Barry Lyndon (1975) – Stanley Kubrick (Eric Norcross)

An 18th Century Irish con-man ventures the world in search of wealth and status.

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Kirk Douglas once said of Stanley Kubrick “he’s a talented shit.” I often avoid talking or writing about the work of Stanley Kubrick because I find that his seemingly meticulous approach to every aspect of the craft is a little too forced for my taste and if you’ve read enough of my blogs and articles as it relates to other people’s films, if there’s one apparent constant is my lack of appreciation for contrievity. But Douglas was right, Kubrick was one of the most talented filmmakers to have the opportunity and freedom to create. Aside from my balls to the wall fear of Kubrick loyalists, I’m actually a huge admirer of his body of work and specifically of his film Barry Lyndon. This week, I’ve made the conscious and cautious decision to attempt to separate allegations from fact and hopefully introduce all of you to the beauty of this magnificent film. So throw away your pre-conceived ideas of who Kubrick was, forget the conspiracy theories and accept for a moment, this down to Earth essay on his 1975 masterpiece: Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon is a film separated into two primary acts, capped on each end with a prologue and an epilogue. The film stars Ryan O’Neal as anti-hero Redmond Barry and is narrated by an unreliable narrator, seemingly not affiliated with Barry or the story at large. At the top of the story, Barry is portrayed as being in love with his cousin, played by Gay Hamilton. After challenging her fiance to a duel, and winning, Barry is forced to flee from his family’s home from rural ireland to hide out in the congested city of Dublin. En-route to his destination, the ex-communicated Barry is robbed and decides to compensate for the loss by joining the British Army to fight in the Seven Years War. Barry quickly grows tired of taking orders and deserts his post and ends up joining the Prussian Army. As the story progress, Barry ends up meeting a wealthy aristocrat, Lady Honoria Lyndon, portrayed by Marisa Berenson. Upon sealing the deal, Redmond Barry changes his name to Barry Lyndon.

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The film is adapted from an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray called The Luck of Barry Lyndon, later republished as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. The book details the adventures of a fictional 18th century con-man, based loosely on real life con-man Andrew Robertson Stoney. Thackeray once described the work as a “novel without a hero”. In interviews, Kubrick has insisted that he didn’t know what lead him to adapt this or any of the other materials he’s filmed, but insisted that he “just fell in love” with the story. He also insisted that his choosing of material to adapt “depends on chance and spontaneous reaction”.

Kubrick owned a complete set of Thackeray’s work for many years and had read several of his other novels before getting around to The Luck of Barry Lyndon. There was a time when Kubrick had an interest in adapting Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, but ultimately decided that the material couldn’t be compressed into a feature length format without sacrificing the spine of the story. The Luck of Barry Lyndon, on the other hand, is a straightforward character piece. It is not a complicated story ‘nor is it dependant on surprise. “What is important is not what is going to happen, but how it will happen” Kubrick once said of the material. A major part of the decision to go ahead was a feeling that he could effectively make the transition from novel to film without destroying the source material. Additionally, the film offered Kubrick the opportunity to create a film that is relevant to both historical and present subject matters.

Kubrick made some changes to the story, the most obvious being that he adopted a third person narrative over Thackeray’s first person telling. Kubrick also added some elements to bridge specific aspects of the story together. For example, Kubrick created situations that would allow Barry an “out” from the British Army, by writing an all new scene where he encounters a homosexual couple bathing in a river. Barry proceeds to steal one of the men’s belongings and identification information. Additionally Kubrick added a final duel which he explained in an interview as leading “to the same end result as the novel.”

Kubrick however, made it a point to honor Thackeray’s story by staying true to the core of each character. For example, Lady Lyndon is portrayed as an opaque woman, whom we do not quite learn as much as we normally would with a key character. This was largely due to the fact that Thackeray’s story didn’t reveal much about her at all. Kubrick found this aspect of the novel strange but proceeded to adopt the concept by giving us as little as he could get away with to ensure the audience retained a limited by “sufficient” understanding of who she is.

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Kubrick had an impeccable reputation for thoroughness when it came to pre-production research. He often had to force himself to not get lost in the intricate details of creating this historical drama. Often times the scenes become “decorative” as interviewer Michel Ciment put it, but Kubrick disclosed that this was largely due to the fact that many of his scenes were developed from drawings and paintings of the period, specifically drawing on the work of Thomas Gainsborough. Additionally, the wardrobe designs were all adapted from paintings of the period all with the intent of allowing the audience to “believe what [they] see.” While rumor circulated then and today that the costumes were vintage of the period, they are in fact recreations with some elements from the period integrated into the designs.

Warner Bros. financed the picture on the condition that Kubrick cast a Top 10 Box Office Star, which lead to the casting of Ryan O’Neal, who had just come off the feature film Love Story (1970). Kubrick chose O’Neal because of his confidence and impeccable acting chops. Kubrick believed that the personal qualities of an actor are just as important as their talent and trained abilities and in Kubrick’s eyes, O’Neal had the makings of absolute perfection. Kubrick and O’Neal got along great together and O’Neal has said in recent interviews that he’s still affected by the experience of working on the film. He endured three months of wardrobe fittings and sword fight lessons, in addition to an entire year devoted to principal photography. A scene in a hospital, where O’Neal has to break down and cry at the death of a loved one, is often regarded as one of the best performances of his career. O’Neal regards Barry as a very real character, who is neither a conventional hero nor a conventional villain.

The character of Barry Lyndon starts off very open about his feelings, wants and needs but as the story progresses, the character sinks into isolation. This is equally true for other characters in the story, often resulting in a feeling of dullness. But that feeling is merely a facade – as there is a lot more going on that moviegoers might miss on the first pass. There is a sort of narrative symmetry with this particular work, events that mirror one another and this sort of story structure is often times consistent with Kubrick’s work.

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Principal photography took place from the Spring of 1973 the winter of 1974, with a brief break during the holiday season. Kubrick and Cinematographer John Alcott, whom he collaborated with on many of his other films, made a conscious effort to film the movie with as much natural lighting as possible. In all of his films, Kubrick has often elected to utilize open windows to light a scene so that the imagery would look as natural as possible. The challenge on this particular film was finding a seemingly natural balance when it came to night scenes, that are typically lit by oil lamps and candle trees. These light sources aren’t as bright as would normally be needed to adequately expose motion picture film and Kubrick made it a point not to supplement these scenes with normal movie lights. Prior to the filming of Barry Lyndon, the problem of using strictly natural light for night filming had never been solved because typical motion picture lenses weren’t fast enough. “A 35mm movie camera shutter exposes at about 1/50 of a second” Kubrick once explained, discussing the problem, “and a useable exposure was only possible with a lens at least 100% faster than any which had ever been used on a movie camera. “ Kubrick found a lens capable of handling the exposures he needed. The lens, which was part of a group of ten, was engineered and manufactured by Zeiss for use in NASA satellite photography. After acquiring the lens for use on Barry Lyndon, a lot of work had to be done to make it adaptable for the movie camera.

Although Kubrick’s framing of shots are seemingly perfect and often regarded as being “like a painting” by many critics and film enthusiasts (including yours truly), Kubrick has insisted that “when something really exciting and worthwhile is happening, it doesn’t matter how you shoot it.” Contrary to popular hearsay, it didn’t take Kubrick or his crew long to set up his shots, lighting and camera movements. The visual aspects of filmmaking had always come easy for him, because of his background as a professional photographer, which is why, as he said, he subordinates the visual aesthetics to the story and performances.

There were many issues that occurred during filming, some more serious than others One issue with the audio involved the sound of horse feet clopping on the ground during a carriage scene – which was solved by Kubrick ordering his crew to pull the carriage instead of the horses. A common movie problem with a rather humorous solution. Other times it was much more serious, for example Kubrick had to move his entire production from Ireland to rural England because of death threats from the IRA and their attempts to infiltrate his home by posing as painters.

The film is often regarded as being on par, visually and performance-wise, with that of old silent movies and while the film minimizes its engagement with the audience, I can’t help but to be sucked in and awed by the remarkable filmmaking presented. The tragic and ultimately utter waste of Barry’s talent is perhaps the most obvious element of the story; his inability to grow into a positive, thoughtful individual and his continuous fall into disaster as he tries to assimilate himself into British Aristocracy.

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Kubrick, whose films are unusually longer than your average feature, has talked a bit in the past about the film’s length. “This problem of length is now wonderfully accommodated for by the television miniseries which, with its ten to twelve hour [overall runtime], presented on consecutive nights, has created a completely different dramatic form.” Barry Lyndon is Stanley Kubrick’s longest and slowest paced film, but in no way warrants a miniseries.

The film was received with polite acclaim and respectful admiration for what Kubrick had achieved as an artist. Although the American press was predominantly enthusiastic about the film and Time Magazine ran a cover story about it, the International press was far more supportive. The misunderstandings in much of the feedback of the work was derived from the badly split and highly opinionated English press. Many reviewers in the UK had very little positive things to say about it and the subsequent critical opinions often shifted to nothing more than a “polite favorable”. Many of the critics who initially bashed the film upon its release, often went back and re-reviewed it with an “all-time-best” rating. As Kubrick once said, “the lasting and ultimately most important reputation of a film is not based on reviews, but on what, if anything, people say about it over the years, and how much affection for it they have.”

It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.

Article Sources: http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/interview.bl.html | http://kubrickfilms.tripod.com/id86.html | http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVEqryTE2AY |

Eric Norcross

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. beetleypete says:

    Two of my favourite films in one day, an embarrassment of riches from WOF.
    Eric, an excellent review of an oft-maligned masterpiece. I have no problem with the attention to detail, the slow pace, or the painting-like appearance of some scenes. To my mind, they are all for the better. Few films, or film-makers, have re-created a period (18th Century) as well as Kubrick did here. He even managed to get a creditable performance from an actor who is less than legendary (O’Neal).
    I recall being staggered by the poor reviews after I saw this film on release. I have no idea why the UK press and pundits turned on this film, but I am guessing that a general dislike of Kubrick was to blame. It is every bit as good as you say, if not better, and will reward anyone who makes the effort to watch it. It also has Patrick Magee, and Steven Berkoff in the cast, two of Britain’s finest character actors.
    Thanks for an informative and intelligent review Eric. Regards from England, Pete.

    1. beetleypete says:

      Eric, if you like Historical films generally, here is my short review of a few, from my own blog.
      http://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/some-historical-films/
      You may see something you already know, or something you are not familiar with, but like the look of. Regards, Pete.

      1. Hey Pete!

        I am interested in historical fiction as it pertains to actual events (like putting fictional characters in reasonably realistic situations against actual happenings). I have no seen any of the films on your list, but will add them to my library queue immediately. We have a great performing arts library here in NYC so hopefully they’ll have them. 🙂 Thanks for your kind words about my article. It took me two weeks to hammer out.

  2. I love this movie! It’s a shame Kubrick never able to make Napoleon.

  3. What a great review! I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of Kubrick’s so-called masterpieces (i.e., 2001: A Space Odyssey), preferring instead what I think of as his more unexpected films. For example, I love The Shining—it’s terrifying, I think, precisely because of that aspect of Kubrick’s filmmaking that you identified: his meticulous contrievity. It’s unexpectedly well-suited for a horror film. So, that said, I bet I will enjoy Barry Lyndon. Thanks for alerting me to what sounds like an underrated film.

    1. 2001: A Space Odyssey is more of an experimental film than anything else. In my opinion it’s his most “avant-garde” work from his entire catalog, but not something I feel everyone should see. It really has to be discovered on one’s own, because of its extreme style.

      I’m very happy the article has introduced you to Barry Lyndon. It has worked its purpose! If you can reach one person… as they say. Thanks LiteraryVittles. 🙂

      -E

    2. beetleypete says:

      LV, you don’t mention ‘Paths of Glory’, perhaps the best of Kubrick. If you haven’t seen it, please try to do so. I am sure you will be amazed! Regards, Pete.

      1. Couldn’t agree more. Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s best film. I think he experimented throughout his career. It is very hard to say one film defines him, though 2001 does get thrown around a lot. I hated it the first time I saw it and have come to love the film, thinking that it is perhaps the greatest technical film of all time. Other than his amazing sense of space and time, I can’t really define a Kubrick genre.

  4. great review. I’m especially interested in what you say about how he solved the problem of shooting in low light. Kubrick had been a photographer before he became a filmmaker, and was always interested in how to put together a composition. He was also interested in shadows (see the war room in Dr Strangelove); one of Kubrick’s biggest influences as a photographer was the NY street photographer Arthur Fellig (Weegee), who famously photograped grisly crime scenes at night. Kubrick hired him to help shoot Dr Strangelove because Weegee knew how to work in low light (there is a rumour that Peter Sellers’ accent as Dr Strangelove is a copt of Weegee’s accent)

    1. That all sounds about right Niall. I recently listened to the commentary of Dr. Strangelove in preparation for this article. Kubrick was indeed a professional photographer. Cheers, -E

      1. Kubrick was crazy when it came to his craft. The more I read about him, the more I don’t think anyone will every match him. He never left his home, he spent most of his days reading and designing cameras and lenses. It is insane the number of optical effects he had a hand in. I was such a fanboy for such a long time, that I think you need space and to hear critical negatives of his work, but just so much gusto in each film and shot. Even in Lyndon, as slow as it is, it is just so powerful and beautiful. Anyone who gets bored with this film didn’t have the amount of concentration to fully appreciate it as a work. Sometimes his films need to be engaged to be appreciated, but he realy did work to perfect every frame of his films.

  5. Harry Calnan says:

    I hadn’t realized that the duel between Barry and his stepson was not in Thackeray’s novel. It’s one of the most gripping scenes in the film. Thanks for a great blog entry.

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