1975 marked an incredible year for American film with an embarrassment of riches throughout the industry. One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, Shampoo, Jaws, and Nashville just to name a few of the titles. Largely forgotten despite it’s four Oscar wins is Stanley Kubrick’s breathtaking masterpiece Barry Lyndon.
Starring Ryan O’Neal as a poor Irish rogue who loses his Father in a duel over the dispute of horses, this scene and many others are narrated in a droll and entertaining manner by Michael Hordon. This allows Kubrick to have a third person narration to reflect on the actions of our main character, who is often a prisoner of his own ego and bravado.
By the end of the film the protagonist and antagonist share very much of the same qualities at different parts of their lives. Their own behavior mirroring one another’s pitfalls and flaws that will be the downfall of their lives. Like many of Kubrick’s films, Barry Lyndon has a deep and detailed world and story that attempts to say much without reassurance or comfort.
Raymond Barry (O’Neal) is a teenager when he starts to have romantic feelings for his cousin Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton), and it ends up creating trouble for English suitor Captain John Quin who comes calling. Barry eventually challenges Quin to a duel, given every opportunity to turn it down, take some money, and hide out in Dublin for a month, instead decides to shoot the captain, not taking the consequences into consideration.
The marriage to Quin would have come with a hefty monthly payday for the family, and they convince Barry that he must leave and seek shelter in Dublin. He finds out later that the ammunition put in Barry’s gun wasn’t fatal and only knocked Quin out for about an hour. They convinced him to leave so they wouldn’t miss out on the payday promised by the marriage to Quin. He finds this out from a family friend he’s serving with in the British army, one that he loses soon after during the 7 Years’ War.
Barry Lyndon is a long journey through the eyes of a social climber, always attempting to gain footing by whatever means and leveraging the gained power and experience to gain the upper hand. He moves his way through the English and Prussian military structure, showing immense detail along the way of the camaraderie of men, discipline practices, measurements of loyalty, and the alienation of the individual having to conform to whatever society demands of you.
No matter how much of an impostor that Barry really is, he is simply performing a role and perfecting the duties that are expected of him. Just like all of us do everyday in a myriad of situations and circumstances. In this way the profile of the individual making his way through society is incredibly relevant to today, we see this in politics and business and through the university system.
To be able to speak to that kind of journey in the 18th century and craft it in a way that is profoundly affecting and timeless, is quite the accomplishment. Barry Lyndon is one of the most beautifully shot, expertly lit, and exquisite set design that is unquestionably one of the most gorgeous films of all time. This film never fails to impress me on a purely visual and cinematic level, immersing the viewer so deeply into it’s created world. It feels so tangible and real while maintaining an incredible dream like atmosphere. The interior scenes that are lit solely by candlelight and the roaming hills that frame men on their horses in such a powerful scale that it marvels to just look at.
Barry Lyndon is the closest thing we have to a moving painting, complete with filled in landscapes and pure natural light and colors. The costuming is also another area that is just unparalleled by anything I’ve seen and it’s pageantry is just another tool that lures you into Kubrick’s world. Like so many of the best films made, Barry Lyndon has so many charming elements surrounding the entirety of the picture. It’s very funny, quite bleak, ironic, heartbreaking, cynical, and chilly it’s not a film that’s asking to be liked or prying for your attention. It knows what it is and functions in a manner of such technical virtuosity that makes it very simply, impossible to ignore.
Redmond Barry eventually seduces and wins the heart of a wealthy widow of status seeking a marriage of comfort rather than emotion. His rise from poor to wealthy stems from the relationships he nurtures and covets, the ways in which he makes himself useful to powerful and wealthy men. The way in which he is recruited to the Prussian army by Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger) who sees him for what he is, an impostor.
I wonder if the reason the Captain is so adept at seeing Barry for what he is because he himself is something of an impostor. It’s an interesting thought to have marinating after finishing the film. A recurring observation throughout Barry Lyndon is that the time and place make the man. Depending on his circumstance, income, comfort, and class standing determines how a person will act. That time and money does change a person and the very actions Barry utilizes at the beginning of the film come to haunt him by the end of it.
Ryan O’Neal I feel give his best performance of his career as a constantly shifting cypher, becoming whatever he has to become to survive and continue moving up through this world. The character needs to be somewhat of a reserved and subtle canvas who’s constantly taking in all of the places he goes, all of the people he meets, and the events that shape his perspective of the world.
The cynicism that lives in all of Kubrick’s work is seen here though the utilitarian quality in which the characters treat one another. Seeing people as either an obstacle or a stepping stone to success, treating one another as pawns in their larger game. Nothing has really changed in society and this resonates deeply throughout Barry Lyndon as we see this occur time and again. Sometimes it’s barbaric behavior handled in a mannerly way or the comedy that surrounds such circumstances of duty and financial prosperity.
Barry Lyndon is an incredibly accomplished, dense, beautifully crafted character study that adds to the hefty narratives of Stanley Kubrick. There is a streak in his work that warns against the practices of the collective and the horrors accepted under the manner in which it is accomplished. Perhaps that is where the cynicism of Stanley Kubrick comes in, in Barry Lyndon, it is majestically created and presented on screen.