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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Give an Inch…

If the southwest County Mayo village of Cong is marked to this day by its association with the filming of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, then County Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula is—if not as closely associated with a prominent film—forever marked economically and culturally by its three-and-a-half-decades-old connection with David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter. I have written about this before, after having seen an Irish television documentary about the film’s effect on the region.

After the Missus and I were married, we spent most of our time in that part of Ireland and still get down there when time and circumstances permit. And, when we get visitors there, as we did this summer, I have been known to direct them to look through the window in the front room and squint their eyes as they gaze into the distance—sometimes asking them to use their imagination in spite of driving rain and hurricane force winds—and look at a strand of sand extending into Dingle bay several miles away. It is called Inch and, until recently, I told the visitors that the famous scene in Ryan’s Daughter, in which villagers brave a raging storm to retrieve boxes of arms from the surf, was filmed there. I won’t be saying that anymore, as I have been set straight. Beach scenes from the film were indeed filmed there. But not all of them, and not that one.

I was set straight in July during a visit to Dingle town, which is not really supposed to be called Dingle anymore. It is located in the Gaeltacht, i.e. an officially designated Irish speaking area, and a couple of years ago the Irish government decided that such places would no longer have their English names on road signs. So now, if you want to find Dingle by car, you need to look for signs pointing you to An Daingean. Except that most of the road signs I saw seemed to have the English name Dingle spray painted on top of the An Daingean. It seems that the locals weren’t really keen to remove the English version of the name because tourism is a huge industry in the area, and a lot of those tourists (including many Irish ones) don’t speak Irish and aren’t necessarily familiar with Irish place names. The worst fear of local hoteliers and restaurateurs is that Brits, Germans and Yanks loaded with cash will drive right by the turn for An Daingean. Anyway, we found Dingle, where there happened to be an exhibit on the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, which by the way has more than a little to do with why Dingle, I mean, An Daingean, makes so much money on tourism. On my way out, after seeing the exhibit, I picked up a new book that told me everything I ever wanted to know (and a few things I didn’t) about the making of that movie.

The book, Troubled Epic: On Location with Ryan’s Daughter, was written by English author and film buff Michael Tanner, who knows Dingle from many years of holidaying there. Loaded with photographs, the book follows the progress of the movie project from its conception, casting, securing of locations, filming and the critical aftermath. It confirms many things that I had suspected or assumed, as well as providing more than a few surprises. For example, I knew that the screenwriter Robert Bolt had written the part of Rosy Ryan for his wife Sarah Miles. But it had not occurred to me, although it is perfectly clear in hindsight, that the story was basically an adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a tale of a bored young wife, living in the country, who takes a lover (actually, two). But, obviously, it wasn’t a straight adaptation. Unlike Lean’s great classics—Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia (drawn from Seven Pillars of Wisdom), Doctor Zhivago—it was not based directly on a well-known book. Bolt and Lean put Ryan’s Daughter together more or less by formula.

Tanner’s book confirmed something that I instinctively knew since I first saw the movie. Ryan’s Daughter was a deliberate attempt to cobble together elements that had been present in previous successful Lean films, particularly Doctor Zhivago. So we get the passionate love triangle story set against passionate historic events and passionately beautiful scenic backdrops. So, whereas Zhivago was organically “about” Russia’s Bolshevik revolution, Bolt and Lean shopped around for a passionate historic situation to plant behind their Madame Bovary riff. According to Tanner, locations considered for the movie included Sicily, Sardinia, the Shetland Islands and India, in which the backdrop would have been that country’s transition from British colony to independent nation. (That formed the basis for Lean’s next and final film, A Passage to India.) They settled on Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising for the backdrop and on the tip of the Dingle Peninsula (“the most westerly parish in Europe,” Tanner observes) for the dramatic location.

Of particular interest to readers, who know the region or plan to visit it, is the meticulous detail that Tanner provides in how locations were secured and exactly where each one was. The author clearly spoke with as many locals as possible and got all their stories (as well as consulting press reports from the time), resulting in an exhaustive summary of where and how all the filming was done. That is how I got the real scoop on the big storm scene. It turns out that several different beaches were used for the movie’s various beach scenes. According to Tanner, the film begins with an establishing shot of the 200-meter high Cliffs of Moher, which are not in Kerry at all but to the north in County Clare. Then “we see a sudden gust of wind whisk Rosy Ryan’s parasol over the edge of the smaller cliffs at Coumeenole Bay,” which is near the western tip of the Dingle Peninsula. The parasol is then “fished out of the water and returned to her by Father Hugh and Michael some 6,000 miles away in South Africa[!] on the beach at Kommetjie.” That was apparently one of several scenes that Lean later decided to re-shoot but couldn’t in Ireland because of “inclement weather and poor light.” A later beach scene, involving a school nature walk, shifted multiple times between Coumeenole Bay and Barrow Strand (west of Tralee) and Inch. As for the big storm scene, it was (mostly) filmed at Coumeenole. Lean waited eight weeks for a force 10 storm, and he finally got one, providing 60-foot high waves crashing against the rocks. Tanner’s description of how the sequence was accomplished technically (as well as the travails of the crew and actors) makes a fascinating read.

To most readers, probably more interesting than the precise site of the locations is the behind-the-scenes dirt on what was going on among the cast and crew. In a strange way, the screenplay Bolt wrote for his much-younger (by 17 years) wife about a young bride who cheats on her much-older husband resulted in life imitating art. According to Tanner, Miles embarked on a passionate affair with a co-star, but it was not with the actor who played her on-screen lover. In fact, she did not have much rapport with Christopher Jones, the hot young American actor who played the tragically shell-shock British Major Doryan. Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole were all considered for the part, but Lean wound up settling on Jones, a Tennessee-born actor with a James Dean-like aura to him, based purely on seeing footage of his performance in The Looking Glass War. Lean clearly hoped that lightning would strike a second time, as it had with his casting of O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. It didn’t. The Yank was out of his depth. A mumbler in the Brando tradition, he eventually wound up being dubbed by Julian Holloway, whose previous gig had been in the comedy Carry On Up the Khyber.

No, the object of Miles’s illicit affection was a man seven years older than her husband: none other than Hollywood star Robert Mitchum. In hindsight, and in fact even at the time, Mitchum’s casting as a cuckolded rural Irish school headmaster in the movie seemed strange. Better known for American tough guy roles, he stood out like a sore thumb in a cast of Irish characters, where none of the six top-billed actors was actually Irish. The affair between the two married co-stars was apparently no mere fling for Miles. Witnesses from the time testify in the book how smitten she was. The two apparently kept some sort of off-and-on relationship for the rest of Mitchum’s life and even made another movie together (the 1978 remake of The Big Sleep). Tanner quotes a friend’s poignant story of how, in 1995, Miles (who had divorced Bolt, nursed him after a stroke, remarried him and became his widow) went to the still-married Mitchum in California. She found him living in “a tenement,” riddled with cancer and weighing less than 100 pounds. He died in 1997.

There are many more stories and anecdotes in the pages of Tanner’s book, most happier than that one. If you have any interest at all in Ryan’s Daughter and/or the people and places behind it, you will find it absorbing reading.

-S.L., 6 September 2007

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