Ryan's Daughter


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

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:

(8.60) - Lawrence of Arabia, 29th best of all time.

(8.40) - The Bridge on the River Kwai, 57th best of all time.

(8.00) - Doctor Zhivago

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 this movie.

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 IMDb:

"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 in general.)

* 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:

Man, those guys loved sand.

I have to be honest and say that there were two voices speaking to me as I watched this film. The one said, "Dude, while other guys are working for a living, you're getting to watch a film by David Fucking Lean. You should thank whatever God you believe in. If the story seems insufficient to fill up more than three hours of running time, just look at the cinematography, for heaven's sake."  The other voice said, "Dude, I can't believe you're sitting through three and a half hours of this crap."


Two disc set.

New digital transfer from restored 65mm picture and audio elements


Commentary by: Lady Sandra Lean, Sarah Miles, Petrine Day Mitchum (Robert Mitchum's daughter), assistant director Michael Stevenson, second unit director Roy Stevens, art director Roy Walker, assistant editor Tony Lawson, location manager Eddie Fowlie, stuntman Vic Armstrong, biographer Stephen M. Silverman, and directors John Boorman, Hugh Hudson and Richard Schickel

Vintage documentaries: Ryan's Daughter: A Story of Love; We're the Last of the Traveling Circuses

The Making of Ryan's Daughter (a three-part 35th-anniversary documentary)


It won an Oscar for cinematography, and another for the performance of John Mills. At the 1971 Oscar presentation, Mills (playing a mute in the film) accepted his Oscar in character. He bowed and said nothing - the shortest acceptance speech ever.

It was nominated for two other Oscars.

It was nominated for ten BAFTA awards, but won none. Even the cinematography lost to Butch Cassidy. The British Cinematography society did acknowledge it as the best work in a British film.


2 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
  New York Times
  Hollywood Reporter


















7.3 IMDB summary (of 10)

The rating of Ryan's Daughter is completely consistent at IMDb across all demographic groups and other groupings.















By the Numbers. It grossed $31 million. Lean's previous film. Dr. Zhivago, had grossed $111 million


Sarah Miles showed her right breast twice in a long, long sex scene.

Note: this scene is overlong (four and a half minutes), undernude, tedious, and filled with obvious nature symbolism and some incredibly stiff acting  by Christopher Jones. Just warnin' you before you commit to watching this film. In four minutes of nature shots, there are only two fleeting glimpses of a breast. Everything does, however, look very pretty.

Web www.scoopy.com

Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It looks spectacular and has an interesting story. It would have made a beautiful 100 minute movie. Unfortunately, it is 206 minutes long.