Robert Bolt wrote Ryan’s Daughter for his wife Sarah Miles; acknowledging that it was based on Flaubert’s Madame Bovery, he neglected to say how much he borrowed from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and to a lesser degree Heathcliff Heights. Odd, though, neither the critics nor IMDb users pointed out that once the screenplay got into David Lean’s hands and Freddie Young’s Super Panavision 70 camera sights, the movie, while sometimes reminding us of Julie Christie’s Lara, most especially in the way in which Miles is occasionally attired and tormented, tipped over to become a mick version of what happened to Irene Papas in Zorba the Greek. Certainly not as final: in lieu of Papas’ demise is a lunacy so hyperbolicized as to become camp Irish community theatre—without the permission to snicker. But snicker we do and long before we see those menacing clippers: as soon as we catch sight of John Mills’ limp and teeth, we know it’s only a matter of time before we’re introduced to sex-obsessed villagers and their mocking prejudices and can predict that because they’re bored and ignoble they’ll come up with some rather ugly amusements. (What man could get it up on his wedding night knowing that his fellow loonies are nearby to virtually hear him putting it to his virgin wife? Clichés abound—Evin Crowley’s Maureen the fattest offender—but the most obvious is thankfully missing: the boozed celebrants demanding to see the blood-stained sheets.) Lean had planned on making the movie in three months, but due to bad weather and mishaps, filming stretched to over a year. Perhaps out of his own and the crew’s boredom, and all the drinking and the grass supplied by Robert Mitchum, the movie’s visuals blew up to proportions beyond what the story could ever sustain. We sense this when we get our first glimpse of the village itself: recalling the labor class setting in How Green Was My Valley, it’s so perfectly manufactured for the camera that it trumps reality; the single street’s stones have been dirtied up to such applause-getting effect that we envision Lean’s set decorators working overtime to pound the freshly-arrived earth into the cracks and crevices. (Towards the picture’s end, the roofs are masterpieces of the aging process.) Because so little really happens in the village, the movie’s only purpose is for Freddie to immortalize through imagery. His beach scenes are framed for everlasting effect too, except that many of these visual paintings are drawn from the sands of South Africa. The only “drama” is the impressive sea storm, which is a composite of five separate storms. One of the least-discussed sequences is that of Trevor Howard searching for and coming upon Mitchum sitting on a rock behind which is a magnificent formation of mammoth stone stretched against the sea. As we absorb its humongous size, we also realize it presages the Marabar Caves in Lean’s next movie A Passage to India. (Took him more than 14 years before returning to make it, claiming that he had been creatively wounded by the negative press greeting Ryan: “When you’re a movie director,” he said to the N.Y. Times, “the only people that you really believe are the critics. You mistrust your friends because you think they’re being nice, but there in black and white with the power of the printed word it says you stink and you have no idea of what you’re doing.”) Miles is by no means bad considering the insurmountable barriers set against her: she has to pretend to have romantic inclinations for Mitchum, who’s miscast as the classical music-appreciating, flower-pressing schoolteacher-cuckold, and then fall in speed-breaking lust with a zombie named Christopher Jones, who can’t act and apparently can’t speak intelligible English, either. (He’s been dubbed.) His only asset is being a pretty boy mutation of Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Davis and Robert Forester, with a bizarre sprinkling of Dr. Strangelove-ishness. With the nothingness going on inside the supersized pannings, there’s a respite of guilty pleasure in looking at Mitchum; despite his huge intakes of mota and Chivas Regal, his face looks remarkably free of bloating: his cheek bones have recessed to the point that they look like they’ve disappeared. And no period piece wardrobe can hide his amusing slummy gait. Movie lovers end up having a perverse sympathy for Trevor Howard’s priest and his unenviable task in tending to his flock of cowardly clowns. Read somewhere online that Lean admitted that he hadn’t paid much attention to the rushes (until it was too late), which might explain why he and his script continuity supervisor Phyllis Crocker failed to notice not only that a murder of a British officer is forgotten, but also that no one in the village bothered to confirm if Miles’ daddy Leo McKern actually did what he was told to do. (In a Greek tragedy, he’d have done himself in, and you wish he had.) For all that’s dummy-headed wrong with this epic soaper, the most defenseless is Maurice Jarre’s sickening score, stolen from his gagging Doctor Zhivago compositions, mingled with slobberings of Fellini kitsch. (Opening 12/18/1970 at the Michael Todd in 35mm, sans hardticket for seven weeks; with a non-blowup 70mm print replacement, the run switched to reserved seats, lasting eight additional weeks.)
Oscar wins for best supporting actor (Mills) and best cinematography; Oscar nominations for best actress (Miles) and sound.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.