In the wake of Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Stanley Kubrick assumed the figure of a futurologist, at least for his most ardent devotees. Many of these (abounding at the younger end of the cinephile spectrum) saw him as someone endowed with a privileged instinct for what lay ahead and a genius for making his intuitions visible. The four-year wait preceding the release of Barry Lyndon in 1975—no one could know then that such intervals would grow ever longer—allowed ample time to speculate about the fact that he was venturing not deeper into the future but into the past. Kubrick being Kubrick, even the prospect of a historical film took on a science-fiction aura, as if we were now to be taken by time machine into the eighteenth century, much like the astronaut at the end of 2001 who found himself an old man dying in a Louis XVI bedroom somewhere beyond the outer rim of ordinary space-time.
Originally, there was to have been an epic Napoleon, for which, after years of preparation, the financing collapsed. After that major disappointment, Kubrick had turned to a fairly obscure novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, published in 1844 as The Luck of Barry Lyndon and reissued in revised form in 1856 as The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.—certainly a more downbeat narrative than the imperial saga Kubrick had envisioned, even if, as the French critic Michel Ciment has suggested, it might be taken as a mirror of Napoleon’s tale: “the story of a young islander, thirsting after power, who crosses oceans, fights a continental war, rises in society, then, defeated, returns to his island.” In any case, one of the many mysterious things about Barry Lyndon is why Kubrick chose to film that particular work—a mystery that deepens on comparing book and film.
In broad terms, Kubrick made a faithful adaptation, preserving the arc of the story of how an Irish lad of humble origins passes through a series of picaresque scrapes—as hotheaded young lover, fugitive, British soldier, deserter forced into the Prussian military, police spy, professional gambler—until he succeeds in marrying a wealthy countess, only to lose everything in the end. Production designer Ken Adam even stated that, in preparing the film, “basically, we used the novel . . . The original text served as continuity, and we worked with it.” A reading of the book, however, reveals how utterly Kubrick bent it to his purposes. It is not simply that Thackeray tells a more rambling and digressive story, replete with melodramatic incident and unlikely coincidences. Kubrick, while drawing freely from the book’s dialogue, narration, incidents, and physical details, transforms his material alchemically.
Thackeray offers the rough comedy of a rogue’s life, recounted in the manner of a shameless and entertaining braggart; the novelist once referred to the Irish as “a nation of liars,” and here he sets out to demonstrate that opinion, as his hero, the most unreliable of narrators, spins a self-aggrandizing memoir that utterly fails to disguise what is transparently the career of a drunken and often brutal cardsharp and confidence man. When he mounts a defense against slander, it is along the lines of: “For the first three years I never struck my wife but when I was in liquor.” Thackeray’s Barry essentially blackmails Lady Lyndon into marriage by threatening lethal violence against her other suitors, and afterward not only despoils her estate but keeps her a virtual prisoner in her own home.
The novel’s literary effectiveness, such as it is, resides in the ironic contrast between Barry’s alternately boastful and self-pitying grandiloquence and the sordid realities the reader so easily discerns. Lest the point be missed, Thackeray also makes use of a supposed editor of Barry’s manuscript, who on occasion spells out the obvious contradictions. Such heavy-handed counterpoint is far from the tone that Kubrick develops—a tone more complex and subtly suggestive than Thackeray’s, allowing room for ambiguities and nuances that make the film’s Barry a very different figure. Whether he is finally a particularly sympathetic one—and how much our sense of him has to do with the opacity of Ryan O’Neal’s performance—is something even multiple viewings leave open, but he is not Thackeray’s Irish stereotype. With an altered conception of Barry, everything retained from the novel changes character too; what was raffish comedy becomes a richer and stranger mix of scenes that is almost an exemplary catalog of life experiences, with all their variety and all their oppressive limitations.
The form of that catalog is elaborate and very deliberately laid out. There are frames, and frames within frames: chapter titles, spoken narration, stately landscape views, frozen compositions of social rituals seen from a distance. Barry Lyndon’s very first shot fully announces that here nothing will be left to chance. It is a richly colored painterly tableau in which the somber foreground is taken up with a tree branch looming over the left side of the frame and a dilapidated stone wall winding toward another dark tree on the right. At the same time, we make out a pair of duelists framed in brighter light, in the rear of the image, against a view of mountains. We can just about hear the words being spoken as the duel begins, but they are drowned out right away by the measured, cultivated tones of Michael Hordern, whom we will hear as intermittent narrator throughout the film. He is as much a character as anyone—he certainly has more to say than most of them—but is not otherwise identified: he is simply the one who knows what is coming, the historian who understands the world in which these things occur, the ironist who perhaps comprehends the sense of it all. He mentions the death of Barry’s father, and as we try to figure out which of the duelists he is, the question is answered as the one on the left falls dead just as the narrator informs us with dry solemnity that the duel was fought because of a disagreement over a purchase of horses.
There is no time to absorb all the visual and narrative information in this astonishingly dense shot, because the narration is already pushing forward, telling us about Barry’s mother as we see her at medium distance—an establishing shot whose bald directness is straight out of a silent movie, except that instead of a title card we have Hordern’s irresistibly mellow voice characterizing her motives and behavior. The voice assures us we will not have to work too hard to make sense of what goes on; the narrator will explain everything, even before it happens. We are being given a guided tour of something that is already done with. But such relief is illusory, however serenely untroubled the narrator may be. Being told in advance that disasters await doesn’t alleviate their impact, any more than does the optical beauty with which we are to be lavished for three hours.
There is musical beauty too, an inescapable sonic flow incorporating Handel, Vivaldi, Schubert, and (in the first half) the traditional Irish music of the Chieftains. The music moves with its own sense of purpose, sometimes underscoring, sometimes contradicting what we see. The plaintive “Women of Ireland” theme suffuses the film’s first half with a mood of romantic longing that nothing that actually occurs on-screen comes close to fulfilling. There is in Barry Lyndon a parallel film made up of music, landscape, color, and compositional harmony that unfolds concurrently with the narrative of Barry’s life, evoking the many possibilities that might be imagined by the characters themselves but that have little chance of ever being realized.
The film manages to be airy, spacious, sensually gratifying, without ever offering more than curtailed glimpses of anything like human happiness or generosity of spirit or even enduring satisfaction. The pleasures on offer are almost enough to make us overlook all that is lacking: real gaiety, authentic freedom, true faith in any of the social orders in which Barry and the rest are enmeshed. There is, for instance, a thrilling scene early on, in which Barry and his cousin gallop through green countryside as they ride away from a duel in which Barry falsely believes he has killed a rival. For that one exultant moment, we can enjoy the excitement and unfulfillable promise of an adventurous future. Kubrick finds ways to film not only what his characters do but what they think they are doing.
The paradox of Barry Lyndon is that it brings us ever nearer to a reality that is made to seem further and further away. Everything on-screen has a palpability that, in 1975, seemed eerie by comparison with earlier historical films. Kubrick used lenses sensitive enough to allow filming interior scenes by candlelight (developed for NASA, no less), paid unparalleled attention to material detail (clothes, wigs, guns, musical instruments), to the compositional effects of Gainsborough, Hogarth, and other painters of the period, to the protocol of the rituals of which we see so many: duels, battles, card games, formal entertainments, the administration of corporal punishment. Yet the more intimately present this reality becomes, the more ephemeral and ghostly the people in it seem. The past never stops being the past; the images freeze and recede into a frame, beyond our reach. That effect of doubleness is compounded by Kubrick’s recurrent visual trope of slow zooms moving back from the action to reveal the indifferent landscape within which it is taking place. Those reverse zooms signal an incursion from the future, a telescope traveling through time as much as through space.
Throughout the film, Kubrick cuts into the midst of things, as if selecting from an unbroken stream of surveillance footage just those moments he finds pertinent, whether it’s a Prussian recruit stripped to the waist and submitting to a gauntlet of punishment, or a magician demonstrating his tricks at a lavish birthday celebration while the newly prosperous Barry looks on under the summer sun, or the king of England shaking hands perfunctorily in a reception line, or Barry, stiff as a stone statue, sleeping off a drunken revel.
But what is it about, finally? In simple terms, Barry Lyndon is about Barry Lyndon: a nobody who wants to be somebody. In part one—the tale of his wanderings from rural Ireland through central Europe during the Seven Years’ War and back to the British Isles again—he rises finally to the top by marrying the beautiful and moneyed widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson); in part two, having come close to forcing his way into the aristocracy, he abuses his success, runs afoul of his resentful, mother-fixated stepson Lord Bullingdon (an indelible performance by Leon Vitali), and drops into oblivion, a maimed and pensioned-off exile. O’Neal as Barry is at the center of the film from first to last; all other characters are there only because they contribute in some way to determining his destiny.
Many of those characters, no matter how important to the narrative, are given little more than a scene or two to express themselves in words; some, notably Berenson as Lady Lyndon, have scarcely any dialogue at all. Yet the impressions those seeming cameo roles leave behind are fully developed: Barry’s flirtatious and fickle cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), his calculating and fiercely devoted mother (Marie Kean), the cowardly Captain Quin who steals Nora away (Leonard Rossiter), the feckless but generous Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley), the deadbeat aristocratic gambler Lord Ludd (Steven Berkoff), the suavely self-serving high-society intermediary Lord Wendover (André Morell). There are many more, and there is scarcely one who does not register a decisive portrait, sometimes in a matter of seconds. For all its strange silences, it is a remarkably populous film.
As for O’Neal, he stands somehow apart, almost abashed, in the film of which he is the center. At the start, he has the naive candor of the adolescent he is playing, and he never quite loses that fresh-faced quality even as we see him evolving into an accomplished gambler, a cynical seducer, a dissolute orgiast, a cunning social climber. He remains the same person, fundamentally simple, almost uninflected; following his instincts, he passes through experiences without learning from them. That he has some measure of sincerity is indicated when he bursts into tears: at the battlefield death of his friend and protector Captain Grogan, at his first encounter in exile with a fellow Irishman (the cardsharp Chevalier de Balibari), and upon the accidental death of his son, Bryan, a scene all the more affecting for how closely it skirts the maudlin. Barry’s greatest naïveté is not, as it turns out, to trust in his cousin Nora but to persuade himself that he can breach social barriers and become an English aristocrat. O’Neal’s performance has been criticized as inexpressive, but without his solidity and directness, the film could have been lost in a whirl of dazzling impressions.
He must be the center that gives proportion to that mass of accumulated detail and historical observation, focusing attention on the easily graspable through line: what Barry did. What he does may at last seem like not very much. Much of it is done under compulsion; and when at last seemingly free to act, he invariably does the wrong things. Barry’s most unimpeded violent action takes place not in the early battle scenes, where soldiers advance in strict formation while being cut down by enemy fire, but when, infuriated by Lord Bullingdon’s contemptuous behavior during a sedate music recital, he tackles him savagely in the midst of the astonished guests. The handheld camera moves in close to the action as if at the edge of a boxing ring. It is in fact the moment when he destroys himself, earning him permanent exclusion from the aristocracy he has tried to penetrate.
The one uncontestably right thing he does—honorably firing his pistol into the ground in his final confrontation with Lord Bullingdon—proves his undoing, as Bullingdon takes advantage of this reprieve and fires the shot that causes the amputation of Barry’s leg. The last we see of Barry is from the rear, caught in freeze-frame as he hobbles on crutches aboard the carriage leading him ignominiously back to Ireland.