Ryan’s Daughter at the Rafael

I caught the presentation of Ryan’s Daughter at the Rafael, last night. It was part of their Films of My Life series. This time around, the honored guest was Pixar writer/director Andrew Stanton, the creator of WALL-E.

Why would someone known for family pictures pick Ryan’s Daughter, a film that somehow got a PG rating despite a nude love scene? (The ratings were different in those days, and PG really meant “probably not for kids.”) For that matter, why would anyone pick a 3-hour-plus epic that bombed commercially and critically when released in 1970, and hasn’t gathered much enthusiasm since?

And how badly did it bomb? Lean was sitting on top of the heap when he made it. His last three films had been The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. Yet except for one TV short, he wouldn’t make another film for 14 years.

Stanton explained that he had been a Lean fan since childhood, yet he never saw this particular epic until he was working for Pixar and  needed to start thinking about how to tell a story on film. It was the first Lean film he “saw through the eyes of a filmmaker, not just a fan.”

By the way, Stanton blames its failure on bad timing. By 1970, no one wanted to see big historical epics, anymore. I doubt it. Patton did very well that year critically and commercially (and at the Oscars), and Patton is if anything more old-fashioned than sensual Ryan’s Daughter. It’s also, however, a much better picture.

This wasn’t an ideal presentation, but there wasn’t much the Rafael could do about it. They screened a badly-scratched, slightly-faded, mono 35mm print of a film meant to be seen in 70mm with six-track magnetic sound. They didn’t have a choice; it was the only surviving print. (Stanton said that the DVD looks excellent.)

I liked the movie, but I couldn’t say I loved it. Set in rural west Ireland during World War I, it’s a story of forbidden love set against smoldering revolution against the English occupation. Most of the acting is wonderful, especially Sarah Miles as the title character. But set entirely in a small town, it lacked the epic sweep of Lean’s other big films. And Maurice Jarre’s score was distracting and annoying—just before the first line of dialog, I expected someone to break into song and dance.

But it as some incredible sequences. My favorite: A wedding night scene where Miles’ character loses her virginity. (And no, that isn’t the big sex scene.)

I suppose the movie was once beautiful to look at, but this print only suggested that beauty.

Stanton did some Q&A after the film, and shared some of his knowledge about it and about Lean’s working methods. Lean was apparently “incredibly insecure and competitive,” to the point where good work from a second unit director would anger him. Stanton closed by reading a hilarious excerpt from Miles’ autobiography about the problems shooting the big sex scene.