David Lean’s big disappointment

A few weeks back, I watched David Lean’s Summertime (1955), in which Katherine Hepburn plays a spinster who goes to Venice and has a fling with a married Italian man. And then, two days ago, I watched Ryan’s Daughter (1970), in which Sarah Miles plays a virginal Irishwoman who marries the older widower Robert Mitchum during World War I and then has an affair with a British officer, which earns the, um, ire of the local villagers, who are all sympathetic to the Irish Republicans.

And with this, I have finally filled the gaps and seen every feature film directed by Lean since Hobson’s Choice (1954). Speaking of which, Ryan’s Daughter is the only Lean film since Hobson’s Choice — hmmm, which also concerns a man and his female offspring — that has not yet been released on DVD. This may give a clue as to just how low the film ranks on the Lean-o-meter. Indeed, a quick glance at the IMDB indicates that there are only three Lean films that have never been released on DVD in North America, namely these two and The Sound Barrier (1952).

At least The Sound Barrier and Hobson’s Choice have the excuse of being produced before Lean had become a Really Big Name. Ryan’s Daughter, on the other hand, was produced after Bridge on the River Kwai (1957; my comments), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), and the trailer for it insists on mentioning these earlier hits and asserting that the new film, like the previous ones, will of course be “a masterpiece”. But it seems to me that Lean got carried away by the sheer bigness of those films, and so he tries to inflate what would otherwise have been a simple tale of politicized adultery — closer, I think, to smaller, earlier films of his like Brief Encounter (1945) and Summertime than to Doctor Zhivago — into something more “epic”.

I am also surprised that John Mills, as much as I love him, won the Oscar for his performance as the village idiot; I sure hope he was “really” winning it for his career as a whole, and not for this particular role, because it’s little more than a collection of tics and grimaces. Pauline Kael, who hated the film, wrote, “This is the kind of thing that gets people Academy Awards, because the acting is so conspicuous,” and I have to say she’s right — I found Trevor Howard’s performance as the brusque but not entirely uncompassionate parish priest much more interesting and award-worthy, even if he, too, tended to go over-the-top.

It is also interesting to see actual nudity in a David Lean movie, after all the repression and sublimation and visual suggestion of his earlier films; this was his first film after the abolition of the morality code in Hollywood, and he took tentative advantage of this newfound freedom. As ever, it is the adultery that is made to look passionate and sexy, enhanced by oh-so-poetic images of the wind blowing through silken threads and dandelion seeds, while the marital sex is more discrete and even somewhat dull; why, even the bedclothes stay on. The film seems to wrap things up in a marriage-affirming way at the end, but I think the images make a bigger impression than the odd line of dialogue here or there.

(Note, BTW, that discrete does not always equal dull, in life or in film, but it is interesting how “bad” sex always seems to be portrayed fairly explicitly in relation to “good” sex which is always kept more discrete; consider, e.g., the portrayals of the main character’s two wives in 2001’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.)

It is also intriguing to see how prominent a theme adultery was throughout Lean’s career. I have been a huge fan of Lawrence of Arabia ever since the “director’s cut” came out in 1989, and I grew up watching The Bridge on the River Kwai on video, so I have always associated him with war stories about military officers wrestling with duty and honour and ethnic tensions and whatnot. And when I saw Doctor Zhivago during its 30th anniversary re-release in 1995, I figured it was the social, historical, and yes military stuff that provided the impetus for the romance, not vice versa. So seeing these other films has been an eye-opener.

Anyway, Ryan’s Daughter is not a bad film by any stretch, but it is not a particularly great one either. Alas, the film got a very bad reception during its initial release, and Lean was apparently so stung by the criticism that he didn’t make another film for 14 years … when he made his final epic, A Passage to India (1984).

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  • Matt Page

    I’ve always wanted to see Ran’s daughter as it was shot where we honneymooned. Is there lots of scenery etc.?


  • Oh my, yes. Especially where the cliffs and the beaches are concerned!