During the filming of the movie on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland's County Kerry, Robert Mitchum planted marijuana trees in the back garden of the hotel used by the production cast and crew, and gave many of the people connected with the production - including Sarah Miles' mother, and the local constabulary - their first experiences with the drug.
David Lean had difficulty casting the role of Major Randolph Doryan. Lean wanted to work with Marlon Brando, but he was not offered the role. Lean cast Christopher Jones after seeing him in The Looking Glass War (1969), not knowing that Jones's voice had been dubbed. Jones proved a disaster during filming, which explains the monosyllabism of his character and the loquaciousness of his aide-de-camp, who had to pick up the slack, as Jones simply could not act. Jones's voice eventually was dubbed.
It is rumored that David Lean was reportedly so emotionally devastated by critic Pauline Kael's scathing review of this movie, he retreated for a 14-year directorial hiatus until he made A Passage to India (1984).
Christopher Jones' and Sarah Miles did not get along. Not only was Jones in mourning for his close friend (and possibly ex-girlfriend) Sharon Tate, who was murdered by the Manson family during production, but he was also engaged to Olivia Hussey (said engagement was ultimately broken off), and was simply not attracted to Miles. At one point, Miles conspired with Robert Mitchum to drug Jones' breakfast to make him get over his disgust at filming the scene where Rosy and Doryan have a tryst in the forest, but Mitchum overdid the dosage, rendering Jones near catatonic for filming of the scene and leading him to believe he was having a nervous breakdown. A combination of grief over Tate's death and his negative experience working on the film prompted Jones to retire from acting; he only made one other film. His performance was one of the most criticised aspects of the film.
Robert Bolt wrote the part of Father Collins with Alec Guinness in mind. Guinness, a staunch Catholic, sent David Lean a long list of objections he had to the character's portrayal. Lean reportedly said "Thank you for being so frank" and then offered the part to Trevor Howard, who accepted.
David Lean ultimately fell out with Robert Mitchum to the extent that all communication between director and actor was carried out through Sarah Miles. Mitchum later compared working with the notoriously perfectionistic director to 'having to build a Taj Mahal out of toothpicks'.
While filming in Ireland they ran out of sunshine so they shot quite a few of the beach scenes at Noordhoek Beach, located a few miles from Cape Town in the Cape Peninsula, South Africa. Those scenes are easy to identify because the sky is particularly bright and clear, and the beach sand exceptionally white and fine.
The village of "Kirrary" was built just for the film and dismantled afterwards - shops, schoolhouse, church, pub, post office, etc. 200 workmen built it all using slate and 20,000 tons of granite from a dozen local quarries; anything less substantial wouldn't have stood up to the Atlantic gales. Many buildings had fitted interiors, ceilings, lighting, plumbing and even working fireplaces and chimneys.
John Mills was the first actor cast in the film; he happened to be vacationing in Rome when David Lean and Robert Bolt began developing the project. Lean (who lived in Venice at the time) met Mills in Rome and offered him the role of the village idiot. Mills accepted, though he remarked that he felt the role was "typecasting".
Robert Mitchum was undergoing a personal crisis at the time. He told David Lean that he was seriously contemplating suicide when he was cast. When Robert Bolt heard of this, he told Mitchum that as long as he finished "working on this wretched little film" first, he would pay for his burial.
MGM was expecting the film to repeat the huge success of Doctor Zhivago (1965), and unveiled it with a suitably lavish publicity campaign and roadshow release. Unfortunately, the movie was roundly savaged by critics, who typically complained it was too big a scale for its modest love story. David Lean took this criticism extremely personally; at a meeting of New York film critics he was confronted by Pauline Kael, Richard Schickel and others who seemingly took delight in insulting the film. It eventually turned a profit, but fell short of MGM's hopes for a massive blockbuster. Lean was so hurt by this, he wouldn't make another film for 14 years.
David Lean had been unable to film actual love scenes in both Brief Encounter (1945) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) due to the censorship at the time; however, the moral climate had changed enough in the seventies to show the sex scene between Rosy and Randolph. Unfortunately, Christopher Jones had great difficulties getting into character, did not get along with his co-star Sarah Miles and flat-out refused to film the scene in an explicit way; this is the reason why the scene consists mainly of close-ups of the couple, interspersed with shots of wind-swept trees and rustling leaves.
The film's long gestation did not endear David Lean to MGM, who soon regretted giving the director carte blanche after Doctor Zhivago (1965). At one point, MGM President James Aubrey arrived in Ireland to demand that Lean pick up the pace. Lean responded by shutting down production until Aubrey left the country.
As problematic as the production was, Robert Mitchum later said that he felt his performance in the film ranked among his best, that David Lean was one of the best directors with whom he had worked, and that he regretted the film was so poorly received.
Some criticised the film as an attempt to blacken the legacy of the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent Irish War of Independence in relation to the eruption of "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland at the time of the film's release, but approval of the project had started years before the Troubles.
David Lean had to wait for a year for a suitably dramatic storm to strike the Irish coast for a pivotal scene in which the villagers wade into the sea to retrieve a shipment of weapons intended for the IRA.
While filming on the coast Lean and the camera crew were plagued by spray from the Atlantic ocean landing on the lens and ruining each take. Cinematographer Freddie Young asked the Panavision camera company if they could do anything about it. Their engineers designed a spinning disc that fitted in front of the lens and was in sync with the camera shutter which solved the problem.
Robert Bolt's original idea was to make a film of Madame Bovary, starring Sarah Miles. David Lean read the script and said that he did not find it interesting, but suggested to Bolt that he would like to rework it into another setting.
The MPAA originally gave Ryan's Daughter an "R" rating. A nude scene between Miles and Jones, as well as its themes involving infidelity, were the primary reasons for the MPAA's decision. At the time, MGM was having financial trouble and appealed the rating not due to artistic but financial reasons. At the appeal hearing, MGM executives explained that they needed the less restrictive rating to allow more audience into the theatres; otherwise the company would not be able to survive financially. The appeal was overturned and the film received a "GP" rating, which later became "PG". Jack Valenti considered this to be one of the tarnishing marks on the rating system. When MGM resubmitted the film to the MPAA in 1996, it was re-rated "R".
The preview cut, which ran to over 220 minutes, was criticised for its length and poor pacing. David Lean felt obliged to remove up to 17 minutes of footage before the film's wide release, and the missing footage has not been restored or located.
John Mills told the story that he took delivery of a new Rolls-Royce convertible during the filming. He took it for a drive while completely made up for his role as Michael. He was stopped by the police and had to prove his identity.
Trevor Howard was undergoing marital difficulties during filming. When his wife Helen paid a visit to Ireland but stormed out of a party after an argument with him, she was nearly killed in a car accident on the treacherous narrow, winding roads.
Villagers from the town of Dunquin were hired as extras. The area was at the time economically destitute, but the amount of money spent in the town - nearly a million pounds - revived the local economy and led to increased immigration to the Dingle Peninsula. Disputes over land meant the entire village was razed after filming. The schoolhouse still exists, but in a ruined state.
Gregory Peck was very keen to play the Robert Mitchum role. His grandmother Catherine Ashe was from County Kerry where the movie was shot, and her cousin Thomas Ashe was a key figure in the Irish Revolution depicted in the story.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Ryan's Daughter' takes its inspiration from Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary'. Although set in peasant-class Ireland as opposed to middle-class France, in addition to the basic plot of a bored young wife taking a lover, other characters such as the girl's father and the priest are loosely inspired by the novel, in addition to the "ride in the woods" sequence. However, there is no traitor in "Madame Bovary", no one takes vengeance on her, and nobody takes poison in "Ryan's Daughter".
In the scene before Doryan commits suicide, there is a cut from a sunset to Charles striking a match, which is a sly allusion to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) with its famous cut from Peter O'Toole blowing out a match to a sunrise in the desert.