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Barry Lyndon (1975) is a period film by Stanley Kubrick loosely based on the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) by William Makepeace Thackeray. It recounts the exploits of unscrupulous 18th century Irishmarker adventurer Barry Lyndon, particularly his rise and fall in Englishmarker society. Ryan O'Neal stars as the title character.

Although the film was only a modest commercial success at the time, and had a mixed critical reception, in recent years it has come to be regarded not only as one of Kubrick's finest films, but also as a classic of world cinema. It was part of Time magazine's poll of the 100 best films as well as the Village Voice poll conducted in 1999 and was ranked #27 in Sight and Sound's 2002 film critics poll. Director Martin Scorsese has cited Barry Lyndon as his favorite Kubrick movie. Quotations from it appeared in such disparate works as Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, Lars von Trier's Dogville and Wes Anderson's Rushmore.

Plot

The film is divided into two halves, which are announced with title cards.

"I. By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon."

In the opening scene, set in 1750s Ireland, the father of Irishman Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is killed in a duel over the sale of some horses. This detail is related by the film's narrator (Michael Hordern), who comments ironically on the events that transpire. The widow (Marie Kean), disdaining offers of marriage, devotes herself to the raising of her son.

When Barry is a young man, he falls in love with his cousin, Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton). She likes him well enough to seduce him, but when the well-off English Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter) appears on the scene, the poverty-stricken Barry is quickly dropped. She and her whole family are set on relieving their financial difficulties with an advantageous marriage. Barry refuses to accept the situation and (seemingly) kills Quin in a duel.

Fleeing the law, Barry travels towards Dublinmarker, but is robbed by a famous highwayman, Captain Feeney (Arthur O'Sullivan), and his son Seamus (Billy Boyle), leaving Barry little choice but to join the British army. Later, he is reunited with a family friend, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley), who informs him that the duel was faked. Barry's pistol was not loaded with a real bullet, but one made with tow, and Quin had only fainted with fear. It was staged so as to get him out of the way, so the cowardly Quin could be coaxed into marrying Nora, thereby securing the family's financial situation.

Barry's regiment is sent to fight in the Seven Years' War in Europe. During one skirmish, Grogan is fatally wounded, and Barry deserts at the first opportunity, impersonating a courier. He spends a few pleasant days with Lischen (Diana Körner), a lonely woman whose husband is away fighting. When he resumes his journey, he encounters a Prussian captain, Potzdorf (Hardy Krüger), who sees through his disguise. Given the choice of joining the Prussian army or being taken for a deserter, Barry enlists in his second army. During one battle, he saves Potzdorf's life.

After the war ends in 1763, Barry is employed by the Prussian Minister of Police, Potzdorf's uncle. It is arranged for him to become the servant of the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), a professional gambler. The Prussians suspect that he is a spy and Barry is assigned to try to determine if he is. However, when Barry finds out the chevalier is a fellow Irishman, he confesses all to him and they become confederates. Barry assists the chevalier in cheating at card games, but when the Prince of Tübingen (Wolf Kahler) suspects the truth after losing a large sum, they are unceremoniously expelled from Prussia. They wander from place to place, cheating the nobles. Barry proves to be very useful; when a loser refuses to pay his debts, Barry's excellent swordsmanship convinces him otherwise.

Hardened by his experiences, Barry decides to better himself by marrying well. During the course of his travels, he encounters the beautiful and wealthy Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Barry has little difficulty seducing her, and she soon falls in love. Shortly thereafter, her sickly husband, Sir Charles Lyndon (Frank Middlemass), dies.

"II. Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon."

The following year (1773), Lady Lyndon and Barry are married. Young Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage), Lady Lyndon's son by Sir Charles, hates Barry from the beginning, knowing that Barry is not in love with his mother. The marriage is not a happy one, although they welcome a new son, Bryan Patrick. Barry enjoys himself and is unfaithful to his wife while keeping her in dull seclusion.

Barry brings his mother over from Ireland to live with him. She warns her son that his position is precarious. If Lady Lyndon were to die, all her wealth would go to her son Lord Bullingdon (now a young man played by Leon Vitali); Barry would be left penniless. Barry's mother advises him to obtain a noble title to protect himself. He cultivates the acquaintance of the influential Lord Wendover (André Morell) with this goal in mind, spending much money to grease his way. All this effort is wasted however. One day, Lord Bullingdon announces his hatred of his stepfather and is beaten by Barry in front of many important guests. Bullingdon leaves the family estate after this, but Barry's public cruelty loses him all the powerful friends he has worked so hard to make and he is shunned socially.

As badly as he has treated his stepson, Barry proves to be a doting father to Bryan. However, when he is eight, the boy is thrown from a horse and soon dies. The grief-stricken Barry turns to drink, while Lady Lyndon seeks solace in religion, assisted by the Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin), tutor first to Lord Bullingdon and then to Bryan. Barry's mother dismisses Reverend Runt partly because they no longer need a tutor, partly for what she says is fear that his influence is making Lady Lyndon worse. Plunging even deeper into grief, she attempts suicide. Upon hearing of this, Lord Bullingdon returns and challenges Barry to a duel.

A coin flip gives Bullingdon the privilege of shooting first, but his pistol misfires. Barry magnanimously fires into the ground, but Bullingdon refuses to let the duel end there. He fires again, this time hitting Barry in the leg, which has to be amputated at the knee.

While Barry is recovering, Bullingdon takes control of the estate. He offers his stepfather an annuity of 500 guineas if he leaves England; otherwise, with his credit exhausted, his creditors will see to it that he is put in jail. Wounded in spirit and body, Barry accepts. He goes first to Ireland with his mother, then to the European continent to resume his former profession of gambler, though without his former success. He never sees Lady Lyndon again. The final scene (set in 1789) shows the middle-aged Lady Lyndon signing Barry's annuity cheque. The last we see of Barry Lyndon, he is being driven away from his estate in the carriage; the film ends with a title card that reads:
"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."


Background

Napoleon and Vanity Fair

After 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick made plans for a film about Napoleon Bonaparte. During pre-production, however, Sergei Bondarchuk and Dino De Laurentiis' Waterloo was released and subsequently failed at the box office. As a result, Kubrick's financiers pulled their funding for the film. He was furious, having put considerable time and effort into the development of the Napoleon project. Left with no alternative, he turned his attention to his next film, A Clockwork Orange. Subsequently, Kubrick showed an interest in Thackeray's Vanity Fair but dropped the project when a serialised version for television was produced. He told an interviewer:
"At one time, Vanity Fair interested me as a possible film but, in the end, I decided the story could not be successfully compressed into the relatively short time-span of a feature film...as soon as I read Barry Lyndon I became very excited about it."


Secrecy

Having garnered Oscar nominations for Dr Strangelove, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick's reputation in the early 1970s was that of "a perfectionist auteur who loomed larger over his movies than any concept or star." His studio — Warner Bros. — was therefore "eager to bankroll" his next project, which Kubrick kept "shrouded in secrecy" from the press partly due to the furore surrounding the controversially violent A Clockwork Orange (particularly in the UK) and partly due to his "long-standing paranoia about the tabloid press."

Having felt compelled to set aside his plans for a film about Napoleon Bonaparte, Kubrick ("[n]ever an originator of his own screenplays") set his sights on Thackeray's 1844 "satirical picaresque about the fortune-hunting of an Irish rogue," Barry Lyndon, the setting of which allowed Kubrick to take advantage of the copious period research Kubrick had done for the now-aborted Napoleon. At the time, Kubrick merely announced only that his next film would star Ryan O'Neal (deemed "a seemingly un-Kubricky choice of leading man") and Marisa Berenson, a former Vogue and Time magazine cover model, and be shot largely in Ireland. So heightened was the secrecy surrounding the film that
"Even Berenson, when Kubrick first approached her, was told only that it was to be an 18th-century costume piece [and] she was instructed to keep out of the sun in the months before production, to achieve the period-specific pallor he required."


Cast

Actor Role
Ryan O'Neal Redmond Barry/Barry Lyndon
Marisa Berenson Lady Lyndon
Patrick Magee The Chevalier de Balibari
Hardy Krüger Capt. Potzdorf
Gay Hamilton Nora Brady
Godfrey Quigley Captain Grogan
Steven Berkoff Lord Ludd
Marie Kean Belle, Barry's mother
Murray Melvin Rev. Samuel Runt
Frank Middlemass Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon
Leon Vitali Lord Bullingdon
Leonard Rossiter Capt. John Quin
André Morell Lord Wendover
David Morley Bryan Patrick Lyndon
Michael Hordern Narrator
Diana Körner Lieschen (German Girl)
Dominic Savage Young Bullingdon
Arthur O'Sullivan Capt. Feeny
Billy Boyle Seamus Feeny
Anthony Sharp Lord Hallam


Critic Tim Robey suggests, in direct reference to Barry Lyndon, that the film "makes you realise that the most undervalued aspect of Kubrick's genius could well be his way with actors." He adds that the supporting cast is comprised of a "glittering procession of cameo, not from star names but from vital character players."

The cast featured Leon Vitali as the older Lord Bullingdon, who would then became Kubrick's personal assistant, working as the casting director on his following films, and supervising film-to-video transfers for Kubrick. Their relationship lasted until Kubrick's death. The film's cinematographer, John Alcott, appears at the men's club in the non-speaking role of the man asleep in a chair near the title character when Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel. Kubrick's daughter Vivian also appears (in an uncredited role) as a guest at Bryan's birthday party.

Kubrick stalwarts Patrick Magee (who had played the handicapped writer in A Clockwork Orange) and Philip Stone (who had played Alex's father in A Clockwork Orange, and would go on to play the dead caretaker Grady in The Shining) also featured as the Chevalier du Balibari and the Lyndon family lawyer respectively.

Music

The film's period setting allowed Kubrick to indulge his penchant for classical music, and the film score uses pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach (an arrangement of the Concerto for violin and oboe in C minor), Antonio Vivaldi (Cello Concerto in E-Minor, RV 409), Giovanni Paisiello, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Schubert (German Dance No. 1 in C major, Piano Trio in E-Flat, Opus 100 and Impromptu No. 1 in C minor). The piece most associated with the film, however, is the main title music: George Frideric Handel's stately Sarabande from the Suite in D minor HWV 437. Originally for solo harpsichord, the versions for the main and end titles are performed very romantically with orchestral strings, harpsichord, and timpani. It is used at various points in the film, in various arrangements, to indicate the implacable working of impersonal fate.

The score also includes Irish folk music arranged by Paddy Moloney and performed by The Chieftains. Another very famous piece in the soundtrack is called Women of Ireland, by Seán Ó Riada, played by The Chieftains.

Leonard Rosenman won a 1975 Academy Award for Best Musical Score for adapting the various pieces of baroque and classical music. Ironically, years later, Rosenman expressed bittersweet memories (both of this movie and of Kubrick): "He would shoot take after take needlessly. He just didn't know what he was looking for, until after he found it. Still, he's one of the best friends I've ever had or will have, and I told him so. Thus, for the sake of that friendship, we both agreed never to work together on the same movie again for as long as we lived." They never did.

Production

Photography

The film — as with "almost every Kubrick film" — is a "showcase for [a] major innovation in technique." While 2001 had featured "revolutionary effects," and The Shining would later feature heavy use of the Steadicam, Barry Lyndon saw a considerable number of sequences shot "without recourse to electric light." Cinematography was overseen by director of photography John Alcott (who won an Oscar for his work), and is particularly noted for the technical innovations that made some of its most spectacular images possible. To achieve photography without electric lighting "[f]or the many densely furnished interior scenes... meant shooting by candlelight," which is known to be difficult in still photography, "let alone with moving images."

A candlelit scene (with no additional lighting) with Reverend Runt and Lady Lyndon.
was "determined not to reproduce the set-bound, artificially lit look of other costume dramas from that time." After "tinker[ing] with different combinations of lenses and film stock," the production got hold of three "super-fast 50mm" F/0.70 lenses "developed by Zeiss for use by NASAmarker in the Apollo moon landings," which Kubrick had discovered in his search for low-light solutions. These super-fast lenses "[w]ith their huge aperture [the film actually features the largest lens aperture in film history] and fixed focal length" were problematic to mount, but allowed Kubrick and Alcott to shoot scenes lit with actual candles to an average lighting volume of only three candlepower, "recreating the huddle and glow of a pre-electrical age."

Although Kubrick's express desire was to avoid electric lighting where possible, most shots were however achieved with conventional lenses and lighting, but were lit to deliberately mimic natural light rather than for compositional reasons. In addition to potentially seeming more realistic, these methods also gave a particular period look to the film which has often been likened to 18th century paintings (which were, of course, depicting a world devoid of electric lighting), in particular owing "a lot to William Hogarth, with whom Thackeray had always been fascinated." In the words of critic Tim Robey, the film has a "stately, painterly, often determinedly static quality." For example, to help light some interior scenes, lights were placed outside and aimed through the windows, which were covered in a diffuse material to scatter the light evenly through the room rather than being placed inside for maximum use as most conventional films do. One telltale sign of this method occurs in the scene where Barry duels Lord Bullingdon. Though it appears to be lit entirely with natural light, one can see that the light coming in through the cross-shaped windows in the barn appears blue in color, while the main lighting of the scene coming in from the side is not. This is because the light through the cross-shaped windows is daylight from the sun, which when recorded on the film stock used by Kubrick showed up as blue-tinted compared to the incandescent electric light coming in from the side.

Despite such slight tinting effects, this method of lighting not only gave the look of natural daylight coming in through the windows, but it also protected the historic locations from the damage caused by mounting the lights on walls or ceilings and the heat from the lights. This helped the film "fit... perfectly with Kubrick's gilded-cage aesthetic - the film is consciously a museum piece, its characters pinned to the frame like butterflies."

Principal photography took 300 days, from spring 1973 through early 1974, with a break for Christmas.

Locations

Many of the film's exteriors were shot in Ireland, playing "itself, England, and Prussia during the Seven Years' War." Drawing inspiration from "the landscape of Watteau and Gainsborough," Kubrick and cinematographer Alcott also relied on the "scrupulously researched art direction" of Ken Adams and Roy Walker. Alcott, Adams and Walker would be among those who would win Oscars for their "amazing work" on the film.

Several of the interior scenes were filmed in Powerscourt Housemarker, a famous 18th century mansion in County Wicklowmarker, Republic of Irelandmarker. The house was destroyed in an accidental fire several months after filming (November 1974), so the movie serves as a record of the lost interiors, particularly the "Saloon" which was used for more than one scene. The Wicklow Mountainsmarker are visible, for example, through the window of the Saloon during a scene set in Berlin. Other locations included Blenheim Palacemarker, Castle Howardmarker (exteriors of the Lyndon estate), Corsham Courtmarker (various interiors and the music room scene), Petworth Housemarker (chapel, etc.), Stourheadmarker (lake and temple), Longleatmarker, and Wilton Housemarker (interior and exterior) in England, Dunrobin Castlemarker (exterior and garden as Spamarker) in Scotland, Dublin Castlemarker in Ireland (the chevalier's home), Ludwigsburg Palacemarker near Stuttgartmarker and Frederick the Great's Neues Palaismarker at Potsdammarker near Berlinmarker. Some exterior shots were also filmed at Waterfordmarker Castle (now a luxury hotel and golf course) and Island.

Reception

The film "was not the commercial success Warner Bros. had been hoping for" within the United Statesmarker, although it fared better in Europe. This mixed reaction saw the film (in the words of one retrospective review) "greeted, on its release, with dutiful admiration - but not love. Critics... rail[ed] against the perceived coldness of Kubrick's style, the film's self-conscious artistry and slow pace. Audiences, on the whole, rather agreed..." This "air of disappointment" factored into Kubrick's decision to next film Stephen King's The Shining — a project that would not only please him artistically, but also be more likely to succeed financially.

Awards

The film received Academy Awards for Best Art Direction (Ken Adam, Roy Walker, Vernon Dixon), Best Cinematography (John Alcott), Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero) and Best Musical Score (Leonard Rosenman, "for his arrangements of Schubert and Handel".) Kubrick was nominated three times, for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Kubrick won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Direction. John Alcott won for Best Cinematography. Barry Lyndon was also nominated for Best Film, Art Direction, and Costume Design.

Source novel

Stanley Kubrick based his original screenplay on William Makepeace Thackeray's The Luck of Barry Lyndon (republished as the novel Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.), a picaresque tale written and published in serial form in 1844. The serial, which is told in the first person and "edited" by the fictional George Savage FitzBoodle, concerns a member of the Irish gentry trying to become a member of the English aristocracy.

The source novel is written by Lyndon while imprisoned looking back on his life. Lyndon is a notable example of the literary device of the unreliable narrator – throughout the novel the reader is constantly asked to question the veracity of the events described by him. Although later editions dropped the frame device of FitzBoodle's (Thackeray's pseudonym) editions, it is crucial in unmasking Lyndon's narcissism through occasional notes inserted at the bottom of the page noting information that is contradictory or inconsistent in relation to what Lyndon writes elsewhere. As Andrew Sanders argues in his introduction for the Oxford Classics edition, these annotations were relevant to the novel as an ingenious narrative device as Thackeray constantly invites the reader to question Lyndon's version of the events.

Kubrick however felt that using a first-person narrative would not be useful in a film adaptation:

"I believe Thackeray used Redmond Barry to tell his own story in a deliberately distorted way because it made it more interesting.
Instead of the omniscient author, Thackeray used the imperfect observer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the dishonest observer, thus allowing the reader to judge for himself, with little difficulty, the probable truth in Redmond Barry's view of his life.
This technique worked extremely well in the novel but, of course, in a film you have objective reality in front of you all of the time, so the effect of Thackeray's first-person story-teller could not be repeated on the screen.
It might have worked as comedy by the juxtaposition of Barry's version of the truth with the reality on the screen, but I don't think that Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy."


As in the case of most literary adaptations, Kubrick shortens or in some cases omits characters who were significant in the novel. The time period constituting his escape from the Prussian army to his marriage is given greater detail in the novel than the film.

It is also interesting to note that the film ends much before the novel's ending. At the end of the film, Barry Lyndon survives with an amputated leg from a duel (an incident absent in the novel) and returns to his gambling lifestyle with lesser success while Lady Lyndon pays the debts accumulated during her marriage to Barry, including the sum promised to Redmond in return for leaving the country. Though these events occur in the novel as well, Thackeray also writes that upon Lady Lyndon's death, the sum promised to Barry is cancelled and he becomes destitute eventually winding up in prison for his confidence schemes. It is at this place where Barry writes his memoirs, which end noting that he has to 'eke out a miserable existence, quite unworthy of the famous and fashionable Barry Lyndon'.

At this point Fitz-Boodle writes an epilogue of sorts about Barry's final days, where his only visitor is his mother. He dies after spending 19 years in prison.

Thackeray based the novel on the life and exploits of the Irish rakehell and fortunehunter Andrew Robinson Stoney, who married (and subsequently was divorced by) Mary Eleanor Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore, who became known as "The Unhappy Countess" due to the tempestuous liaison.

The revised version, which is the novel that the world generally knows as Barry Lyndon, was shorter and tighter than the original serialization, and dropped the FitzBoodle, Ed. device. It generally is considered the first "novel without a hero" or novel with an antihero in the English language. Upon its publication in 1856, it was entitled by Thackeray's publisher The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. Of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim.

Barry Lyndon departs from its source novel in several ways. In Thackeray’s writings, events are related in the first person by Barry himself. A comic tone pervades the work, as Barry proves both a raconteur and an unreliable narrator. Kubrick’s film, by contrast, presents the story objectively. Though the film contains voice-over (by actor Michael Hordern), the comments expressed are not Barry's, but those of an omniscient, although not entirely impartial, narrator. This change in perspective alters the tone of the story; Thackeray tells a jaunty, humorous tale, but Kubrick's telling is essentially tragic, with many subtle humorous jabs toward 18th century society, such as how Barry tries to learn the correct behavior for a gentleman, and pays a huge price when he does so.

Kubrick also changed the plot. The novel does not include a final duel. By adding this episode, Kubrick establishes dueling as the film’s central motif: the movie begins with a duel where Barry’s father is shot dead, and duels recur throughout the film. Also, in Thackeray's novel, the Chevalier de Balibari (played by Patrick Magee in the film) is Barry's long-lost uncle ("Balibari" being a gentrified version of "Barry"), and by marrying into the Lyndons, Barry intends to regain his family fortune (his ancestors were dispossessed by the Lyndons). In the film, Kubrick eliminated these familial connections from the story.

DVD feature

Although the original print did not provide translations of the small bits of French and German dialogue, by activating English subtitles on the DVD version, they are displayed as English captions.

References

  1. "He was so frightened, it took him an hour to come to" - Grogan's explanation to Barry.
  2. http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49516 "From Romance to Ritual", Kim Newman, Sight and Sound, March 2009
  3. Robey, Tim, "Kubrick's Neglected Masterpiece", in Telegraph Review (Saturday 31 January 2009), pp. 16-17
  4. visual-memory.co.uk
  5. victorianweb.org


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