For its December 15 1975 cover, Time magazine (still over a decade away from merging with Warner Brothers and becoming their unofficial marketing division) placed a ravishing looking image of Marisa Berenson on their cover along with the headline, “Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble.”
Barry Lyndon was indeed a gamble by Kubrick, and it didn’t initially pay off for him, or Warner Brothers. It did better in Europe, but in America, it was his first non-hit since his pre-Spartacus salad days as a scrappy independent Bronx-born filmmaker. (However, it did win four Oscars, for Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Musical Score, and Costumes.)
Long, deliberately-paced, and without an obvious timely pop culture theme, unlike the sex and titillation of Lolita, the sex and Cold War-obsessed Dr. Strangelove, the planet-hopping 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the “ultraviolence” of A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick evidently believed that the reputation he had developed as America’s premier auteur would have been enough to fill theater seats for his challenging historic epic, along with the help of Ryan O’Neal, coming off such hits as Love Story, What’s Up Doc, and Paper Moon.
When Barry Lyndon debuted, critics praised the film’s lavish cinematography, but panned the stiff performances by O’Neal and Berenson, the film’s leads. Over the years, as is invariably the case with Kubrick’s films, Barry Lyndon has undergone a significant critical rehabilitation – Martin Scorsese calls it his favorite Kubrick film, Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies collection, and it currently has an 8.1 rating at IMDB. However, among the public, Barry Lyndon remains the least-known of Kubrick’s mature films, perhaps because it lacks an obvious pop culture meme or hook. (No cowboys riding nuclear bombs, apes tossing bones into monoliths or “Here’s Johnny!” catchphrases here.)
But as the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition of Barry Lyndon reminds movie lovers, the film amply rewards repeated viewings. Its script, written solely by Kubrick, based on William Makepeace Thackery’s previously little-known 1844 first novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, is remarkably well structured, with subtle callbacks to both 2001 and A Clockwork Orange. The film is in two parts, the first devoted to, as its title card notes, “By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon,” hopping from Barry’s birthplace in mid-18th century Ireland to Germany and Belgium. The second part of the film, titled “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon” is much more melodramatic, until its climatic duel that seals Barry’s fate.
From its title to General Turgidson’s personal secretary lounging in a bikini to Slim Pickens straddling a remarkably phallic nuclear bomb, Dr. Stranglove was obviously a film about sex. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a film about birth: we see the Dawn of Man, Dr. Floyd wishes his daughter a happy birthday, astronaut Frank Poole’s parents wish him a happy birthday, HAL tells David Bowman about his birth, and finally Bowman is reborn as the Nietzschean Star Child in the film’s climax.
Note: Spoilers abound from here on in. If you’ve never seen the film before, you’ve been warned.
Never Go In Against an Irishman when Death is On The Line
Barry Lyndon, which some saw as a sequel of sorts to 2001 because its 18th century setting seems to begin where 2001 left off, is a film whose repeated leitmotif is death. The film begins with Barry’s father dying in a duel over horses, and not long afterwards, Barry cries helplessly as his best friend, Capt. Grogan dies in his arms after being shot in battle. Part one of the film ends with a sarcastic Barry so inciting the elderly husband of Lady Lyndon that he dies of a heart attack, paving the way for her marriage to Barry. The film’s emotional climax is the death of Barry’s son, which sets in motion Barry’s dissipation and slow demise. The film’s final title card before the closing credits drives the point home: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”
It is also a film about being an outsider attempting to alternately fight and charm your way into the system. It’s a 20th century film about an ambitious 18th century Irishman made by an ambitious Bronx-born filmmaker who first conquered Hollywood, and then transported himself to his own estate in England, all largely through his own ambition and force of will. (As many have noted, no wonder Kubrick was drawn to a bio-pic of Napoleon.)
While Ryan O’Neal’s inert performance drew derision, particularly as it followed Malcolm McDowell’s bravura, Jimmy Cagney-inspired turn as Alex in A Clockwork Orange, O’Neal’s performance was very likely an intentional decision by Kubrick. He surrounded O’Neal and Berenson with experienced British and Irish character actors (many of whom were veterans of either 2001 or A Clockwork Orange) turning in charming and superb performances. O’Neal’s role in the film reminds me strongly of something Omar Sharif told his offscreen interviewer in 1995, about 40 minutes into a 30th anniversary retrospective on the making of David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago:
The camerawork was…so designed to show how Yuri Zhivago saw the world. David made me play Yuri as an observer. I will tell you a story: when I arrived to meet David Lean, he said, I’m going to ask you to do something extremely difficult for an actor to do. I want you to do nothing at all – at all. Not to emote. Not to have any reaction. Not to do anything at all. And I said, why is that? And he said, when we were writing the script with Robert [Bolt], our problem was how to show in a film that a man is a poet. We can’t have him reciting poetry to say this man is a poet. So, we decided that the whole film would be seen through his eyes. You will be in every scene practically, but it will always be the other person’s scene, the other actor’s scene. And you have to be patient, you have to do nothing.
I used to listen to people who went to see the dailies, the rushes. They used to say, oh, wasn’t Julie Christie wonderful? Wasn’t Rod Steiger fantastic? Wasn’t Tom Courtney, wasn’t Geraldine [Chaplin] extraordinary? They kept speaking about the other actors, and I never heard anyone saying, wasn’t Omar wonderful? And I got more and more worried that I wasn’t doing anything. And I had a sort of nervous breakdown one night, and I called David Lean and said, David you were wrong, you shouldn’t have chosen me – I’m terrible! I’m not doing it right.
And he came to see me, which was very rare at night that David would come out of his bedroom and go and see someone. And he said, you don’t trust me? You don’t trust me? I told you. He said, do what I tell you to do, and if I’m right, all through the film, I don’t want anyone to think that Zhivago is wonderful. But if I do it right, when the curtain comes down, they will think of you more than anyone else.
I believe Kubrick similarly intended O’Neal to be the eyes of the audience witnessing this strange world they’ve been thrust into, arguably as strange to many 20th century eyes as the alien zoo Keir Dullea walked through at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Speaking of which, it’s likely not a coincidence that just as Dullea’s David Bowman breaks a wine glass in the Jewish wedding tradition before his final transformation into the Nietzschean Star Child, that Barry hurls a champagne glass into the head of Leonard Rossiter’s Capt. Quin character during the announcement of his cousin Nora Brady’s impending marriage to Quin, beginning his own slow transformation from Irish peasant to becoming this-close to being a titled English nobleman.
While the cinematography in Barry Lyndon is a constant feast to the eyes, and the film’s narrator (veteran British character actor Michael Hordern) is often sly and witty, we rarely see the moments where Barry is transformed, and rarely hear Barry himself express his thoughts. And it’s this tension which makes the film simultaneously so hypnotic yet frustrating, until its last act, when the dominos start to fall in succession.
The Dominos Fall
In a scene at the family dinner table when Brian asks Barry if he has bought the horse that will shortly doom him, the room is darkened, except for the giant beam of light shining on Brian’s blonde hair as if a halo. After Brian is thrown from the horse, lying in his deathbed, paralyzed, his head covered in a white bandage, he resembles one of the astronauts in cryogenic suspension that Hal kills in 2001, in one of the most conventionally melodramatic scenes Kubrick ever filmed.
Brian’s death begins Barry’s descent into alcoholism — he’s shown being carried to bed in a drunken stupor by two servants led by his mother. Lady Lyndon’s response is an attempt at suicide.
It is then that Lord Bullington makes his return, marching through the halls of Barry’s gentleman’s club in a reverse dolly shot that is filmed in a manner that strongly recalls David Bowman’s march down the corridors of the Discovery to unplug Hal and regain control of the spacecraft.
How Bullington “unplugs” Barry Lyndon is in the form of a dramatic duel that lasts nearly nine minutes of screen time. It was filmed inside a large tithe barn with pigeons flapping overhead — behind the scenes photos show Kubrick wearing a hat at all times while shooting these scenes.
After Bullington’s pistol misfires, Bullington is told he must stand his ground and receive Barry’s fire. After witnessing the nervous and cowardly Bullington vomit while awaiting his shot, Barry fires into the ground. It is his one true moment as a gentleman — and his undoing. Bullington announces he has not received satisfaction, and another round is called, during which Bullington shoots Barry in the leg, resulting in its requiring amputation.
With Barry symbolically castrated, Bullington orders Barry’s mother tossed out of Castle Hackton, and Bullington gives Barry an annuity, provided he never returns to England. (Perhaps a callback to Napoleon’s exile?) Barry and his mother are shown from the back, with Barry on crutches, ungainly getting into a carriage. The scene ends in a freeze frame, perhaps the only prominent freeze frame in any of Kubrick’s films.
The final scene of the film shows Lady Lyndon signing the annuity, with Lord Bullington at her side, looking at her wistfully in Oedipal fashion. Thus both Barry and Bullington, his Jungian shadow, end the film with their mothers, save for the “they are all equal now” title card before the credits.
A final reminder that death is indeed the primary leitmotif in Barry Lyndon.
So, How Does the New Disc Look?
The Criterion Collection’s edition of Barry Lyndon features a stunning 4k transfer and new, optional 5.1 soundtrack, whose transfers were supervised by Leon Vitali, who played Lord Bullington in Barry Lyndon before becoming Kubrick’s right-hand man from The Shining until Kubrick’s death at age 70 in 1999. There are several new “making of” interviews, and an audio recording of Kubrick discussing the film on the second disc. Surprisingly, there’s no commentary from Vitali, or anyone else associated with the film available as an optional commentary track during the film, which is unfortunate. However, the discs’ accompanying booklet contains a reprint of a fascinating article Kubrick’s cinematographer John Alcott wrote on the powerful NASA camera lens that Kubrick had specially modified to shoot his ultra-low light candle scenes.
Barry Lyndon’s transfer is so sharp that when paused, it reveals a likely error in the film. Numerous critics have pointed out that when Lady Lyndon signs the annuity sealing Barry’s fate at the end of film, a close-up shot shows the annuity dated December of 1789, surely a callback to Kubrick’s cancelled Napoleon project. However, Lady Lyndon can be seen signing checks earlier in Part II of the film, when she and Barry look much younger, and the check shown is also dated 1789. Likely Kubrick shot several close-ups of checks being signed (the actual hand doing the signing in the close-up shot is one of Kubrick’s daughters) and decided to move this shot earlier in the film, since it was likely that no one would notice the date of the earlier check as the camera zooms. (And it’s practically illegible on previous video transfers of Barry Lyndon.)
In any case, that level of detail in the shot is a reminder that unless Barry Lyndon is showing at your local revival theater, this is likely as good as it’s going to look for quite some time. It’s a must-have for Kubrick obsessives, and highly recommended to anyone who appreciates movies made with dazzling craftsmanship and cinematography.