A clifftop Ferrari crash, an affair and a mental unravelling – the bizarre troubles that plagued Ryan’s Daughter

Sarah Miles says that after a few months, Ryan’s Daughter started to become a “way of life”. And the lines between reality and fantasy weren’t just blurring for this free-spirited young actress: the village on the hill outside Dingle which David Lean had built out of solid stone had a pub serving proper beer and a real peat fire. Visiting entertainment writers flown over first-class from Los Angeles and New York by MGM passed horse-drawn milk-carts on the road from Shannon, and wondered, although this was then 1969, whether Ireland had moved on from the First World War period in which Ryan’s Daughter was set.

The sense of blurred lines in what quickly became a cloistered film community in and around Dingle quickly gave rise to one of the more titillating pieces of gossip, as Miles, then 27, seemed irresistibly drawn towards co-star Robert Mitchum, who turned 52 that summer. In the film, Rosy Ryan, played by Miles, is prepared to cheat on her husband, played by Mitchum, in order to take up with Christopher Jones’s British army officer. Jones was then considered to be the new James Dean, but it became clear on set that Miles only had eyes only for Mitchum. She was attracted to his “bear-like proximity”, and eventually admitted to having an affair with him, but only years after Ryan’s Daughter, when she and her husband had split.

Lean was increasingly unnerved by what was going on as he battled with the Kerry weather and attempted to keep MGM at bay as the financiers began to point to their watches as filming and budgets overran. Film publicist Bayley Silleck noted his dismay. “Lean would just sit very quietly in the dining room of the Skellig Hotel and smoke and have dinner and watch everybody. He loved gossip, but Mitchum was all about provoking, making hash brownies and inviting everybody over and getting them stoned, really causing lots of trouble. So I think you had a problem.

“And there was this thing with Sarah. That infuriated Lean. It was all that any- body ever talked about in the pub for days. ‘Look at this. She has no interest in this Hollywood hunk [Jones]. What she is really interested in is the guy who plays the cuckold.’ And right there, of course, though they didn’t say it out loud, a lot of people said the film was badly cast for that reason. Mitchum still had a lot going for him as a sexy movie star, and he really had more oomph, more erotic power than Chris did.”

Sarah Miles in Ryan’s Daughter

Sarah Miles in Ryan’s Daughter

A serial adulterer himself down the years, Lean saw potential problems as the whispering grew louder. Miles was married to the writer of Ryan’s Daughter, Robert Bolt, who was working on another project at Fermoyle House, the mansion the Bolts had rented over the Conor Pass. Lean was close to Bolt but even closer to property manager Eddie Fowlie, whom he regarded as his Man Friday.

“He [Mitchum] would vanish,” Fowlie wrote in David Lean’s Dedicated Maniac, “mostly to spend time with four or five young women he had especially flown over to take part in one of the many private parties he often threw, although that wasn’t enough to keep him satisfied and he ended up having an affair with Sarah Miles.”

What evidence was there of this alleged affair? To those around her, Miles was clearly infatuated by Mitchum and his aura but, as Fowlie admitted, “I never saw them in bed together.”

The film storyline had Mitchum’s character, Mr Shaughnessy, as a dud in bed, unable to satisfy the virgin Rosy, whose expectations have been raised by the bodice-rippers she had been reading surreptitiously, before tossing them into the Atlantic Ocean. As viewers, we share Shaughnessy’s awkwardness and Rosy’s disappointment on their wedding night, but the whole experience seems to have left Miles rather breathless.

While waiting on set in the marital bed for the director, Miles says that Mitchum puffed on a joint, and when shooting began applied himself to pulling up her full-length nightdress beneath the heavy bedclothes. This strayed well outside her husband’s script, especially when Mitchum began, “grabbing hold of my lower cheeks”, as she described in her autobiography Serves Me Right. Mitchum “knew that any woman who had an ounce of lust within her would find it hard to resist his bear-like proximity and I was, after all, apart from being the writer’s wife, also a woman”.

If that suggests Miles was enjoying the frisson surrounding her and Mitchum’s sexual chemistry, she later said otherwise: “Mitchum and I were soulmates,” she told her husband’s biographer, Adrian Turner. “We were very close, but we weren’t doing it. People always assume you are doing it, and we both knew what everybody was thinking and I find that a bit tacky.”

Olivia Hussey, who reckoned Jones was drugged to stop him mentally unravelling

Olivia Hussey, who reckoned Jones was drugged to stop him mentally unravelling

In one way, Lean himself was responsible for what was going on. On set, Miles’s modest caravan usually stood between the much larger ones designated to Lean and Mitchum. Having distanced himself from Mitchum, as he didn’t like the flippant way the actor conducted himself around the set between takes – and their egos clashed – Lean used Miles as a go-between and message-giver:

“Tell Robert he’s got to wear his shirt outside his trousers.”

“Tell David I’m not going to wear my shirt out.”

“Tell him he’s got to.”

“I was pig in the middle, because the mountain would not go to Mohammed and Mohammed would not go to the mountain,” Miles recalled.

Mitchum’s wife, Dorothy, came and went, sometimes accompanied by their youngest child, 17-year-old Petrine. She had heard similar stories, and worse, virtually since she and Mitchum were first married 30 years earlier.

Miles would remain a presence in the lives of the Mitchums for some time. When she split from her husband and divorced shortly after Ryan’s Daughter, she moved to Los Angeles, where she now acknowledges, she did start an affair with Mitchum.

In LA, Miles also encountered Christopher Jones, who she claims left the Ryan’s Daughter set in a straitjacket and was still unhinged at their brief reunion. In Dingle, he had crashed his Ferrari on the edge of a cliff and nearly killed himself as he started to unravel. In LA, Miles said, he took the car keys for her Volkswagen Beetle, and drove off into the night.

In fact, Jones’s story is the real scandal of Ryan’s Daughter. The young American had impressed Lean in John Le Carre’s spy film The Looking Glass War, with his rather sensuous, doom-laden presence and the way he spoke English with a Polish inflection. What Lean didn’t know when he made a spur-of-the-moment decision to hire Jones (Marlon Brando turned the part down at the last minute) was that Jones’s voice had been dubbed in Looking Glass War. His back-catalogue of American B movies with a Sixties youth rebellion theme was a more accurate reflection of his talent.

Being cast as Major Doryan in a David Lean movie was a massive step up for him, and he struggled from the start in Dingle, with the accent and demands made on him by Lean. With him was the beautiful teenage actress, Olivia Hussey, one of the hottest properties in Hollywood after her starring role in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

“David had hell’s own job,” the producer Anthony Havelock-Allan later recalled. “It wasn’t that the boy was a bad actor, or couldn’t act, but he was an actor who needed to be told exactly how to do it. He needed a director who loved actors, who had infinite patience and could see where the boy was going wrong. David didn’t like to have to do that. Then the boy, when he knew that David was getting impatient with him, got scared, his nerve went.”

Jones’s failure to emote for the camera, and his inability to hit a mark and deliver a line at the same time, had made the scene where he first meets Rosy in her father’s pub a drawn-out affair. Everyone went in to the next encounter, the love-making scene in a bluebell wood, in a mood of considerable trepidation. The opening shots for this sequence were to be filmed with both actors on horseback riding along the lakes of Killarney until they finally find a secluded forest, with the floor wreathed in bluebell flowers.

It was here that the establishing shots for the love scene were completed. Unfortunately for Lean, the skies darkened and the rain started to fall as the expectant couple picked a route through the bluebells, but at least he had something in the can. Once the rain stopped, the couple could return and get down to business. Or so he thought. Instead, the bluebells were washed away.

Lean was determined to keep his upper lip stiff, but the crew around him, known as the Dedicated Maniacs, were growing increasingly concerned. After three-and-a-half months of shooting, on June 11 the film was officially 40 days over schedule and $940,000 over budget. The following five weeks were a disaster because of unsuitable weather – and by July 15, the film was 60 days behind schedule and $1.5m over budget.

“We knew what was going to happen,” said the art director Roy Walker. “He hasn’t shot the scene in the woods. We didn’t even think about the bloody beaches. So secretly, [it was] arranged for me to go to London. I went to Kew Gardens and asked them where in the world around Christmas time would there be trees that you would believe were in Ireland. The people at Kew got their heads together and came up with Chile, Japan, New Zealand and South Africa.”

Eventually, with winter approaching, Eddie Fowlie built a replica of the bluebell wood in an old ceili hall, west of Dingle town. It was a compromise which both Lean and Bolt were uncomfortable with, but the scene now had an added ingredient as Miles and Jones were expected to play it naked.

Lean’s instinct when it came to both violence and sex on screen was to have them implied rather than shown explicitly, but he was also conscious of being viewed as ‘old-fashioned’ and was prepared to lose this celluloid form of virginity.

On Sunday, November 2, it seemed everybody was ready to go, except for Jones, whose behaviour had become increasingly erratic since his close friend Sharon Tate was killed in the gruesome Manson family murders on August 5. It was rare for the company to work on the Sabbath, but Lean had finally decided it was time to get a move on. He first wanted to rehearse the love scene in his caravan outside the dance hall, where he was joined by Miles and Jones. Miles knelt on the floor of the caravan where the rehearsal was to take place, but Jones remained seated, staring out the window. Lean instructed him to join Miles on the floor so they could choreograph the love scene, but Jones ignored him. Miles tried to coax him off the settee with loving words – “embracing his fears”, as she called it. Miles and Lean performed a curious good cop, bad cop act. Lean’s cajoling turned into threats concerning breach of contract and lawsuits. Finally, Jones spoke: “I don’t work on a Sunday.”

Over dinner, Lean spilled out his frustrations to Havelock-Allan. “He was enraged with the boy for having taken the role and being so unprofessional and being so absolutely stupid about what to David and everybody else seemed perfectly simple,” Havelock-Allan told me. “To fake the beginnings of a screw in the open air ought not to be difficult, but to the boy it was a nightmare.”

A part of Jones was enjoying it, however, as he made clear to me when I spoke to him in Los Angeles in 2002. After months of being sworn at by Lean, Jones was exacting a form of revenge.

When they reassembled the next day, it was the same story, Jones refusing to do the rehearsal with Miles, everybody else hanging around waiting for the action to start.

“David said to me, ‘Christopher, you go back to your caravan and you stay there’,” Jones told me. “‘You come to work every morning, you put on your costume and you sit in your caravan till you’re ready to come out.’ So we sat in the caravan all day long. We did that for about a week. And he kept coming to the caravan and saying, ‘Are you ready, Chris?’ and I said, ‘No’. I flatly refused. I don’t know why I was refusing, I just did, and I’m not saying I was right.”

It was a dangerous game to play. Miles, Lean and one or two others hatched a rather desperate plan, which involved spiking Jones’s drinks, even down to the milk for his breakfast cereal.

According to the accounts of Miles and Olivia Hussey, in the end, the dosage seemed to go horribly wrong.

The driver of the Jones entourage, Walter Sheehy, says that one of the managers, Stuart Cohen, confessed to putting a sedative in his breakfast cereal every morning.

Hussey reckons Jones was drugged to stop him mentally unravelling. “The production – cynically in my view – decided to medicate him. It fell to me to see that he took his meds – that’s what certain members of the production (who shall remain nameless) called them. I assumed they must have been Valium or some such thing. Not knowing what to do, I would crush and blend the things into his morning cereal,” Hussey wrote in her autobiography The Girl on the Balcony (the book, published after Jones’s death, also claims that the actor violently assaulted and raped her).

Hussey said that Jones began to have his suspicions. “He got it into his head, correctly, that he felt too good, that he must be being poisoned,” Hussey wrote. “It was a nightmare. Rushing over, a wild snarl on his face, he would throw the bowl of oatmeal at me and scream, ‘I want you to eat this, I want you to eat this’. Then he’d laugh ghoulishly and storm off.”

Miles says she discussed the possibility of an aphrodisiac for Jones with Mitchum, who was waiting impatiently, powdered up in a nightgown, ready to play one of his favourite scenes.

“What the f**k is his problem?” she remembers Mitchum asking.

“He doesn’t want to touch me,” she replied.

“Bullshit. He just wants you to bugger him, that’s all.”

Sarah found that a bit crude, but she had been wondering openly why Jones spent so little time with Hussey. She said it took a stretch of the imagination to imagine Jones getting up to any “hanky-panky” with his two managers, both gay, but when she shared her reservations with Mitchum he gave her a “withering look”.

At one point, it looked like they were queuing up to take credit for wrecking Jones’s head. Miles herself also admitted that she had drugged Jones, in cahoots with the director himself. “David was well ‘in’ with the local chemist and got him to provide a white powder which would ‘help matters considerably’,” Miles wrote. Just as Hussey had done, Miles says she then added the powder to the milk Jones used for his breakfast cereal.

It amused the film crew that while it was illegal to sell a packet of condoms in Ireland, strong sedatives were available over the counter, quite legally, and the chemist was doing nothing wrong.

“They had to keep him quiet,” says Vera O’Keeffe, the local chemist. So what did they give him? “I can’t tell you.”

Could she not remember?

“I can’t tell you. They gave him a potion anyway. I’d say she [Miles] was afraid of him [Jones].”

Jones finally emerged from his caravan after a week-long stand-off to take his place in the dance hall, even though Miles said he looked unsteady on his feet and his pupils were dilated. Miles reckoned he was completely out of it as they removed each other’s clothes, but Lean was so grateful just to get the scene under way that he wasn’t his usual scathing self and tried to nurse Jones along.

Miles pretended that it was Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff that she was making love to as she breathed heavily and panted. It felt like Jones was asleep on top of her, and she couldn’t move. Lean came over and whispered in her ear, “I know we’re [shooting] on his back, but it looks dead”. Miles then moved her hand down Jones’s back and put her finger up his bum. “He liked that alright. He went from a dead fish to a live fish wiggling about on a hook. Oh, the unsavoury things that actors have to do! Furthermore, I had to look into camera and make as if it was the most sensational, earth-shattering orgasm of my whole life.”

Jones said Miles’s claim that she had inserted a digit in his backside was “bullshit”, but he had been violated in one way at least. “Everything seemed pretty weird that day and I thought, ‘Man, I feel f**king awful. Am I having a nervous breakdown or what?'”

Jones didn’t know which part of Miles’s account he should be more enraged by. “Sarah is out of her mind. For her to come out and say that they drugged me, she must be nuts. For her to admit it. I would like to know more about it, I really would.

“I don’t know what the fuck she’s on about. Probably because I didn’t react to someone like her, but when you have someone like Olivia Hussey that you’re going with… at the time Olivia was exceptionally beautiful and still is, right? I just didn’t have any eyes for Sarah.”

At least Christopher Jones goes down in history as the only actor to be secretly drugged by both his off-screen and on-screen girlfriends. Miles has long talked about trying to do a sequel – the people of Dingle would also love if Ryan had a second daughter – but nothing can top the first time.

Adapted from Making Ryan’s Daughter: The Myths, Madness and Mastery by Paul Benedict Rowan (New Island, €15.99).

Source: A clifftop Ferrari crash, an affair and a mental unravelling – the bizarre troubles that plagued Ryan’s Daughter

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