Ryan's Daughter: The making of the movie and the myth, 50 years on

Following the success of Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter should have been another hit for David Lean. On its 50th anniversary author and journalist Paul Rowan asks, why did it fail?

On the set of Ryan's Daughter. 'Lean waited, and waited, not just for sun, but also for big storms'
Paul Rowan

NIGEL Andrews, a Financial Times film critic, once described the making of Ryan's Daughter as "one of the great mythical Hollywood stories of all time. It seemed to have gone on for a hundred years while David Lean waited for the appropriate sunset or cloud formation."

Andrews was in conversation with the film's star Robert Mitchum, who was enjoying a double martini at the bar of a five-star Santa Barbara hotel.

"It was like building the Taj Mahal out of matchsticks," Mitchum recalled. The actor described the 11 months he spent living in Dingle as like being trapped on Devil's Island, albeit with unlimited visits and supplies of Chivas Regal, as he watched the rain pour down outside his window. He and the rest of the Ryan's Daughter production company got on famously with the locals, but still ennui set in. Ireland is very beautiful, Mitchum remarked, "if you could ever see it".

Lean waited, and waited, not just for sun, but also for big storms, which also refused to arrive. In terms of movie-making follies, it meant Ryan's Daughter would end up in the company of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and the Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Certainly it was the most ambitious movie project ever undertaken in Ireland, with shooting beginning in late 1968 and continuing well into 1970, long after Mitchum had been wrapped and sent away.

Yet the 50th anniversary of the release of the film, apart from a few posters in the shop windows of Dingle, is likely to pass off with barely any recognition that it was made at all. The film is widely viewed as Lean's great failure after a string of box-office hits. The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, between them, won 19 Oscars.

The story is based on Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, which tells the story of a young woman who enters into a passionless marriage to better herself, before embarking on an affair which will result in ruin for all three parties involved. It was adapted by the acclaimed screenwriter Robert Bolt, and Ryan's Daughter was initially passed off as an original story.

Madame Bovary ends in tragedy, yet Lean and the American backers were determined to give the film a happy ending. The film's plot centres on Rosy who cheats on her schoolteacher husband with a British major convalescing in the local barracks. The year is 1916 and Irish rebels lurk about, trying to land German arms with the help of the local villagers, until they are apprehended following a tip-off.

Rosy is then condemned by the vituperative villagers as a spy and has her hair chopped off in punishment. She ends up reuniting with her husband, a plot line which ultimately disappointed the screenwriter Bolt, who wanted real tragedy – Rosy to be tarred and feathered – but didn't have the clout to impose it.

Still, it was a strong plot line, and brave in dealing with some taboos of the time. Yet it was overshadowed by the vast Atlantic landscapes which Lean chose to shoot around the Dingle peninsula, reducing the personalities to mere pinpricks.

Critics hammered the movie, with Pauline Kael in The New Yorker being the most brutal as she picked up on its sense of displacement. "The only reasons for placing this story in 1916 were to legitimise the fact that every idea in it is shop-worn, and to build sets. In Ryan's Daughter the villagers never for an instant convince you that they live in that perfect village. The exigencies of the silly plot lead Bolt and Lean to be condescending to the Irish – a stuffy mistake when they're flogging themselves trying to whip up some of the wildness that the Irish are rich in."

Lean had suffered some terrible reviews for his previous film, Doctor Zhivago, but that was still a huge box-office success. Not so Ryan's Daughter. When audiences started leaving early, Lean was persuaded to cut 30 minutes from the film. It happened with some of his other films too, most notably Lawrence of Arabia, which had many of the cuts restored once its greatness was lauded. The same will never happen for Ryan's Daughter; a beautifully shot film for all its flaws, but an epic in how it was conceived and realised.

:: Paul Benedict Rowan is the author of Making Ryan's Daughter: The Myths, Madness and Mastery, available now, published by New Island Books.

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