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“Barry Lyndon”: Luck O’The Irish Blogathon

March 17, 2015

This is my entry in the “Luck of the Irish” Blogathon, hosted by Diana & Connie. Enjoy! 

During her career as a film critic, Pauline Kael was notorious for, among other things, never seeing a film more than once if she could help it. Part of that was because her reviews were always about her immediate visceral reaction, and she didn’t want anything to get in the way of that. Part of it was because she didn’t want to be convinced she was wrong about what she had seen earlier. But there was also a part of her that rebelled against the notion that you needed to see a movie more than once to fully appreciate it. It’s not that she wanted movies that were simple-minded – she railed against those types of movies often enough – but she honestly felt there was something pretentious about the notion that you needed to watch a movie more than once to “get it”. That is a notion I can sympathize with to a certain extent, but sooner or later, it runs up against filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick (and neither Kael nor her critic rival, Andrew Sarris – who once placed Kubrick in the category of “Strained Seriousness” – was a fan). Of the 13 feature films Kubrick directed in his lifetime, only two of them – Dr. Strangelove and Eyes Wide Shut – did I like unconditionally the first time I saw them (and both of those still have rewards upon further viewing). All of the others I needed to watch at least twice to appreciate more (although, to be sure, in the case of The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, multiple viewings have not shaken my view that while both are worthy, they’re still both flawed), and that includes Barry Lyndon, his 1975 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon.  At the time I first saw it, I thought while Kubrick had brought his usual intelligence to the movie, I agreed with critics who found it too slow. After watching it a few more times, however, I now think it’s one of his best.

As Kubrick fans know, Lyndon had long hoped to do a cinematic biopic of Napoleon, and more importantly, he had hoped to do an historical drama that, as he put it in an interview with Sight & Sound in the early 70’s, both conveyed historical information while also capturing the day-to-day life of characters in history without making them seem like they were merely parts of a textbook. However, the financial climate of Hollywood was not at its strongest in the late 60’s/early 70’s, at least when it came to the type of historical epic Kubrick was talking about (low-budget films on the order of Easy Rider were more the rage at the time), and so he had to shelve it (the project remains, like Welles’ version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Lean’s version of Conrad’s Nostromo, one of those great “what-could-have-been” projects). According to John Baxter’s biography of Kubrick, the filmmaker was looking for a project that would take advantage of his research into Napoleon when (as Kubrick put it) he stumbled onto Thackeray’s novel. Kubrick had toyed with filming Thackeray’s most famous novel, Vanity Fair, but that had been adapted before for film and TV several times, so he turned to a lesser known work. Both the novel and film follow the story of the title character, Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), over the course of his life in mid-18th century Ireland and England. After his father is killed in a duel early in the film, Barry is raised by his mother (Marie Kean). When he’s a teen, he falls in love with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton), who indulges him up to a point – she’s more worldly about sex than he is – but soon accepts the attentions of Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), of the British army. While her family is in favor of the match – Quin has money – Barry is upset, and he and Captain Quin eventually fight a duel with pistols, during which Captain Quin is apparently killed (later, it turns out this was all a ruse to drive Barry away). Barry flees, and is robbed soon after, which leads him to join the British Army during the Seven Years War. However, he soon tires of the war (especially after his family friend Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) is killed in battle), and when the opportunity arises, Barry, posing as another British officer, deserts. When he travels through Germany, he has a brief dalliance with a soldier’s wife (Diane Koerner), but is later discovered as an impostor by Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger), a Prussian officer, and forced to join the Prussian army. After he saves Captain Potzdorf’s life during battle, Barry becomes a trusted adviser, and when the war ends, Barry becomes a spy for him. When Barry discovers his target, the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), is in fact Irish, Barry changes loyalties, and works for the Chevalier, accompanying him as the Chevalier plays cards with the rich and wealthy in Europe, and helping him cheat. When Potzdorf decides to have the Chevalier expelled, Barry, at the Chevalier’s urging, uses this opportunity to flee with him, and free from the Prussian army, he and the Chevalier continue to travel Europe playing cards, and in Barry’s case, dueling with those who refuse to pay (Steven Berkoff plays one of the latter). Barry soon realizes, however, this isn’t enough to sustain the life he wants, so he courts and marries Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), a rich countess, even though she’s still married to Lord Lyndon (Frank Middlemass), though waiting until after her terminally ill husband dies of a heart attack before marrying her. Once he does marry her, Barry seems uninterested in the Lady, and more in continuing his life of gambling and womanizing. Lady Lyndon suffers this in stoic silence, but her son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali plays him as a young man) grows to despise Barry, and ends up causing his downfall.

Barry (Ryan O’Neal) being robbed.

It’s commonly said Kubrick changed quite a bit in adapting Thackeray’s novel (though keeping the basics of the plot), and there is truth to that. For starters, instead of keeping the first-person narration of Thackeray’s novel, Kubrick has Michael Hordern serve as a third-person narrator. While Kubrick keeps many of the events of the story, he also cut some to streamline the narrative (the Chevalier is no longer, by chance, a relative of Barry’s), and most crucially, makes Lady Lyndon’s character more passive (in the novel, she helps bring about Barry’s downfall, and Lord Bullingdon only plays a peripheral part in it). However, a common theme I’ve found in books written about Kubrick is that he meant the audience to view Barry more sympathetically than Thackeray did, and I’m not sure I agree with that. It’s true Thackeray’s novel is more outwardly satirical in tone than Kubrick’s movie, especially in the last half (one of the reasons why Kael slammed Kubrick’s film version is she felt it wasn’t satirical enough in tone), and with the inserted perspective of one G.S. Fitz-Boodle (a narrative device Thackeray dropped from later editions of the novel), we see Barry being mocked and presented as someone who passes himself off as better than he actually is. But while Kubrick doesn’t go as far over-the-top in that respect as Thackeray did, I think he keeps Thackeray’s viewpoint of Barry for the most part throughout; callow but somewhat likable and sympathetic early on, especially when he’s trapped in events he has no control over (like the Seven Years War), but a scoundrel once he finally becomes part of the society he had been excluded from before (except, of course, in the scenes between Barry and his son Bryan (David Morley), particularly his grief when Bryan dies not long after being thrown off of a pony). Kubrick does grant Barry a moment of sympathy during the climactic duel he has with Lord Bullingdon (a scene not included in the novel), when Bullingdon, overcome by fear, vomits and accidentally shoots his gun into the ground and Barry deliberately shoots his own pistol into the ground. Still, for the most part, Kubrick views Barry with the same distance Thackeray did, though more as a character who cannot escape his own fate.

The only way Warner Brothers would greenlight the picture for Kubrick was if he cast a star in the title role, and their candidates were either O’Neal or Robert Redford (who turned the part down). It may be difficult to remember now, but O’Neal at the time was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood at the time, thanks to his part on the TV version of Peyton Place and his hit movies Love StoryWhat’s Up, Doc?Paper Moon and, to a lesser extent, The Thief who Came to Dinner (in the annual Quigley poll in 1973, O’Neal was the #2 star, behind only Clint Eastwood). But those were all lighter in tone than Kubrick’s movie, and, except for Paper Moon, all of them were set in the present. More importantly, all of them asked little of O’Neal except to project likability (even though his characters in Paper Moon and Thief who Came to Dinner are outside the law, and his character in the former can be abrasive, they still depend on charm). Much as he would later do with Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick similarly plays off of O’Neal’s image here, especially the idea of him as a romantic leading man.* In Barry’s early scenes with Nora, Kubrick plays up both Barry’s naivete (she places a ribbon inside the front of her corset, and tells him he can have it if he takes it from her, and Barry is completely intimidated) and his petulant nature (when Nora throws Barry over for Captain Quin, all Barry can do is rudely interrupt a meal the family is having by standing and staring at her). After Barry is forced to flee, Kubrick still places him as someone who has little control over his fate, as when he’s robbed (and meekly asks his robbers if he can at least keep his horse), discovered as a fraud by Potzdorf, and fighting in battles which are hardly glorious. Only in the duels Barry participates in, whether by pistol, sword, or fist (as when he fights a soldier early on during his conscription in the British army), does he seem to be a master of his own fate, but this fighting side definitely played against O’Neal’s light romantic image (conceivably, it could be argued one of the reasons why Lady Lyndon is such a passive character in the film for the most part – as opposed to the novel – is because Kubrick wanted to deny audiences from seeing O’Neal being romantic again).

Barry ignores Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson).

Until I viewed the film again recently, I never noticed another way Kubrick emphasizes how much of an outsider Barry is from everyone else, and that’s his Irishness. During a time of relative peace between Britain and Ireland, it’s easy to forget the long history of animosity between the two countries, and while neither Thackeray nor Kubrick have the British characters insult Barry and his other family members with epithets (except when Bullingdon calls Barry an “Irish upstart”), it’s clear Barry’s heritage makes him suspect in the eyes of many of the characters. Certainly, you can see it in the contempt certain British characters hold Barry in, from Quin (who seems to regard Barry as an insect that needs to be stepped on) to Lord Lyndon, and especially Lord Bullingdon (who, until his final duel with Barry, seems to wear only a glare or smirk on his face). But it’s not just done in the obvious ways. Barry’s downfall begins when he tries to flatter and bribe his way into gaining a peerage and therefore being considered among the “respectable” society. This task, difficult enough in a society where who and what you were was determined by what class you were from, becomes impossible when Lord Bullingdon interrupts a recital Barry is hosting by leading Patrick, who walks into the room wearing oversized, and loud, shoes – as well as call out Barry’s behavior (this is when he calls Barry an “Irish upstart”) – and Barry, furious, grabs Bullingdon and starts beating him in front of the horrified guests. Thereafter, when Barry sees one of the Lords he had hoped would sponsor his peerage at a restaurant, the Lord politely but firmly rebuffs him, and as the narrator tells us, this was not the last time Barry was rebuked like this. It must be said O’Neal’s Irish accent doesn’t always stay consistent, but in a way, this makes him even more of an outsider against the other British actors.

Kubrick’s defenders and detractors have always talked about his perfectionism, and that trait was certainly a notorious part of the filming of Barry Lyndon, not just in the length of filming (it took 2 years, though this was partially because filming had to be halted in Ireland after the IRA made a threat against the production, and moved to England), and the multiple takes he had the cast go through (there were claims of Kubrick needing 100 takes for one scene, though Kubrick later claimed this number was exaggerated, and if he always used that many takes, he’d never finish a movie), but also because for many scenes, especially the ones set indoors and at night, he and cinematographer John Alcott (who also shot A Clockwork Orange and The Shining for Kubrick) used only natural light (Kubrick had a lens that had been used by NASA modified so he could shoot these scenes with candlelight). This was part of how Kubrick wanted to avoid the look of most period films at the time, by going for a more naturalistic feel to it. Kubrick also avoided the scores of most period films; instead, the Chieftains provided folk music used in the scenes set in Ireland, while for the rest of the film, composer Leonard Rosenman adapted and conducted works by Bach (“Concerto for 2 Harpsichords & Orchestra in C-Minor”), Handel (“Sarabande”), Mozart (the march from “Idomeneo”), and Schubert (“Piano Solo in E-Flat, OP 100 (Second Movement)”, among other pieces, which also makes the film seem more natural and less heavy than most period pieces of the time. Kubrick, as usual, also used a lot of long takes, such as in the battle scenes during the war (to make them seem as unglamorous as possible) and the scene where Bullingdon and Bryan walk in on the recital (to emphasize the reaction of the audience). Finally, Kubrick drew his inspiration from paintings of the period, which inspired not just the lighting but also the design and the costumes, some of which were even from that time period (though many were also custom made for the film).

Barry fights Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) while the horrified audience looks on.

For whatever reason, Kubrick, more than any other film he made, used actors he had worked with before, like Berkoff, Magee, Quigley (all of whom had been in A Clockwork Orange) and Rossiter (who had been in 2001). All of them perform well for the occasion, though the ones who come off the best are Magee (in a 180-degree turn from his character, and performance, in Clockwork Orange) and Kruger. I’ve only ever seen Berenson in White Hunter, Black Heart, so I don’t know if she was capable of more than what Kubrick asked of her here, but she handles her big scenes (her attempted suicide) and some smaller scenes (her reaction when she realizes Barry doesn’t love her) well enough. As for O’Neal, as I said, this film represents Kubrick playing against his image, and O’Neal gave himself to that willingly enough**, and while, as I said before, his accent slips often, he does fit Kubrick and Thackeray’s conception of Barry. However, his star power wasn’t enough to help the film at the box office, and while it was nominated for seven Oscars and won four, they were all technical, and Kubrick didn’t win any. The mixed reviews that seem to come with every Kubrick film also didn’t help, but again, as Kubrick himself would say in interviews, more than one viewing helped, and today, rightly, Barry Lyndon is seen in many quarters (including mine) as one of Kubrick’s best films.

*- While I personally believe Redford was a better actor than O’Neal, I also have read enough on Redford to guess – and mind you, it’s only a guess – that given how much Redford seemed to have invested in protecting his image as an actor, I doubt Kubrick would have been able to use him in the same way.

**- The only interview I ever came across where O’Neal talked about Kubrick was one with Malcolm McDowell that’s posted on YouTube, and he spoke warmly of the experience. Still, in Charles Shyer’s Irreconcilable Differences, O’Neal plays an aspiring filmmaker, and while he’s supposedly modeled on Peter Bogdanovich (and Shelley Long and Sharon Stone supposedly play, respectively, parts based on Polly Platt (Bogdanovich’s ex-wife) and Cybill Shepherd (whom Bogdanovich left Platt for)), there is a scene where O’Neal’s character is filming an historical epic and is being a perfectionist about getting the exact shot and sunlight right that plays to Kubrick’s reputation, not Bogdanovich’s, so I wonder.

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2 Comments
  1. Barry Lyndon is one of those films that I have continually avoided for no other reason than because it is a 1970s historical drama, but your review tempts me to give it a look-see. I, too, have to disagree with Kael and say that some of my favorite films became favorites only after multiple viewings. Kael herself put down Howard Hawk’s “Man’s Favorite Sport?” upon its initial release and then, a decade later, watched the film again and wondered why she had panned it so much…she considered the comedy to be excellent upon the second viewing! Thanks for this great review!

    • Thanks for your comment! I’m not a fan of other 70’s historical drama, but this one is very good (must admit, however, I’m not a fan of “Man’s Favorite Sport” either).

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