role, a near-superstar salary
in those days. (The biggest stars in the late `60s were typically offered
from $750,000 to $1 million, though a Richard Burton could bring down
$1.25 million against 10% of the gross). What Lean didn't realize was that
Jones's voice had been dubbed for "Looking Glass."
Jones flew to Ireland in March 1969 to commence the shooting of "Ryan's
Daughter," then budgeted at a rather hefty $12 million ($70 million in
2005 dollars). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer President Robert O'Brien was hoping for
another "Zhivago" sized hit, and had provided Lean with a distinguished
cast, including Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, and John Mills, who would
go on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Sylvia Miles, the wife of
Robert Bolt (for whom he had written his screenplay) would win a Best
Actress Oscar nomination in the role of the eponymous "Ryan's Daughter."
Having made his career based on his resemblance to James Dean (i.e. on
looks, rather than talent), in TV and B-pictures Jones proved unable to
match this caliber of acting.
Lean shot the movie in sequence, so Jones' first scene with Miles was when
his character, Major Doryan, an officer suffering from shell shock from
the battlefields of the First World War, falls to the floor of her
father's bar as he suffers a flashback. Rosy calms Doryan and the
vibration between the two bursts like a German shell on the Western Front.
The major throws himself upon Rosy, pinning her to a wall, from which
position he engages her in a passionate kiss. Lean was dissatisfied with
the playing of the scene and called for retake after retake. Lean even
physically pushed Jones against Miles for one take. As Lean ordered retake
after retake, Jones' confidence began to lag. An angry Lean finally gave
up after 30 takes.
Jones' performance, as captured on film, is virtually monosyllabic. As Lean realized that he had made the mistake of his
career in casting Jones in the role, he was forced to build up the
business of Jones' character's aide-de-camp, the Captain played by Gerald
Sim. Though Jones had brooding good looks, his acting was simply not up to
the demands of a script that demanded a sophisticated performer, let alone
one of the caliber of Brando. Eventually, Lean was forced to have Jones'
dialog dubbed, using Julian Hollaway.
Jones' confidence was further undermined when he watched rushes of the
scene in which his character stops an I.R.A. truck. Jones was dismayed by
how badly he had looked in the scene, and wondered why Lean would have
allowed him to continue to play the scene. Daunted by the logistics of
making his film in the unforgiving weather of Ireland, Lean had given up
on eliciting a performance from Jones."
Jones found his life in turmoil after this film. Humiliated by having been
re-dubbed in two consecutive films, and completely incapacitated by the
murder of his friend Sharon Tate, he suffered a "nervous breakdown" (his
words), and would essentially never act again. He had been ubiquitous in
1968-70, and was suddenly gone from the industry altogether.
The film was not much kinder to the career of David Lean. Ryan's Daughter was
savaged by the critics, including a young Roger Ebert, and received an
especially harsh review from the prestigious Pauline Kael. The film was only
a moderate success at the box office. It took in $30 million, nowhere near
the top five for the year, and a disaster by David Lean's standards. Lean
would not get behind the camera again for another 14 years.
So what's wrong with the film?
Well, besides the wooden Jones, not that much really, except a greatly inflated view of its own
significance. There had been good contextual justifications for the epic scope of Lean's
previous films. He was telling the story of the Asian theater in WW2, the
Russian Revolution, and the British struggle to control the Middle East.
There was no such grandiose backdrop for Ryan's Daughter. It's essentially a
simple little romantic triangle between a genteel small-town Irish virgin, her gentle
(and middle-aged) schoolteacher husband, and a sexually vigorous but
psychologically damaged young
British officer in the WW1 era. It takes place in a village on the desolate wind-swept
western coast of Ireland, the last outpost of Europe. Lean took this modest,
personal story and gave it the full epic treatment: symphonic music (the
film even has an overture, like a Broadway play!), sweeping landscapes, and
a running time of three and a half hours. It's not a bad little story at
all, but not one which merited such a grandiose scope. It almost seems like
an Ernie Kovacs comedy concept. "Sure, it's easy to make an epic about the
Russian Revolution, but I'll bet you couldn't make a four-hour epic about ... CORKS!"
There are a few other problems worth mentioning. The most significant is
that Lean decided to make a film about Ireland without actually hiring any
Irish actors for the five major Irish roles. Robert Mitchum is American. Leo
McKern has an Irish name, but is an Australian who was completely
Anglicized. Trevor Howard, Sarah Miles and John Mills are British. On the
other hand, the one significant part which actually called for a British
actor, the shell-shocked officer, went to an American! As you might expect,
the people of Ireland didn't give this film a particularly warm reception,
since it told their story from the British point of view, employed
stereotypical Irish characters, and used British performers to do so.
The film had one other liability in 1970 which no longer applies. David
Lean had been the master filmmaker of the era before the counter-cultural
revolution, but he missed the 1970 zeitgeist. By the time 1970 came along,
Lean seemed like a fossil. His style of portentous picture-postcard films
was being swept aside by more low-key, casual, sincere, dingy, sexually explicit, cinema verité films like Easy Rider,
M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces, and Midnight Cowboy.
Lean seemed hopelessly out of touch with the changes in society and cinema.
If Doctor Zhivago had been released five years later, it too might have
bombed. As we look back on the film from 2007, the filmmaking style is no
longer a negative. In retrospect, Ryan's Daughter seems timeless, while many
other films of that era seem hopelessly dated by their quirky
counter-cultural mannerisms. David Lean's approach is like James Bond's
tuxedo - universal and always in style. Ryan's Daughter could just as easily
have been have been made in 1939 (ala Gone With The Wind) or 2005 (ala Cold
Mountain), while Easy Rider and some of its clones are era-bound, and now
seem as embarrassing for us aging boomers to look at as the ridiculous hair
styles and sideburns in our wedding pictures.
The film has positives, of course.
* Robert Mitchum's casting could have been as disastrous as Chris
Jones's, but he surprised the hell out of everyone by delivering a good
performance against type. The consummate laconic American tough guy, he
did a good job as the wimpy Irish schoolmaster who didn't know how to
please a woman sexually, but stood nobly by his wife after her adultery.
Most amazingly, the Irish people who comment on the movie generally agree that his accent, while
imperfect, was not so bad! (For the record, Pauline Kael ridiculed
his having been cast in this role.)
* John Mills won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his performance as the
village idiot. (Although I do not personally agree that this was merited
by his stereotypical Quasimodo-lookin' portrayal. Hollywood loves to honor
healthy actors who perform as handicapped people. In my opinion, his
character was not only too broadly drawn, but was unnecessary to the film
* Freddie Young won the Oscar for cinematography, as he had done for
Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. There is no doubt that this Oscar
was earned, but Young and Lean must have had some
sand left over from Lawrence of Arabia: