'LAST OF THE TRAVELING CIRCUSES - David Lean & Ryan's Daughter
“I want to make movies I want to go and see.” – David Lean
At the start of 1970, director David Lean prepared for the harshest conditions he had yet to endure as a film maker. Lean was by then a master craftsman and visual storyteller who had imbued the cinematic landscape with such memorable classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) – to say nothing of his stellar work in British cinema; This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945), Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).
However, on this great occasion it was not the stifling jungle heat of Ceylon or the stark impenetrable conditions of blistering desert, or even a violent storm surge off the Dingle Peninsula that were cause for his considerable concern. Rather, it was the director’s first meeting with the New York Film Critics following the disastrous premiere of his Ryan’s Daughter (1970) at the Ziegfeld Theater.
The criticisms lobbed at Lean and his film during that conference ranged from modest disappointment to overwhelming disgust – the latter taking on the flavor of thoughtless and thought-numbing jealousy. After enduring a barrage of ruthless attacks from a pack of ravenous reporters, Lean – in a state of utter bewilderment – turned to the ensemble’s President, Richard Schickel for his own inquiry. “I don’t understand what you people are trying to say.”
To Schickel’s ever-lasting discredit, in a room of his peers he adopted the tone and sentiment of the moment and behaved badly. “Well,” he offered Lean, “They don’t understand how the director of Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter could have made this piece of shit!”
To suggest that Schickel’s retort was a blow to Lean’s modest conceit as an artist is an understatement. During the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, Lean had so eloquently expressed his love of cinema for posterity – “I love photographs. I love the thing like that camera…I’m attracted by lights. I even like the feel of film. I don’t know what I would have done…I often wonder…although I know nothing about music, I would have loved to have been a conductor” - that standing before the critics, with his latest masterwork in tatters, the sting from this final note of ungraciousness was sufficient to dissolve the assessment of his own stature into the base commonalities of a novice in his own medium. Indeed, following Ryan’s Daughter’s theatrical engagement, Lean – who usually took a year off to work on his next project – effectively retired from the movies until A Passage to India in 1984.
In his youth, while apprenticing in British films, Lean steadily graduated the hierarchy of movie making from editor, to writer, director and producer. The son of strict religious parents who frowned upon ‘the movies’ as his vocation, Lean nevertheless pursued his passion. His rather auspicious debut within the studio system resulted in an appointment as a tea boy during the silent era.
However, within a decade’s span – and with the advent of sound - Lean became one of the foremost editors in the business. Though he was offered directorial jobs on low budget films, Lean quietly refused to fall into the category of a second string workhorse. His fortitude was rewarded when he was unofficially offered the chance to shoot Major Barbara (1941) – the eagerly anticipated adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s stage play, starring Rex Harrison and Wendy Hiller.
Though the film was not a major commercial success, it was a showcase for Lean’s keen camera eye. Omar Shariff, whom Lean transformed into an international star; first in prominent support as Ali on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), then as the title character in Doctor Zhivago (1965) once commented that Lean “had an eye like a hawk;” critical, exacting and very much in tune with overall film composition. Lean’s unique sense of space and design served him well throughout his British period. In fact, it all but defined British film style in the 1940s.
For the most part, Lean’s British period was exemplified by finely wrought, moody and evocative literary adaptations. But in 1957 a chance meeting with producer Sam Spiegel opened Lean’s creative door in a new direction with Bridge on the River Kwai. From Kwai on, Lean’s movies acquired a grandeur and majesty. Lean’s cinematic canvas was to expand considerably with back to back successes; Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. Though Zhivago had been subjected to initial critical backlash it was overwhelmingly embraced by the pubic.
Lean was at the top of his game. After Zhivago, he could have made any movie his heart desired. Unfortunately for Lean, his quest for a follow up took a critical step back with Ryan’s Daughter – marrying a very simple narrative of emotional complexity to an epically grand backdrop of civil unrest. To be certain, that basic coupling had served Lean well on Lawrence and Zhivago. However, in both cases Lean – as he had done on Kwai – had derived his pictorial strength from very solidly established written material. On Ryan’s Daughter, Lean was working from an unproven property first pitched to him by his old collaborator, screenwriter Robert Bolt.
Initially, Bolt had wanted Lean to work on his adaptation of Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – a project developed with Bolt’s wife, Sarah Miles firmly in mind. Already made into a significant motion picture by Vincente Minnelli in 1949, Madame Bovary held little appeal for Lean, who was disinterested in both the idea and the screenplay forwarded to him while on vacation in Capri. Instead, Lean suggested that he and Bolt collaborate on a totally original story.
Bolt agreed – then spent the latter half of the year heckling, bickering and arguing with Lean over virtually every scene and sentence in their ever-evolving project. For his part, Lean suggested that the story be set in either India or Ireland – backdrops with intense political unrest. Eventually, the story ironed out by Lean and Bolt became known as Michael’s Day – in reference to the character of a mentally-challenged mute eventually played by actor John Mills.
Though this character would remain in the finished screenplay, by the time the film was set to go before the cameras its narrative focus had shifted from Michael to Rosie Ryan (Sarah Miles); a book-read intelligent, though socially naïve girl coming into her own amidst the hypocrisies of a small Irish village. In her childhood, Rosie had enjoyed, even treasured, her play time with Michael – though more recently she had come to regard his mental ineptitude as repugnant.
As the story continues, Rosie is drawn to middle-age widower and school master, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) – a good honest man who cannot help but fall in love with Rosie’s infatuation of him, thereby overlooking his own initial concerns that their differences are too great to sustain any lasting love. The resulting marriage between Charles and Rosie is an awkward celebration that ends with Rosie’s disillusionment over their first night of intimacy. Resolved to a passionless existence, Rosie’s romantic reprieve eventually materializes in the embodiment of a scarred British soldier, Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones).
NAME GAME – casting Ryan’s Daughter
“Film is a dramatized reality and it is the director’s job to make it appear real…an audience should not be conscious of technique…I’m first and foremost interested in the story…the characters.” – David Lean
As Robert Bolt began to flesh out the characters in his adaptation, Lean set about hand picking his cast from a formidable array of talent. Bolt had always intended that his wife Sarah Miles should play the title character. Lean agreed. Miles, however, was unconvinced that she was right for the part and demanded Lean consider more than a handful of other actresses in her stead. She also screen tested for the part. Only after all the rushes were printed and reviewed by Lean and Bolt did Miles agree to star in the film; having affirmed that the part had been awarded her on merit rather than nepotism.
For Charles Shaughnessy, Lean made an unlikely casting choice with Hollywood he-man, Robert Mitchum. Best known for his noir anti-heroes in such classics as Out of the Past (1947), His Kind of Woman (1951) and Macao (1952), Mitchum accepted the role as an ambitious departure from the norm he had been allowed to play, then quickly found himself on shaky ground with the director over his interpretation of the part. Reportedly, when initially contacted by Bolt and asked ‘what he was currently doing’ Mitchum wryly replied “contemplating suicide.” The retort from Bolt was equally adroit – “Do the film and we’ll cover the cost of your burial.”
Laconic and aloof, Mitchum was not entirely in sync with Lean once production began. Indeed, there seemed to be a quiet tension between director and star – more the result of general confusion with what Mitchum perceived as Lean’s lack of guidance on how to explore his character. Encouraged by wife, Dorothy to sit in on the screening of dailies (something Mitchum never did), the reluctant star went to watch the footage of his initial walk with Rosie down the Dingle bulk head. When asked by Lean how he felt the film was developing, Mitchum coolly replied, “That’s so beautiful you should go buy an island and paint” – leaving Lean deflated and confused as to the overall meaning of his statement.
For the role of Michael – the mentally challenged mute – Lean first contacted Peter O’Toole. Whether the actor was otherwise previously engaged or simply felt the part unworthy of his time and effort, O’Toole’s involvement on Ryan’s Daughter never went beyond the preliminary stage. Instead, Lean turned to brilliant British born John Mills who had already established his name with American audiences thanks to breakthrough performances in Tiger Bay (1959) and Walt Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson (1960). In creating the character of Michael, Charlie Parker’s magnificent make-up, hair and teeth transformed the relatively handsome Mills into his downtrodden and misshapen outcast alter ego.
If Lean was accustomed to getting his own way, he certainly had to bend his expectations where casting was concerned. Lean had initially wanted his old good luck charm, Alec Guinness for the part of the crusty Catholic priest, Father Collins. By this point in their respective careers, Guinness had almost become a contract player in Lean’s stock company.
He was Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations; Fagin in Oliver Twist; Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai; Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia and Yevgraf in Doctor Zhivago. But on Ryan’s Daughter at least, Guinness felt the part of Father Collins was quite modest and unassuming. More to the point, he was professionally in a place where he could be choosy. Hence, veteran British star, Trevor Howard assumed the role instead and managed to embody a genuine weight and conviction in his interpretation of the role.
To complete the central cast, Lean first and foremost secretly desired actor Marlon Brando for the part of Randolph. The oddity of this infatuation is that apart from Bolt’s knowledge, no one else in cast or crew seemed aware of it. Brando was never contacted for any Lean epic including Ryan’s Daughter. Instead, the part of shell shocked soldier Randolph Doryan went to relative unknown Christopher Jones, whom Lean had first admired in a little seen film; The Looking Glass War (1969).
To be certain, Jones cut an elegant romantic figure – tall, dark and brooding; all qualities seemingly a perfect fit for Randolph. Unfortunately, Jones’ appeal – at least where Lean was concerned – derived from the Polish accent issuing from the actor’s lips in The Looking Glass War; an accent Lean was to discover later had been dubbed. Lean, whose perfectionism often became an obsession, quickly became disillusioned with his choice of Jones for Randolph and thereafter followed up this modest contempt with a genuine loss of patience where the young actor was concerned.
In truth and in retrospect, the chemistry between Jones and Miles seems to be lacking – perhaps in part because Jones is given so little in the way of dialogue to express himself. Nevertheless and in hindsight, Jones’ performance is credible elsewhere in the film – particularly during the moments when his fragile psyche shatters in flashbacks depicting his cowardice during the war.
Behind the camera, Lean was equally particular about the people he worked with. Although resident favorite, John Box was unavailable for filming, Eddie Fowlie, who had followed Lean on most of his great cinematic adventures, once again served as Prop Master on Ryan’s Daughter – also performed preliminary location scouting. Noted for his textured use of light and shadow, fellow Lean alumni, cinematographer Freddie Young brought his particular brand of scope and grandeur to the 70mm composition of each and every frame of film, while Jocelyn Rickards imbued her costume designs with an emotional weight in service to the story.
Production designer Stephen Grimes and Art Director Ray Walker built a three dimensional town, school house and military camp on the craggy moors of Dingle. These sets were not merely facades, but served as functional interiors and exteriors for most of the film. Eventually, inclement weather forced the production from Ireland to Cape Town South Africa where several key sequences along the bulk head and beach were married to the already existing footage shot in Ireland.
“We’re the last of the traveling circuses,” Lean was to comment while on location, “We can hardly go anywhere without a mass of vans and cranes and camera cars and all the rest of it.”
STORMY WEATHER – completion on and fallout from Ryan’s Daughter
Lean and Bolt spent nearly a year ironing out the kinks of their story; Bolt from an intellectual perspective and Lean from a more viscerally visual approach. “We argued bitterly and at length over every line of dialogue…” Bolt later reflected, “…almost every shot.” In retrospect, the story seems to have benefited from this creative tug-o-war. There is tempo and cadence to the development of Rosie’s flawed romances; one with Charles, then Randolph.
For his part, Lean’s influence on the script became more evident in its subplot involving Irish revolutionary and outlaw, Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster) and Mr. Thomas Ryan’s (Leo McKern) conflict and betrayal of O’Leary and his own people.
“My fear about Ryan’s Daughter…” Lean commented while on location, “…was that it was going to fall into the little gem class…and you can’t spend a lot of money doing little gems.”
Indeed, at 206 minutes and a production shoot that had ballooned from the scheduled 24 to an unmanageable 52 weeks, Ryan’s Daughter had shaped up to be one of the costliest and longest films of the decade – a worrisome combination not lost on MGM executives who were increasingly sweating out the studio’s bottom line while sinking deeper into the red.
In retrospect, these executives had considerable cause for concern. By 1970, the Hollywood that Lean had known and loved, the Mecca of stellar craftsmanship and impeccable production values a la the ‘studio system’ had steadily eroded to changing times, tastes and values. “All sorts of things have changed,” Lean reflected while still in production, “Nowadays, as far as I can make out, it’s not terribly ‘with it’ to have good photography. People don’t worry so much about having good sound. Composition is out. Everything’s got to be a little bit rougher.”
In fact, the Hollywood of the ‘then’ present could no longer afford such lavish overhead required to sustain these costly films. When Lean undertook to make Ryan’s Daughter he was met with initial enthusiasm and the respect of executives who remembered only his fiscal contributions to their coffers following Doctor Zhivago. Yet now, those same executives were increasingly putting pressure on Lean to wrap up a film that had fallen hopelessly behind schedule.
Only part of these costly delays can be blamed on Lean’s meticulous attention to detail which resulted in take after take of virtually every scene. Moreover, the unpredictable weather in Dingle proved the decisive factor to the overall stalemate. This latter condition was useful only briefly as Lean, his cast and crew prepared for one of the most visceral and awe-inspiring storm sequences ever put on film.
Given the green light to shoot a coastal maelstrom, Lean descended on the Dingle coast with stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong and an army of doubles. The weather, however, proved disagreeably vague and unconvincing – at least, as far as Lean was concerned. To augment his storm sequence, Lean incorporated huge dip tanks that deflected and channeled vast amounts of water to strategically crash down on his extras on cue. Every extra was suited up in a wet suit beneath their soaking costumes.
To ensure that his camera remained absolute and able to capture the storm sequence without being blurred by water, Lean mounted massive glass discs with a centrifugal wiper onto his camera lens. These discs had been developed for torpedo boats during WWII. Now, they deflected water from the camera’s eye while keeping it relatively free from the distortion of water.
Throughout filming, spirits were more than dampened. Indeed, actor Robert Mitchum found the conditions oppressive and grating on his concentration and patience, despite being one of the few who avoided most of the shoot in the freezing cold conditions. His character arrives late on the scene.
The worst to suffer during the storm sequence was actor Leo McKern – tethered, then cast into the pummeling surf with several stunt doubles for key close ups. He was repeatedly assaulted by Lean’s dip tanks that threatened to drown the actor in huge quantities of raging cold water.
In the end, the storm sequence in Ryan’s Daughter proved to be the single most dramatic moment in the film. It was singled out as such by the New York Film Critics on the day Lean met with their cold and hostile reception. Critics then, as they do to this day, reason that Lean had gone over the top by eclipsing a simple story with this storm sequence.
To his credit, Lean never apologized to these critics. In fact, to his dying day, he suggested that films in general and his films in particular were made for the masses – not the intellectual few. Sadly, Ryan’s Daughter also failed to bond with the masses and this rejection coupled with the formidable backlash of negative publicity was sufficient enough to send Lean into a self-imposed exile for nearly 14 years.
Though Ryan’s Daughter would go on to win two justly deserved Oscars – one for John Mill’s Michael; the other for Best Cinematography – the buzz remained everything: that Lean had ruined a modest movie in his attempt to top his two previous efforts.
QUODA – the traveling circus goes home
“I think people remember pictures, not dialogue. That’s why I like pictures.”
– David Lean
In retrospect, Ryan’s Daughter is not out of line with Lean’s other masterpieces. In fact, it is a valiant successor to both Lawrence and Zhivago. Though arguably the narrative content of a lover’s triangle is hardly worthy such lavish treatment, in style and magnitude, Ryan’s Daughter manages to capture the sweep and scope of Lean’s previous two films.
Sarah Miles gives a poignant and intelligent performance – providing a complex critique of the film’s heroine who convincingly matures before our very eyes. Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Barry Foster; these are stellar thespians at the top of their craft. Despite limited dialogue and scenes - each performance from these actors is finely textured for maximum effect. There is great morality and emotional imbalance lurking just beneath the surface.
The grandeur of natural beauty photographed throughout is not – as some critics have suggested – in conflict with, or dwarfing to, the central characters. Rather, it serves as augmentation of their inner emotional state. When, for example, Randolph commits suicide, he waits for the stark cold beauty of twilight to envelope – ending his life as the day is also eclipsed and ended by night fall.
When Rosie falls in love with Charles, we see her awkward infatuation as an extension of full noon day sun – her blind optimism oblivious to the darkening days ahead or even to the changing cloud structure breezily sifting overhead.
The storm – an act of natural violence – is itself a statement on the rebellion against British rule; the town’s very act of acquiring implements that will bring about conflict and war is an extension of that symbiosis with nature’s raw fury; as in assaulting tidal waves crashing against craggy rock formations of a never changeable political landscape.
Though David Lean sustained the brunt of lesser opinion from his peers during the theatrical engagement, his strict discipline while on location, coupled with an out-of-the-ordinary visual approach to his subject matter has, in hindsight, provided cinema lovers with an infinite and timeless spectacle; as perennially encompassing as any seen before or since.
Ryan’s Daughter is therefore not a product of its time like so many other films of the 1970s. Instead, it is a masterwork for all time – loose and evocative with its central critique firmly on the pulse of humanity’s fallibility. The film continues to resonate with more than a hint of ambiguity.
David Lean once said “My distinguishing talent is the ability to put people under a microscope, perhaps to go one or two layers farther down than some other directors.”
@ Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).