Barry Lyndon Finally Receives the Criterion Treatment

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-17th 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.