Ryan's Daughter (Special Edition) Review
It is 1916 and two wars are being fought in Europe - the first world war as well as a guerilla war being fought by the IRA seeking independence from Britain. Years of direct rule have made the British soldiers no more welcome than they were when they first arrived and the Irish population bear their presence whilst quietly cheering on any successful attacks on them by the fledging IRA. On the Dingle peninsula in the southwest of the country, a small army camp is stationed close to a small, close-knit community that survives on fishing and farming with only the pub and a grocer's shop to break up the run of houses that line the road through the village. Only the daily bus offers a way out but even Dublin is more than a bus journey away - the distance between the village and the capital of Ireland cannot only be measured in miles.
Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles), the daughter of the landlord Tom Ryan (Leo McKern), feels herself to be above the small-town chatter of those who've made a home here and listens out for news from Dublin, even when it is only word of a concert recital that local schoolteacher Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) took in when he was up in the city. Their talking and the stroll along the beach that accompanies it is the first, stumbling turn in a romance that eventually sees them married but what Shaughnessy offers her is a dull, tweedy home in which she knits by the fire whilst he presses flowers and listens to his beloved gramophone. Where once Rosy was only trapped by her family, she is also now trapped by marriage and can do nothing as her ambitions remain unfulfilled, first amongst them being her falling in love.
But when the British office Major Doryan (Christopher Jones), Ireland being his first posting since seeing action in World War I, walks into her father's pub and has a panic attack, Rosy brings him round with soothing words and a soft touch, which is the first step in an affair that must remain a secret. In a village that small, though, nothing remains a secret for long and Rosy is no longer welcome for her fraternising with those that are seen as the enemy. At first, she doesn't care - Doryan has given her a glimpse of a passion that was all but dead - but when her father is forced to assist a group of IRA men recover arms and informs on them, the village believe that it was Rosy and they begin to take a most terrible revenge.
There are few countries who are more proud of their cultural heritage than Ireland. Calling itself the land of saints and scholars, Ireland has nurtured an image for itself as being above the petty squabbles of other nations and more as one concerned with higher ideals - of religion, of culture and of the arts. Irish folk music is known throughout the world and it reveres its writers as few other countries do, finding the passion is not unrequited. James Joyce, for example, despite living abroad for most of his life, has the events of Ulysses remembered in Bloomsday, a day of celebration (16 June) in Dublin where the novel is set, whilst, during his life, he claimed that were Dublin to be razed to the ground, it could be rebuilt brick-by-brick from his works. Even when asked when he would return to Dublin, Joyce replied, "Have I ever left it?"
As for films, The Quiet Man, The Field and The Commitments are all examples from varying times that have been made much of by a proud Ireland. The streets of Cong are busy with those retracing the steps of John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara whilst there was no small amount of pride in Jimmy Rabbitte declaring the Irish as, "the niggers of Europe." Where else in Europe could have hosted Self Aid, a Live Aid-styled concert that starred the mid-eighties cream of Irish musical talent - In Tua Nua, Brush Shiels and Chris de Burgh - as a means to help the less well off. Ireland has long fostered the talents of its sons and daughters and with the occasional exception - a Sir John Pentland Mahaffy said of Joyce, "[he] is a living argument in defence of my contention that it was a mistake to establish a separate university for the aboriginals of the island" - so too has its population.
All that is generally true but for Ryan's Daughter, which has not enjoyed the same level of adulation as The Quiet Man, being another film that watches a romance play out against the rugged Irish landscape. It may be that it's not a particularly good film, being an intimate love story stretched thin across David Lean's epic canvas. It may be that Ryan's Daughter, unlike the number of films set in Ireland that paint too rosy a picture of ruddy-faced folk sat atop a pony and trap, reveals something unflattering about its people, from their chattering in the street to the horrific punishment dealt out to Rosy Shaughnessy. It may even be that Ryan's Daughter was just a spectacularly badly timed release, coming out a year after the Troubles in Northern Ireland shone a harsh light on the problems of the country and how a new generation of the IRA, the Provisional IRA, were taking up the fight against the British as did the Official IRA in the film.
Ryan's Daughter is, of course, all three and can be summarised as being a very confused film. The scale of the production certainly doesn't help with Robert Bolt's rewrite of Madame Bovary coming across as insubstantial when set against the churning waters of the Atlantic and the clouds that roll down the cliffs. It is an astonishing looking film for that, though, but cinematographer Freddie Young gave the country a character that is stronger than any of those portrayed in the film with Christopher Jones, in particular, being of less interest than the shadows of the clouds that race over the lush green fields of Kerry. That issue with characters is also there in the villagers that line the roads and lanes of the town land in which Ryan's Daughter is set. Mrs. McCardle (Marie Kean) and Moureen (Evin Crowley) are particularly spiteful harridans set on drawing pleasure from the misfortune of others, be that from Michael (John Mills in an Oscar-winning performance) or from Rosy.
As for its portrayal of the IRA, we're both asked to see them as common criminals but also as a young men inspiring an uprising against the British. Early in the film, Tim O'Leary, once a hero of the IRA in Dublin and who now smuggles guns into the country, shoots a policeman dead on a quiet country lane after being recognised and our sympathies are clearly with the policeman, who exits the film being dropped into a disused mine but later, we're asked to celebrate when, against a raging storm, the village comes out to rescue the boxes of explosives, rifles and rounds of ammunition from the sea. The score certainly doesn't help, being jaunty and almost comic when there are moments of tension. The low point of this excessive joy is when Michael arrives at Rosy's house after an explosion is heard on the beach, with the soaring score being as out of place as had a comedy car-load of clowns accompanied him there.
Yet, even accepting all of that, Ryan's Daughter is almost rescued by Lean's wonderful visuals. Even at its most ludicrous, being the sex scene between Sarah Miles and Christopher Ryan in which the wind blows through the forest, two webs dance about one another, the sun breaks through the trees and dandelion seeds break away from the flower and settle on a lake. There is no score, just the sound of Miles and Jones breathing and of the wind. It is amongst the most ridiculous love scenes ever committed to film but it's probably the most affecting one - it may have been inspired by Mills & Boon but it's the only time that we see Rosy's passions being sated. Ireland may imagine itself to be a nation of saints and scholars but Ryan's Daughter impresses on the audience that it's more one of schoolteachers, village gossips and of petty jealousies, where revenge is taken on Rosy as much for her thinking that she's too good for the village where she grew up as for her affair with Major Doryan.
Where the IRA are concerned, the film appears to say that these men were rare indeed and that although they may have enjoyed popular support for their killing of British soldiers, your typical Irishman could not be called upon for service. Even Tom Ryan informs on the IRA in the end despite him having a picture behind his bar of him receiving a medal from Tim O'Leary (Barry Foster), then a commander in the IRA. That duplicity, cowardice even, is shown when Ryan phones the police even as he's assisting O'Leary in the tying up of the local police sergeant. Ryan's actions suggest that the IRA might be worth a, "God bless you, Tim O'Leary" but few Irishmen will stand up beside them when counted upon. O'Leary is presented as such as a heroic figure - making a run for it when faced with the guns of the British soldiers - that one can't be sure if Lean and Bolt want us to be enamoured with him even after his killing of the policeman early in the film as well as his casual threats much later. Their view of the IRA is very confused and out of place as the Provisional IRA were, a year after the release of Ryan's Daughter, breaking away from the Official IRA to begin a campaign that would last until very recently.
It's far from being a flattering film about Ireland and despite some comparison with The Quiet Man, the two films are not at all similar. Ford's film plays up to Ireland's image of its past - there, the IRA are represented by a pair of genial country folk out for a good time as much as they are the civil war. Ryan's Daughter, though, is a much more troubled affair, almost that, in its length, it forgets exactly what it is to be - comedy, drama, romance and short bursts of violence do not sit well together here. Similarly, it's no Lawrence Of Arabia and nor is it a Doctor Zhivago given that gun running in County Kerry is no match for the Russian revolution - had Ryan's Daughter been set in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising, there would have been more cause for comparison. Beautiful, yes but too long and with not enough of a story to carry it, Ryan's Daughter is something of a folly. It is, though, a grand one and never without interest, showing that in Lean's hands, a slender story may not carry well to the screen but it can still look wonderful and that is where the value of this film lies - a treat for the eyes if not for the heart.
Warner Brothers have done an outstanding job with this DVD, being a restoration of the film from a 65mm print that is in remarkably good condition. Here, it is simply beautiful with the rich colours and sparkle in the picture being faithfully reproduced on any equipment and noticeably improved on higher-end equipment. Indeed, the screenshots here don't really do the film justice as I watched Ryan's Daughter on a plasma screen via a HDMI interface and it really is one of the very best pictures that I've seen with a detail that's quite exceptional.
Similarly, the audio track, reproduced from the original 70mm 6-track recording is the equal of the picture with the rescue of the arms shipment from the sea being a clear highlight. The subwoofer handles the rolling waters whilst the front and rear speakers keep the crash of the waves moving about the room. Detail is excellent on the soundtrack and it copes with the silences of Shaughnessy's house just as well as it does his wedding to Rosy. Once again, it's just a marvellous transfer from a studio that is, by some distance, the very best at restoring archive releases.
Audio Commentary: Laurent Bouzereau, the producer of this Special Edition, hosts this track, which features various members of the cast and crew - Sarah Miles, Assistant Director Michael Stevenson, Location Manager Eddie Fowlie and Stuntman Vic Armstrong - as well as interested commentators like John Boorman and Hugh Hudson and informed relatives like Lady Sandra Lean and Petrine Day Mitchum, Robert Mitchum's Daughter. With so many contributors, it's something of a mixed bag with Boorman, as you'd expect, being very good indeed but Sarah Miles, Lady Sandra Lean and Petrine Day Mitchum are clearly not watching the film and their contributions appear to have been taken from interviews. It is reasonably good throughout with there being few silences and a great deal of background information on the film, some of which doubles up on the features that follow on the second disc.
The Making Of Ryan's Daughter: Broken into three parts - Storm Rising (27m46s), Storm Chaser (20m55s) and The Eye Of The Storm (14m11s) - this document, which has a Play All option, describes the making of Ryan's Daughter as well as the critical reaction to it. There's a very general view taken on the pre-production and the actual shoot of Ryan's Daughter with this documentary pulling away from that for a few specific scenes, being Michael arriving in the village with his lobster, the villagers taking their revenge on Rosy and the rescue of the arms shipment from the Atlantic. The final part of the documentary examines Lean's reaction to the critical drubbing handed to Ryan's Daughter, after which he retired from directing feature films for fourteen years. The impression given is that it was reviews like Pauline Kael's that drove Lean out of the business but what can be picked up across this set is that he simply couldn't get the material off the ground until 1984's A Passage To India, which includes his failure to make Mutiny On The Bounty.
We're The Last Of The Travelling Circuses (20m02s): Very much like a PR release today, this BBC Film Night documentary on the making of Ryan's Daughter shows up intermittently in The Making Of Ryan's Daughter but this is well worth a look for an interview with Robert Mitchum in which he reveals his reason for joining the cast of the film. That it has something to do with him committing suicide and Robert Bolt agreeing to bear the cost of his funeral suggests that it's not to be taken entirely seriously.
Ryan's Daughter - A Story of Love (6m14s): Narrated either by Donald Sutherland, or someone who sounds remarkably like him, this second vintage documentary is more of a promotional piece, describing the characters and the behind-the-scenes preparation for the shoot for a release some months before the film. As such, it is more like an extended trailer than a documentary and is certainly the slightest of the three features in the set.
There are also two trailers, an Announcement Trailer (2m21s), which makes much of David Lean's past work, and a Theatrical Trailer (2m56s).
You might think that it is worth passing on Ryan's Daughter having read all of the above but that's not the case. It is a film typical of David Lean in that it looks simply stunning as well as being nothing less than an epic but it lacks substance and, personally, I'm not entirely sure that it would work as well in the theatres as it does at home. Oddly, breaking the film over two discs actually seems to improve it, allowing the viewer the chance to walk away from it for an night or two and return afresh, making its epic length not quite so suffocating. Compared then to a single showing in the cinema or to watching it on television, this DVD could be my recommended way of watching Ryan's Daughter, with a wonderful transfer, a good set of extras and the ability to take your time over the kind of quiet epic that passed on with its director.