Thursday 19 April 2018

How David Lean got lost in Kerry

Controversial shoot: David Lean and his crew filming a climatic scene for Ryan's Daughter.
Controversial shoot: David Lean and his crew filming a climatic scene for Ryan's Daughter.

When it emerged last week that the Star Wars franchise was returning to Kerry to film parts of their next movie in Ceann Sibéal, older locals must have smiled wryly as they recalled an earlier, and much livelier, Hollywood invasion of the Dingle peninsula. No doubt the Star Wars film folk are early to bed and subsist on nuts and berries: they'd seem like a touring group of Buddhist monks next to the cast and crew of Ryan's Daughter.

Next Thursday, as part of their 'Appraising the Rising' season, the IFI will screen David Lean's wind-blown epic, offering Dubliners the chance to enjoy on the big screen a film that, whatever its failings, is very nice to look at.

Based on Madame Bovary, Ryan's Daughter sets a passionate affair between a married woman and a shell-shocked British soldier against the backdrop of the 1916 Rising. The idea of Lawrence of Arabia's director taking on Irish history caused huge excitement here at the time, but the resulting film would prove hard to love, or even like.

For Irish audiences, its attitude to our country was problematic, and clichéd, from John Mills' ghastly portrayal of the village idiot to Trevor Howard's roaring parish priest. And for international viewers, its simple love story hardly justified the three-and-a-half hour running time.

Ryan's Daughter remains Lean's least-loved work, but it's really splendidly photographed in places, especially those gorgeous storm sequences, and watching it again recently I was left with the impression of a great idea that was overwhelmed by bad luck and its director's hubris.

Early in 1969, Lean and his screen-writing partner Robert Bolt arrived in Dunquin, just a few miles south of Ceann Sibéal. They'd been searching for some time for the right location for their next project, and as soon as Lean saw the Dingle Peninsula, he knew he'd found the perfect spot.

A lover of wild places, Lean had spent so long in Jordanian sandstorms during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia that he'd had to have sand surgically removed from his eyeballs. And at the end of the 1960s, Dingle was as wind-bashed and remote a place as you could find.

At that time, Lean was the big cheese after his huge successes with Lawrence and Doctor Zhivago, and MGM were happy to let him loose on the edge of Europe. And so began perhaps the most notorious film shoot in history, a sprawling debacle which would run wildly over budget, wreck a few marriages and supply the good people of west Kerry with enough Bob Mitchum stories to last them till doomsday.

The film was sabotaged by a combination of factors: Lean's mania for perfection, the volatility of his stars, and a little detail everyone had forgotten about - the Irish weather.

Ireland circa 1969 was a quiet and not very prosperous place. Kerry was not the tourist magnet it is today: there were no tour buses, no interpretive centres, and the town of Dingle got something of a shock when Lean's 80-strong crew descended en masse.

This was a major production, with a huge budget (the film ended up costing $13m, a fortune at the time), and one of the first things the film's crew did was build a fake village on the end of the peninsula. Shops, a church, a school, pub and post office were constructed using local stone, and many of the buildings had fully fitted and functioning interiors. This would be 'Killary', the fictional village at the heart of Robert Bolt's story, and every morning the peace of Dingle would be disrupted by David Lean's 30-odd vehicle convoy as it set off for work.

It soon became obvious to the director that wind and rain were going to pose problems, but only as much as his difficult cast. As the various stars arrived, they established themselves around the area in some style, with Mitchum hiring the massive Milltown House.

Trevor Howard was a veteran of Lean films, and must have known what to expect. He was also, however, a formidable alcoholic who was briefly fired for hitting the sauce at lunchtime, a definite no-no in Lean's book.

Christopher Jones, the young American actor chosen to play Rosy Ryan's British army lover, was less fond of the hooch but all wrong in his part. His persistent woodenness resulted in hundreds of furious retakes.

"He seemed incapable of hitting his mark and smiling simultaneously," Lean fumed at one point.

Jones apparently could not stick Lean's seductive young female lead Sarah Miles, and found their intimate love scenes together torture. There are stories that Miles persuaded Mitchum to pepper Jones' breakfast cereal with a recreational drug to loosen him up a little, and that Mitchum got his dose wrong and left Jones convinced that he was having a nervous breakdown. His performance would be a huge problem in the finished film, but only one of many.

Miles had recently married Robert Bolt - some 20 years her senior. But the moment she laid eyes on Mitchum she fell head over heels in love, and an affair began which did not exactly lighten the mood on set. Neither did Mitchum's fractious relationship with Lean.

The barrel-chested Hollywood legend arrived in Kerry with a reputation as a hard-drinking brawler and womaniser, and during his lengthy stay did his level best not to disappoint. Behind all the bluff, he was a consummate professional, but found Lean's obsession with minutiae and endless struggles for perfection tiresome.

One day, after Lean had done 15 takes of Mitchum simply walking out of a schoolhouse, one of the crew asked the actor "but surely you'll agree that David Lean is a film-making genius?"

Mitchum grimaced. "Okay, so he is a genius. But give me 54 takes of every shot and I will be a goddamn genius!"

Mitchum also described working with Lean as "like constructing the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks", but later acknowledged that Lean was one of the great directors, and was very proud of his own performance in Ryan's Daughter.

The director's retentiveness slowed things down, and made the budget spiral - and then the rain came. Bad weather frequently shut the shoot down for weeks on end, and while the moody Lean stayed in bed in his trailer, others pursued livelier forms of recreation.

Mitchum was by this stage trying to repel Miles' advances, but that didn't mean he'd lost interest in the ladies entirely. He had 'fancy women' flown in from London for wild parties at Milltown House, though he sometimes had to evacuate them at high speed when his wife unexpectedly turned up from Hollywood.

His drinks bill became the stuff of legend, and it's been estimated by some that in the year-long shoot he and his retinue drank half of all the Chivas Regal imported into Ireland. Each week vast quantities of vodka, gin, brandy and whiskey were delivered to Milltown House for use in Mitchum's private bar. There were stories of pub brawls, and rumours of a cannabis plantation being established in the back garden. Mitchum was ensuring that Kerry would never forget him.

Meanwhile, the long shoot wore on, exhausting everyone's patience as Lean awaited the perfect storm that would provide his film's climax. During a key beach scene, Australian actor Leo McKern lost his glass eye in the Atlantic, and lost interest in acting altogether for quite a few years afterwards. When the controlling director insisted Miles work on Christmas Day, she pushed him down a flight of stairs.

If only it had all been worth it. When the film finally opened in 1970, it was savaged by the critics, and Lean did not direct again for 13 years, so stung was he by Pauline Kael's murderous review in The New Yorker.

In fact, no one involved with the shoot would remember it with any affection, but none would deny that it left in its wake a rake of fantastic stories.

The great Mitchum

Robert Mitchum was a wonderfully enigmatic figure. According to Charles Laughton, who directed him in perhaps his finest film, Night of the Hunter, Mitchum was "very shy" and a "perfect gentleman" who used the tough-guy act to hide his cultivated personality. He read Shakespeare and Conrad, and played the saxophone. But the hard-drinking, brawling and womanising persona was a most convenient front.

Mitchum enjoyed nothing more than playing down his acting talent and denigrating the profession in general. "I gave up being serious about making pictures," he said, "around the time I made a film with Greer Garson and she took 125 takes to say no."

"People think I have an interesting walk," he commented on his famous swagger. "Hell - I'm just trying to hold my gut in."

He had, he claimed, "three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead", and two acting styles: "with and without a horse". When asked why he had bothered to involve himself in the 18-hour TV mini-series The Winds of War, he said "it promised a year of free lunches". It was all an act, of course. Mitchum was a serious and dedicated screen actor. He just didn't want to talk about it.

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