I love misconceived epics. You have to love movies made for an audience of one. When director’s give up on appeasing the movie-going public, the studio, alimony payments and private-school tuition fees… when they piss money into the ether… I’m there. These movies are sometimes genuinely worth watching, they do sometimes do what good movies should, but I can’t pretend it’s my critical faculties that compel me to treasure them. Ryan’s Daughter is not a great movie the way Lawrence of Arabia is. But I love it more than Lawrence because Lawrence was made to be an epic, and Ryan’s Daughter is only an epic because David Lean willed it to be.
Is “misconceived” the right word for what I’m writing about? To movie-goers at the time Ryan’s Daughter was misconceived because it lasted three hours and it wasn’t Doctor Zhivago. Today it’s misconceived to many because even Doctor Zhivago is too long. But Ryan’s Daughter is a movie made the way Heaven’s Gate was made, from ego. Its legacy lives on today in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; the idea that one face is enough to make a three hour period epic. Directors who make their decisions for themselves can’t always be relied on for sense (or profit), but – why love what’s sensible? Love what astounds.
Ryan’s Daughter is the story of a rural Irish girl who falls in love with her schoolteacher, marries, and then has an affair with a younger man. It is three hours long and shot like it was Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, there are the stirrings of the Irish uprising of 1920 in the background. True, the film does contain a pinch of the First World War. But mostly it’s about that rural Irish girl, and about David Lean wanting to shoot a movie because he fell in love with a face.
No Sarah Miles, no movie.
Is she lovely enough to sustain our interest over three hours? Well, probably. I think you had to be there, at her husband Robert Bolt’s house, to really get the effect. Miles married Bolt in the Sixties, when he was the man behind A Man For All Seasons and Doctor Zhivago. You can sort of picture Lean (the way I picture him, half Field Marshal Montgomery, half Noel Coward) eyeing Miles as she pottered about Bolt’s kitchen; about as English Rose-y as it’s possibly to be, hair like the last days of summer, face made for punting on the River Cam and taking picnics along its banks. She’d be a stretch to play Irish, but hell – you’re David Lean, she’s Sarah Miles, it’s the Sixties, and you’re buggered if you can think of a decent follow-up to Doctor Zhivago… So what the hell? Why not make a movie about Miles’ face. Bolt could write the screenplay. You could cast Bob Mitchum as the Irish schoolteacher; get your old mate John Mills to play the mute…
“Bob Mitchum as the Irish schoolteacher.” Now there’s a phrase to make you look twice. Mitchum would not be most people’s choice to play a shy, retiring public servant, but he confounds expectation in Ryan’s Daughter by making a shy, retiring public servant into the sort of role that Mitchum had played all his life (i.e. the reticent hero). Ok, so the other male lead is bad. Not to worry – Ryan’s Daughter works because we care about Miles and Mitchum, not because we want Miles to run off with some other guy.
It’s not a love triangle really, it’s a… a David Lean movie, so it’s about landscape. Rural Ireland here is what the desert is to Lawrence to Arabia, what the Marabar Caves are to A Passage to India; it has scope. For David Lean, movies need landscape because human drama doesn’t have scale enough alone. If he’d made Ryan’s Daughter indoors it would be a melodrama. Outdoors it’s an epic.