Barry Lyndon Directed by Stanley Kubrick No Stanley Kubrick film is as misunderstood as Barry Lyndon. When this period drama came out 25 years ago, it tanked at the box office and met with critical bafflement, even ridicule. The most charitable reviewers treated it as a failed experiment. To most people, the film's very existence seemed to defy what people thought they knew about Kubrick's intentions, tastes and talents. His three previous films, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, all had a satirical component, a dazzling modernist flavor, and plugged into the zeitgeist. They felt relevant. Barry Lyndon did not.
To me, Barry Lyndon is not a curiosity, it's Kubrick at his purest, most concentrated and most expansive. Everything you need to know about his work is contained in this movie?all the misunderstandings about his character, temperament and interests are answered in its disquietingly gorgeous frames. The first time I saw it, Barry Lyndon baffled and infuriated me. I was young and impatient, and I'm sure I made jokes about it with my friends afterward. But I've seen it about 10 times since, and each time find it more engrossing and haunting. Its ferocious stillness is the best expression, I think, of Kubrick's childhood roots in chess and photography. Both pursuits cannot be done well without dogged, singleminded concentration?an immunity to distraction, an overriding interest not just in the position of certain pieces or the clarity of certain areas of a print, but the whole board, the whole picture?the edges as well as the center.
First, the history. Barry Lyndon is a costume drama based on a minor William Makepeace Thackeray novel about the rise and fall of Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal), a none-too-bright ruffian, thief and greedy wanderer who fought in the Seven Years' War under the English and the Prussians, lucked into a commendation and eventually married into a titled English family, ending his life as Sir Redmond Barry Lyndon. Redmond started the story knowing little about life, and though he gained experience and cunning with age, he acquired little wisdom. He was responsible for the choices he made, yet Kubrick's distancing devices?including an omniscient third-person narration, read by Michael Hordern?made him seem a spectator in his own life, ultimately no more or less in control of the narrative than the people watching the movie.
Not exactly crowd-pleasing stuff, even by Kubrick standards. The style didn't make it any more accessible. At three hours and 8 minutes, Barry Lyndon's the second longest of his films, and easily his quietest, most mysterious, most seemingly opaque. He shot it on location in England and Ireland, sparing no expense to recreate the costumes, architecture and social customs of the time; he even hired the Zeiss company to design special lenses so that he could shoot the whole thing in natural light, even interior sequences lit only by candles. (The great John Alcott photographed the film, and won an Oscar for his trouble.) Detractors claimed Kubrick's fierce passion for accuracy was not matched by an equal passion for dramatic momentum, character and emotion. He began many major sequences the same way, with a tight closeup, and then zoomed slowly backward so that the pertinent characters were dwarfed by their surroundings. Other sequences were composed in a deliberately static way, so that they resembled landscape paintings of the period. As always, Kubrick favored deep-focus compositions that stressed converging perspective lines and made the people in the frame seem as insignificant as gnats.
It was as if Kubrick was looking for obstacles to hurl in the path of viewers who wanted to enjoy the tale as a tale rather than a mammoth conceptual stunt. Scenes that would have been cut-to-the-chase powerful in the hands of other directors were preceded, in Kubrick's telling, by lengthy tracking shots of characters walking through rooms, then acknowledging a coterie of servants, then walking some more, then bowing again, then delivering some bit of throat-clearing etiquette. Redmond's selfishness and myopia were punished at the end with an almost biblical ferocity, leaving him penniless and childless and maimed, but it was hard to feel sorry for him because Kubrick hadn't invited you to identify with him. At times, he seemed to be pushing the audience away?saying, in effect, "This is a novel, set in another century. Everybody from that era is long dead, and behaved in ways we might find incomprehensible, even funny. Except for the living, loving and dying, we have almost no connection to them at all."
Though many other filmmakers have borrowed from Barry Lyndon, and from Kubrick in general (Scorsese in The Age of Innocence and Casino, Keith Gordon in A Midnight Clear, Michael Mann in The Last of the Mohicans and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line), the movie didn't catch on with many people in 1975, and it still hasn't caught on.
That's not surprising. Most stories about the past are just stories; they're designed to entertain and uplift, perhaps even educate in a superficial way, but not to make viewers truly understand how things were in another century. Most historical movies, like most movies, want to be liked, even if it means pandering. Barry Lyndon, in contrast, deliberately withholds its pleasures on first viewing. It's also cagey about its own strategy and the reasoning behind it. It's a hard, cold, self-enclosed piece of work?a huge, fresh oyster perched atop a mound of ice, waiting to be shucked. You have to dig hard with your knife, even jab at it for a few minutes and risk injury, before you can find a way in, crack it open and get to the meat. But that's why Barry Lyndon is one of the greatest of all historical films. History itself is like an oyster; you have to expend real effort to open it in another era and get inside, and once you are inside, you have to convince yourself that the taste of an oyster was worth it.
Ryan O'Neal was said to be, and still seems, miscast: his accent is weak, his body language a tad modern. (After winning a big fistfight with a brute soldier in his English army unit, Barry is lifted aloft by his fellow soldiers, and he instinctively extends an open hand in the air and then nervously draws it back?as if he was looking for a high-five, then came to his senses.) Still, I think Kubrick's motives in casting him were perfectly understandable. He wanted someone who was a star at the time, and O'Neal's Irishness probably helped seal the deal. But Kubrick also wanted somebody who was a bit of a blank slate, like most Kubrick heroes post-Strangelove. He didn't want somebody the audience would instinctively be comfortable with and root for?somebody who would dwarf the canvas rather than be dwarfed by it. O'Neal's opacity in the role matches Kubrick's intentions behind the camera. His Redmond Barry survives all manner of misdeeds and misadventures, and in the film's second half endures nearly unbearable emotional traumas, yet when we look at him it's impossible to know precisely what he's feeling. That's an honest way to portray this character?any character, really, who existed in a fairly remote time period and observed social customs we can't begin to appreciate or accept.
Kubrick's unifying principle is distance plus surprise. He distances us from what's happening by his shooting style?long takes, hypnotic music, slow zooms to reveal massive landscapes?and when something dramatic happens, we latch onto the most superficial reading of their meaning, perhaps because we're used to being able to grasp things immediately when we watch movies. Then Kubrick slips us bits of information that contradict what we think we know. Often the contradiction juxtaposes the rules of life as seen in movies and the real rules of life.
In the film's first act, Barry kills an English army officer in a duel over a local woman he fancies, then flees town on horseback. He comes upon a highwayman (Arthur O'Sullivan) who says he wants Barry's gold and his horse. Thinking on his feet like any good movie hero, Barry pleads for mercy by telling the robber the truth: he needs that horse because, "I'm just one step ahead of the law myself. I killed an English officer in a duel and I'm on my way to Dublin until things cool down." The robber regards him impassively, and we're primed to think he's about to cut Barry a break; that's what robbers do for quick-thinking movie heroes. But instead the highwayman says, "Mr. Barry, in my profession, we have many such stories. Yours is the most intriguing and touching I've heard in many weeks. Nevertheless, I'm afraid I cannot grant your request."
This is funny stuff. The momentousness with which Kubrick stages the scene only makes it funnier. The filmmaker's landscapes are beautiful, even pristine, but this world is as tough, dirty and unforgiving as our own.
Kubrick continually pits cliches against reality, movies against life. Barry's mother (the superb Marie Kean) isn't the standard warm, loving, protective Irish mum; she's a real political operator. When Barry marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), the widow of an English lord, she masterminds a plan to help Barry bribe his way to a title. ("A lot of money, well applied, can accomplish anything," she says.) We expect that Barry's evident love for his blood son will redeem him for treating his stepson so callously, but it doesn't. Even Barry's bedtime stories to his blood son are off-putting?gruesome tall tales about battlefield beheadings. ("Did they let you keep the heads?" asks his wide-eyed boy, clutching a stuffed toy lamb.)
Throughout the story, officers and titled gentry talk of valor and dignified conduct, but they punish minor infractions by flogging, and their troops consist mainly of poor people, criminals and, in the case of the Prussians, barely pubescent boys. "It is with these sad instruments that your great warriors and kings have been doing their murderous work in the world," the narrator says.
Like most of Kubrick's worlds, this one seems at once terrifyingly cold and remote and humorously recognizable. It's a strategy that runs throughout his filmography, making it as consistent thematically as it is visually. In Strangelove, forbidding, high-tech jets maneuver into cheery sexual positions for midair refueling, and an officer who needs a dime to make an emergency phone call orders another officer to blast change out of a Coke machine with his rifle. In 2001, a Pan-Am shuttle takes a scientist to a space station, where he stays at a Howard Johnson's. In A Clockwork Orange, bars serve narcotic-spiked milk instead of liquor, but they still look like bars.
The tension between familiarity and alienness amounts to a corrective of the usual Hollywood attitude toward period dramas, which holds that people throughout the ages are basically the same, and that all eras are basically the same. As any historian can tell you, they're more different than alike; the claim of universality is essentially a marketing pitch, or an excuse for lies. As times change, some things remain the same?life, love, family, death, the gap between the powerful and the powerless. But most things don't; that's why most movies about the past alter it to make audiences more comfortable?because if the world doesn't seem to welcome us, we won't go in.
Kubrick was one of the few American directors smart enough to understand this principle?and one of the few who was bold enough to defy it. The ruthless remoteness of Barry Lyndon is truthful and profound. As Kubrick's printed epilogue tells us, "It was in the age of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled. Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now."