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DVD Review: Ryan’s Daughter

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David Lean had a long and distinguished career and made a wide variety of good films, from Dickens adaptations to tragic romances like Brief Encounter and Summertime. But for me the spectacles he made beginning in 1957 with The Bridge on the River Kwai are the most extraordinary. He went distinctly out of fashion in the mid-1960s, and the harsh critical reception of Ryan’s Daughter, released in November 1970, seemed to bring his career to a long halt. By the time he returned in the eighties with A Passage to India, opinion seemed to have shifted again, and he was received as an Old Master making his last great movie.

Lean’s sixties spectacles, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter (shot in 1969), by all rights ought to be seen on a gigantic screen in 70mm prints. The late-eighties reissue of the restored Lawrence, which drew lines around the block at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York and elsewhere, was one of the highlights of my moviegoing life. This is unfortunately very rare these days.

Now at least we have a superb DVD version of Ryan’s Daughter, Lean’s much-maligned masterpiece. Made from restored 70mm materials, it looks more beautiful than just about any other disc I have seen. It is the full roadshow-length print, 196 minutes, not including the four — count-'em — four musical interludes: overture, intermission, entr'acte, and exit music. The post-roadshow general-release cut was 165 minutes. (This is what I must have seen in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1971, the only previous time I’ve seen the film.)

The vicious reviews in 1970 focused on the slight, simple plot and the antiquated quality of the melodrama, and complained they were a mismatch with the gigantic scale of the production. These criticisms are not completely undeserved, but they downplay the visual majesty of this movie, which goes far beyond merely pretty photography. No one else put images and sound together in quite the way David Lean did; he was maligned by auteurists long before this film, but I think in his case they were just blind. Ryan’s Daughter is so exciting to experience visually that the shortcomings in the script are more like background noise, like a stupid libretto in a great opera.

That last comparison may seem a little ironic when I say that the weakest part of the movie is Maurice Jarre’s loud, sappy score. It’s effective in its pushy way, but it is not up to the quality of the visuals. And the second-weakest part actually won an Oscar: John Mills as a Quasimodo-like ‘village idiot,’ really just a plot device, rather crudely conceived and certainly overused. Trevor Howard and Leo McKern give the best performances, and Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum are fine too.

Christopher Jones, as Miles’s illicit love interest, looks and sounds perfect – so it’s amusing to hear in the ‘making of’ documentary and to read in Stephen Silverman's book David Lean that Jones, originally from Tennessee (just like me), had to be dubbed by an English actor, was ridiculed by Sarah Miles as a "midget" and a "dead fish," and was so uncooperative in the key sex scene that various forms of trickery and fakery had to be used to bring the scene off. (But watching the film you may have no clue about any of this. The sex scene is over the top, with dandelions spewing seeds and horses nuzzling as nature performs in parallel with the beautiful young lovers, but it is unique and amazing to behold.)

In the Silverman book, Lean's memory seems a little off – for example, he's annoyed that the critics "never realized" that the story was Madame Bovary in a different setting. Yet Pauline Kael (in an unnecessarily harsh review, as apparently most of the reviews were), spent a whole long paragraph examining the Bovary connection, and Lady Chatterley's Lover as well, pointing out that such comparisons make the film look worse, not better, since its creaky melodrama lacks the irony of Bovary and the modernism of Chatterley. Lean also talks about casting Mitchum because he remembered him in the 1947 Build My Gallows High (aka Out of the Past), which he describes as a dreadful piece of junk. It is generally considered a noir masterpiece – and Mitchum did make a few other films in 20 years that Lean might have remembered also!

The making-of documentary is feature-length and fascinating. I didn’t listen to the commentary track, but other reviewers indicate that it is expertly done, with many contributors. This is a fine disc with which to show off your new HDTV – or just to acquaint yourself with a terrific, under-appreciated movie. They absolutely do not make ‘em like this any more.

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