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On the 10th anniversary of Kubrick’s passing: “Barry Lyndon”

The previous installment of the Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999) retrospective discusses “Full Metal Jacket.”

Is “Barry Lyndon” Kubrick’s forgotten film, and his most underrated? It has none of the notoriety of “A Clockwork Orange,” it doesn’t boast groundbreaking special effects like “2001,” and it can’t rely on a manic turn from Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” to keep it in the public consciousness.

Instead of exploring Jupiter and beyond, or walking the devastated streets of Hue City, we embark on a journey to somewhere vaguely familiar but equally alien – the 18th Century.

Kubrick had touched lightly on the subject before. The chateau in “Paths of Glory” is from this period and Bowman’s final resting place in “2001” is reminiscent of an 18th Century boudoir. But in “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick immerses us in a 3-hour odyssey back into the hundred years that shaped the modern world.

Much like its titular protagonist, “Barry Lyndon” was never a first choice. Kubrick originally planned to make an epic about Napoleon. He reputedly read over 500 books on the Corsican and wanted to film immediately after “2001.” Alexander Walker wrote, “Napoleon’s organizational powers had an irresistible affinity for Kubrick. As a filmmaker he also put a godlike faith in the grand plan and hankered to command his own Grand Armee.”

Yet Napoleon transpired to be his greatest and only cinematic defeat – Kubrick’s very own retreat before Moscow. Recession, the release of Sergei Bondarchuck’s adaptation of War and Peace in 1968, and the commercial failure of his Waterloo two years later all conspired to rob Kubrick of his filmic destiny.

Like Napoleon and the 100 days leading to Waterloo, Kubrick briefly tried to revive the project’s fortunes after he had released “A Clockwork Orange.” Once again he found his masterpiece thwarted by a coalition of stingy moneymen and nervous executives. Defeated, Kubrick, like Napoleon, shuffled off into exile – although unlike Bonaparte’s his was self-imposed.

When Warner Brothers announced that Kubrick was to film Thackeray’s then largely unknown book about an ambitious Irish social climber, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, many were taken by surprise. When Kubrick revealed his star was matinee idol Ryan O’Neal, critics sharpened their knives.

Surely O’Neal was far too lightweight for a director of Kubrick’s caliber? How could he possibly carry a film 3 hours in length? In retrospect, however, we must ask: who else could have handled the transformation from the vigorous Redmond Barry to the vulgar Barry Lyndon?

O’Neal, both like his character and Tom Cruise years later in Eyes Wide Shut, had something to prove to his critics. He reversed his wise-cracking, cocksure screen persona and made Barry naive, brave and selfish. O’Neal barely utters a word throughout the film and yet his face registers Barry’s triumphs and failures with the merest flicker of repressed emotion. The only time he displays anything close to a smart mouth a soldier, too cowardly to insult a hulking bully himself, coaches his insults.

Poster ⓒ Warner Bros
Poster ⓒ Warner Bros

Kubrick paints O’Neal into a variety of masterful compositions derived from the artwork of the period. Alongside Ken Adams, the production designer, he used paintings by Watteau, Zoffany and Chadowiecki, for the continental scenes, as well as works by Gainsborough, Hogarth, Reynolds, Chardin and Stubbs to inform his mise-en-scène. The interiors were famously filmed by candlelight to add to the absolute verisimilitude.

His direction throughout verges on the Grand Manner, but rather than convey the elite and noble status of his characters through their surroundings he subverts this to show just how corrupt and defunct the privileged have become.

Kubrick largely trades in his customary tracking shots for the controlled sedateness of a slow zoom out from an initial close-up, until it is lost in a gargantuan landscape or a garish interior. Rather than rely on editing to direct our eye, he allows our gaze to wander over the screen as if we were in an ephemeral gallery, or a window of an unobtrusive time machine, subtly navigating Barry’s trials and tribulations.

And of these Barry has many. He duels, gambles and womanises across the battlefields and courts of Europe until he marries into the aristocracy. Kubrick’s major departure from the novel is to have Barry’s own unreliable narration replaced by an omniscient narrator who constantly undermines, in the politest manner, any surprises his exploits might hold for us in the future.

Like an accident in progress, Kubrick allows us to experience Barry’s downfall as the ultimate slow-motion carriage crash. We can see it all coming, but, like Barry, we are powerless to stop it. Our morbid fascination propels us to watch through our hands at times as he in turn uses and is used by the polite society who ruins him slowly by pound notes and poor advice.

Rather than inject the ruling classes with some much needed new blood Barry succumbs to their lethargy and perverse indulgences. He is subtly helped into spending Lady Lyndon’s fortune in a number of ways. He is courteously conned into buying second-rate art works at inflated prices, encouraged to raise a Regiment of Foot to serve the King who promptly tells him to “go with them” (an insult missed by the gullible Barry), and manipulated into hosting hideously extravagant parties.

Barry bankrupts himself and Lady Lyndon in his reckless pursuit of his peerage. It’s as if the aristocracy colluded from the very start to bleed him dry until Lady Lyndon’s son, Lord Bullingdon, is old enough to exact his revenge on his hated stepfather. Bullingdon uses his own half-brother Brian and Barry’s beloved son as a pawn to humiliate him in front of distinguished guests at a recital.

Bullingdon’s plan succeeds beyond his wildest expectations as Barry half kills him in front of his horrified company. Kubrick reverts to an energetic hand held camera to capture the chaotic melee as the feeble Lords and Gentlemen haplessly struggle to pry the enraged Barry from his shrieking stepson.

Even his son Brian dies prematurely when thrown from a horse so as to completely sever any hope that Barry had to better his family. O’Neal invests Barry with a desperate grief and, for all of his faults, this is the only character in the film who knows how to love and be free of the shackles of 18 century social protocol.

With every frame, Kubrick strips away the very soul of his protagonist until he has nothing left. At his lowest point, dead drunk in a sleazy sojourn, Bullingdon calls out Barry. Only in the duel can Barry redeem himself.

The contest is hypnotic. The use of music, the rhythmic spoken rules, the birdsong in the background all combine to suck our total concentration into the screen. Bullingdon wins the toss and Barry, never short of bravery, awaits his fate, but his gun misfires. Barry, in an act of contrition, elects to discharge his pistol into the ground after seeing his stepson lose control and vomit.

However Bullingdon who can’t quite believe Barry’s actions wants his petty revenge even though he has gained satisfaction. He chooses to fire again. The look of disgust that barely registers on the seconds’ faces and the stoic manner in which Barry meets his fate, firmly places us on his side, even counting the wretched way Barry has behaved in the past. Bullingdon and the aristocracy by proxy have no romantic notions of mercy or compassion.

If Barry Lyndon was second in Kubrick’s thoughts, it is tempting to imagine his Napoleon as an unrivalled masterpiece that never was. The greatest movie never made. Yet this is strangely disingenuous to “Lyndon’s” own achievements. There is no other creation quite like it, and we should celebrate the film Kubrick left behind rather than the film he didn’t. As it stands, Napoleon was the dry run for “Barry Lyndon” and not the other way round.

“Barry Lyndon” is not Kubrick’s most underrated film then, it his greatest.


Mark Farnsworth

Senior Film Writer Mark Farnsworth teaches Film in East London and is currently working on two screenplays, The Mysteries and Fair Access. He also writes the Oh/Cult section for Brokenshark.co.uk.

4 thoughts on “On the 10th anniversary of Kubrick’s passing: “Barry Lyndon”

  1. Excellent article! Barry Lyndon is a criminally underrated film and it is nice to see it finally get some credit. I agree it may be his finest work!

  2. Join the club Adolphus and thank you for your compliment. I saw it again at an NFT screening in London. Beautiful print and seeing it in a packed screen was like watching an entirely different film. I came out in a daze.

  3. While I don’t think “Barry Lyndon” is Kubrick’s BEST work (“2001” gets THAT title), I will agree with Adolphus that it is underrated, too often overlooked, and still head and shoulders WAY above 99% of the dreck that Hollywood pumps into theaters these days. Like all of Kubrrick’s films it was initially released to mixed reviews, but in retrospect it really is a exquisitely beautiful piece of work.

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