After the popular triumphs of Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, director David Lean forged ahead in the epic tradition with Ryan's Daughter, a tale of forbidden love on a remote Irish coast. But time and fashion had left the David Lean Movie behind. By 1970, his 70-millimeter compositions, huge landscapes, two-year location shoots, and meticulous historical recreations seemed creaky and old-fashioned next to the slapdash improv or gritty neo-realist feel of the emerging independent cinema. Ryan's Daughter got poor critical notices, and if it's remembered at all today, it's as a boondoggle.
Thanks to a lush new DVD edition of the MGM film, Ryan's Daughter emerges as a strangely compelling mix of the old and the new, peppered with awe-inspiring scenery. The casting that shouldn't work—Robert Mitchum as an aging Irish schoolteacher—seems as natural as breathing, and the casting that fits the period—Christopher Jones as a shell-shocked World War I hero—feels dated and stiff. Sarah Miles (wife of screenwriter Robert Bolt) stars as the ambitious daughter of Leo McKern, a pub owner with overt Irish Republican sympathies. By marrying Mitchum, Miles hopes to enter a world of culture and ideas, but she finds herself trapped in a one-room schoolhouse instead. Enter Jones, crippled physically and mentally by war, and ready to fall into her arms for a torrid (and almost wordless) affair.
Ryan's Daughter is in the record books for John Mills' performance as a mute, clubfooted half-wit (a cruel doppelgänger for the lame, laconic Jones), which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But the haunting image of tiny figures on a vast horizon—a Lean trademark—is what powers the movie past its more melodramatic elements. Footprints on an enormous beach tell the story of human connection. A crowd struggles to land smuggled guns in the middle of a howling gale—the best special effect nature ever presented to a filmmaker. And two ostracized, misunderstood people walk down an empty cobblestone street, carrying the Victrola and Beethoven 78s that have always been their real home.
Key features: Period featurettes and a crowded commentary track featuring more than a dozen contributors, including directors Richard Schickel and John Boorman.