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Sunday 17 February 2019

Drama, divas and Dunquin: the making of Ryan's Daughter

It started 50 years ago this month, and the Kerry shoot for Ryan's Daughter proved almost as epic as the film, writes Thomas Myler

Eye of the storm: David Lean and crew on the set of Ryan's Daughter in Dunquin
Eye of the storm: David Lean and crew on the set of Ryan's Daughter in Dunquin

Thomas Myler

When the English movie director David Lean started shooting Ryan's Daughter in Co Kerry 50 years ago this month, he had no idea of the monumental troubles that lay ahead. Making sprawling movies with leading stars can never be easy - and Lean was no stranger to blockbusters. But Ryan's Daughter, filmed over 12 months, would certainly qualify for the 'troubled epics' category.

Fraught by the temperamental leading players, accidents that delayed production, problems with setting up scenes in the unreliable Irish climate, running over budget and poor reviews, Lean could not raise the finance to make another film for 14 years.

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A former newsreel editor at Gaumont Pictures in the 1930s, Lean moved on to directing landmark movies such as Brief Encounter, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist before a series of blockbusters in the 1950s and 1960s such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

A meticulous craftsman who often took years to properly develop a project, Lean was determined to continue that trend. With this in mind, he commissioned Robert Bolt to write a screenplay about love and betrayal. It would be loosely based on Gustave Flaubert's 19th century novel Madame Bovary, the tragic story of a heroine who sacrifices her husband and security, only to meet a horrible end. It had been filmed three times previously, in 1932, 1934 and 1949.

Lean had considered setting the story in Italy, with Sicily and Sardinia in mind, and even thinking later of shifting it to the Shetland Islands.

It was his location team headed by construction chief Peter Dukelow and his manager Eddie Fowlie who visited the majestic southwest Kerry coastline and came across Dunquin. Dukelow had designed the bridge for the River Kwai movie and could spot a desired location almost at first glance.

A Gaeltacht village lying at the most westerly tip of the Dingle Peninsula and overlooking the Blasket Islands, Dunquin had long stretches of white sands overlooked by magnificent high cliffs. Lean visited the area and agreed straight away that it was exactly what he was looking for.

Lean's screenwriter Robert Bolt had already done a scenario without an exact location but would now work it into an Irish setting with a backdrop of the post-1916 Rising and the ongoing Troubles. Somewhat optimistically, Lean envisaged a 10-week shoot, with indoor work and editing to be completed at MGM studios in Culver City, Los Angeles.

There were two suggested titles for the movie. It had a working title of Michael's Day, then changed to Coming of Age, before Bolt suggested Ryan's Daughter.

When it came to casting, a litany of problems began. Paul Scofield was the original choice for the role of widower Charles Shaughnessy, the shy schoolteacher, but was unable to leave a theatre commitment.

George C Scott, Anthony Hopkins and Patrick McGoohan were approached but were involved with other projects. Gregory Peck lobbied for the part but dropped out when learning that Robert Mitchum had been approached by Lean.

Reportedly, Mitchum was reluctant to take the role. While he admired the script, he confessed he was having personal problems at home. When pressed by Lean on working around the problems, he told the director: "Actually, I'm planning on committing suicide." Upon hearing of this, Bolt told him: "Well, if you make this little film of ours first, then do yourself in, I'd be happy to stand the expense of your funeral." Mitchum got the role.

The role of the shell-shocked Major Randolph Doryan of the occupying forces was written for Marlon Brando, who initially accepted the part but problems with retakes for his movie Burn! forced him to drop out. Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton and Richard Harris were considered. Lean then saw the young American actor Christopher Jones in The Looking Glass War and decided he had to have him for the role and cast him without ever meeting up. "I thought Chris had that rare Brando-Dean animal quality I wanted on film," Lean recalled.

For the role of Father Hugh Collins, the local parish priest, Lean sought Alec Guinness and said the part had been written with him in mind. But Guinness, a staunch Catholic convert, objected to what he felt was a totally inaccurate portrayal of a priest "in a village steeped in infidelity" and refused the role. Trevor Howard, who had worked with Lean in Brief Encounter in 1945, got the part.

The role of Rosy Ryan, the only daughter of the local publican and bored with life in the quiet local village, went to Bolt's wife, Sarah Miles. An established star with a Bafta-nomination to her credit, Miles was described by movie historian David Thomson as having "thrust sexual appetite into British film".

John Mills, an established actor in many classic British movies including Lean's Great Expectations, got the part of Michael, described by Bolt as "the village idiot".

With supporting players in place, including a number of Irish actors including Niall Tóibín and Des Keogh, the cameras started rolling on Monday, February 24, 1969. Yet Lean's problems were not over yet. Halfway through filming and waiting for the storm that never came, Lean took the cast to South Africa where he got the storm he wanted, a particularly violent one in which John Mills suffered back injuries requiring hospital treatment for a month and Leo McKern, who played the publican, lost his glass eye.

Back in Dingle in a guest house overlooking the bay, Mitchum was growing marijuana in the greenhouse and importing regular girlfriends from Hollywood before his wife Dorothy arrived from Los Angeles. He was also having long and heavy drinking sessions with Trevor Howard, much to Lean's annoyance.

As for Jones, Lean found that he was having trouble with an English accent. In any event, his voice was too flat and all his lines had to be dubbed. Apparently Jones was still brooding over the recent death of his girlfriend Sharon Tate, brutally murdered by Charles Manson and his gang. As a result, he was putting no passion whatsoever into his love scenes with Miles.

Mitchum threatened to walk out over the long delays, and Miles expressed boredom, too. "My main memory is of sitting on a hilltop in a caravan at six in the morning in the rain," she recalled. "There was no other actor or member of the crew around me. I would sit there getting mad, waiting for either the rain to stop or someone to arrive. Film-acting is so horrifically belittling."

The movie finally wrapped on February 24, 1970, a year after it began. While Mills won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Freddie Young was named for Best Photography in a Motion Picture, it received poor reviews. Critics claimed it was too long at 220 minutes, prompting Lean to cut 17 minutes of footage before its worldwide release in November 1970.

The public, at least, loved it. Budgeted at $13.8m, it grossed over $30m in the US alone.

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