‘Ryan’s Daughter’: The Proof of David Lean’s Versatility

David Lean (right of camera in trench coat) braces with his crew against the fierce winds of the Irish coast on location of Ryan’s Daughter (1970). After months of weather delays in Ireland, Lean went to South Africa to finish the film

After working together on the giant adaptation of Doctor Zhivago, legendary British director David Lean and respected screenwriter Robert Bolt looked forward to doing something completely different. Having filmed epic films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, Lean chose to shoot s much smaller picture. Ryan’s Daughter, a film contained within the boundaries of a tiny Irish village and set in the year 1916, fit the description perfectly. The story of a marriage of a middle-aged widower and much younger girl simultaneously—but indirectly—deals with crucial historical circumstances that shaped the well-being of Ireland in those dark years: the First World War and the British rule over the island. But the historical setting serves only as a backdrop to the subject Lean and Bolt decided to explore in this intriguing film. Loyalty, infidelity, the wildness of human nature, how the turbulent human spirit cannot be tamed or controlled. To emphasize his point, Lean makes excellent use of the landscape, turning the awe-inspiring Irish natural beauty into a vehicle for a metaphor on the human condition.

Robert Bolt wrote the screenplay with his wife, actress Sarah Miles, in mind for the only relevant female role in the picture, and Miles certainly gave her all, turning in a really memorable depiction of the mysterious protagonist. The value of seeing the great Robert Mitchum somewhat outside of his comfort zone is tremendous, but it is John Mills’ role that probably shines the most. It would be a shame to discard Ryan’s Daughter as a simple story of a love triangle occurring in a village somewhere on the coast of Ireland, as many critics did at the time of the film’s release back in 1970. This is definitely a slightly odd choice of a project for a filmmaker who had proven himself by shooting stories much larger in volume, noise and scope than this one, but it’s a welcome change and a move that does nothing but prove Lean’s filmmaking versatility and storytelling abilities.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Robert Bolt’s screenplay for Ryan’s Daughter [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Broadcast on 22 September 1969, a special programme from the series ‘Kino’ on the location of David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter. The programme goes behind the scenes as the film is in production and interviews with David Lean, Robert Mitchum and John Mills. The multi-million dollar film directed by David Lean was shot in Dingle, County Kerry. Set in 1916 it tells the story of a married woman who has an affair with a British army officer. A special set was constructed for the setting of the fictional Kirray village.

RTE’s documentary A Bit of a Fillum about the making of Ryan’s Daughter in Dingle. Shot on 65mm by renowned cinematographer Freddie Young, who also worked with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter is arguably the most visually impressive film ever made in Ireland. In keeping with his distinctive epic scale, the production was long and drawn out while Lean waited for perfect weather conditions for his many and spectacular outdoor scenes, leading actor Robert Mitchum to comment that working with the director was “like constructing the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks.” Despite this, and along with the cool critical reception that the film received upon its release, it has since been recognised as a modern classic replete with spectacular footage of the beaches along the Dingle Peninsula, the breadth of which can only be fully appreciated on the big screen. (Notes by Alice Butler.)

In an interview with Melvyn Bragg, David Lean talks about the critical reaction to his film Ryan’s Daughter, in particular a mauling he suffered in a luncheon with the National Society of Film Critics in the Algonquin Hotel in New York.

Robert Mitchum talks about David Lean.

Open YouTube video

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter. Photographed by Robert Willoughby © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Faraway Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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