By John H. Foote
Is Barry Lyndon the greatest film Stanley Kubrick ever made? For years I have believed his greatest film is A Clockwork Orange (1971), which I still believe to be an absolute masterpiece, a stunner that comes along once or twice a generation. Barry Lyndon is a very different film, more emotionally than physically violent. Kubrick created a film that requires patience of the viewer, a film that draws you into to a different world, a different time in human history, utilizing intimate and precise details to plunge the viewer into the world created by William Thackeray in his splendid 1844 novel upon which the film is based.
Kubrick was frustrated and did not know what to do. He wanted to make his dream project, a biography of Napoleon featuring Jack Nicholson, then a rising star. Warner Brothers had turned it down after the big budget work Waterloo (1970) had flopped, with a miscast Rod Steiger as Napoleon. He consoled himself with Barry Lyndon, which was at least set during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Warner Brothers once again gave the director a free hand to make the film his way, staying out of his path. One may wonder, and many do, why they didn’t just go forward with his Napoleon film? I mean, this was Kubrick!
When Barry Lyndon was released, the reviews were mixed, some critics hailing it a masterpiece, others calling the film slow, ponderous, even boring. I was 16 when I first saw the film and, even at that early stage of my career, knew it was certainly not boring or ponderous. Mad Magazine lampooned the film, calling it “Borey Lyndon”. Granted it is a slow-moving picture, but even at 16, I was fascinated and transfixed by the film. Kubrick had created an austere, lived in film set in Europe during the 1750’s.
The cinematography is simply exquisite, among the most beautiful ever committed to the screen, particularly the breathtaking candlelit scenes. The production design is equally astonishing, seemingly placing us within the castle walls of the story, or in the small, claustrophobic homes of the peasants. The costumes are excellent, and the score remains haunting to this day. Kubrick has always been a very visual director, saying more with images than most directors say in shots teeming with words. Remember his powerful scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) when the HAL 9000 computer, the villain of the film, has malfunctioned, and the two astronauts go into a pod to discuss de-activating him? In utter silence, we see Hal reading the lips of the men, as they talk about essentially killing him. It was stunning. Another silent moment is the chilling opening of A Clockwork Orange, and that baleful stare of Alex (Malcolm McDowell). With only the electronic score as sound, we know all we need to know about Alex in that first 30 seconds.
He accomplishes much of the same here, with his stunning imagery. Peter Jackson would do the same later with his massive, and superb The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03). Tolkien, the books’ author, could spend pages describing a mountain range or forest, which Jackson could accomplish with a single movie image.
Barry Lyndon might be Kubrick’s finest work as a director.
Some critics griped about the choice of Ryan O’Neal in the title role of Barry, but I think he was perfect for the part. O’Neal was never much of an actor, more of a pretty face than anything else, though his star rose after his Oscar nomination for Love Story (1970). Kubrick often used his actors as pawns with which to tell his story, and in many ways, O’Neal was a perfect pawn. Thrilled to be working with such an esteemed filmmaker, so revered, O’Neal became putty in Kubrick’s hands, willing to do anything to make the film work, believing Kubrick could make a great actor of him. That was wishful thinking given that O’Neal was a very limited actor, but Kubrick did make the most of O’Neal’s talents the same way George Stevens utilized James Dean in Giant (1956). Knowing Dean was a lightning rod for the camera, that he had a habit of sucking everything out of a scene and leaving nothing for anyone else, Stevens used him sparingly, in a supporting part. It worked like a dream. In most of his previous work, O’Neal was a very busy actor, Love Story being the calmest performance he has given. Kubrick used him with a unique stillness, allowing us to decide what was happening within him. Like Forrest Gump (1994), life happens to Barry as he stumbles from one circumstance to another, allowing life to impact him rather than the opposite.
The film traces his life from his early 20s as a lad in Ireland, the apple of his mother’s eye. He inconveniently falls in love with his cousin, who is betrothed to another. Barry duels this man to the death and then gets rushed out of Ireland to avoid consequences. Turns out, the family had arranged the fake death to get rid of Barry. Very quickly Barry finds that circumstances happen to him to cause his life to spiral out of control. Soon after leaving Ireland, with money in his pocket, he is robbed by a famous highwayman named Feeney and left penniless. He joins the military in France as a mercenary. Disliking military life, he deserts, stealing the uniform and ID of an officer. On the road, he encounters a young widow who feeds him and offers him her bed for a few days before he rides on, only to be found out by the Prussians, who sentence him to serve in their army. He proves to be a brave warrior, saving the very man who first captured him, and earning the respect of the entire army. When the war ends, he is offered a job as a spy, watching a gambler as he makes his way through the European courts. But the gambler is an Irishman and Barry can’t resist confessing that he is a spy. The gambler embraces Barry and takes him under his wing, training him as a gambler, and the two cheat their way through the courts of Europe, making a great deal of money. And when the defeated parties refuse to pay, Barry challenges them to a sword duel, at which he has become quite adept. Word spreads about his skill so the renegers often pay up instead of facing a duel.
Seeking to have a family, Barry seduces Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a beautiful woman married to a much older wealthy man, whom she hopes will die soon leaving her to his money. He eventually acquiesces and Barry marries her, taking her name, thus becoming Barry Lyndon. He very quickly adopts a high standard of living. Lady Lyndon’s son, Lord Bullingdon, hates Barry and makes no secret of it. As a child he endures the beatings at the hands of his new stepfather, and as a man he makes the mistake of putting his hands on Barry’s own son, Brian, and receives another violent thrashing. On another occasion, Barry loses his temper with Bullingdon and attacks the younger man. It ends the already very strained marriage between Barry and Lady Lyndon, though I suspect his dalliances with every woman in sight did not help. Eventually, Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel. Understandably terrified, the young man can barely control himself, and misfires his weapon, giving way for Barry to fire back at him. Perhaps because his conscience finally catches up with him, Barry intentionally fires into the ground rather than at Bullingdon. Faced with stepping down and claiming satisfaction, Bullingdon refuses and demands that he be given his shot despite Barry refusing to fire on him. He fires, hitting Barry and leading to the amputation of his leg, making Barry an invalid, relying on the charity of Lady Lyndon the rest of his life.
Such a tragic life for this strapping Irish lad, yet entirely on his own doing. Kubrick created a film demanding patience from the viewer, often a film of tableaux and great stillness, the action thereby having a greater impact on the narrative. The personal impact of war was what Kubrick was truly interested in. With Barry, his barely contained fury towards his stepson is never in any doubt; he hates the child for breathing and when that child becomes a man, he hates him even more. But why? Is it because the young boy was born into a wealth Barry never had? Jealously? Or is it truly because he is aware that the boy knows what an opportunist Barry is and what he is doing to the boy’s mother? The contempt on the face of Barry as he beats him, both as a boy and a young man, is very clear. Yet when he has the chance to kill him during the duel, he does not. Is Barry afraid of losing his place of privilege? Or is truly a moment of decency not even Barry saw coming? It is in the scenes involving young Bullingdon that O’Neal really shines.
Ryan O’Neal burst into movies in Love Story (1970) and was a huge star overnight. He and co-star Ali MacGraw were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, yet never again were either even close to the Oscars other than as presenters. Tatum O’Neal wrote in her autobiography that the Oscar she won for Paper Moon (1973) as Best Supporting Actress drove a wedge between she and her father, so great was Ryan’s thirst to be taken seriously as an actor. Working for Peter Bogdanovich in What’s Up Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973) and Nickelodeon (1976), he found a filmmaker able to tap into his talent for comedy, and with Kubrick, he was fortunate to find the right director with the right role for him. But by the end of the 70s, O’Neal was pretty much finished as a movie star.
A Kubrick film never belongs to the actors, as the demanding filmmaker makes the film so much his own. The closest an actor has come to making a Kubrick movie his own was Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980) or Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971). Barry Lyndon is entirely a Kubrick work, though the contributions of cinematographer John Alcott cannot be ignored. When told Kubrick wanted to use natural light as much as possible, and shoot scenes by candlelight with no artificial lighting, Alcott found ways to make it happen. Lenses used by NASA were famously borrowed and used to shoot some of the more difficult candlelit sequences, bringing the experience of nighttime in the 17th century to vivid life for the viewer.
Barry Lyndon was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won four. The film lost Best Picture and Best Director to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Milos Forman, but did win Oscars for its glorious cinematography, Best Adapted Score (no longer given), Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. Kubrick’s self-written screenplay did not win either though nominated for adapted screenplay.
Despite the cries of “boring” and “dull”, the legacy of the film is quite extraordinary. The British Film Institute held screenings of the film and a stunning Blu Ray was released by the esteemed Criterion Company with a litany of bonus features. Very few period pieces pull us in like Barry Lyndon. It is simply among the greatest visual films ever made. And after years of reflection, I now think it is the very best film Stanley Kubrick ever directed.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.