Barry Lyndon

BARRY LYNDON is not the type of movie people recommend to me all the time, but it is the kind of movie that most people who have spent as long as me trying to be up on the good movies have, like, bothered to see at some point. Because it is widely known that that Stanley Kubrick usually did a pretty good job of the movies. Yet I managed to go several decades not seeing it. I guess there’s no way to be suspenseful about this – you’ve probly done the math and figured out that since this is a review of BARRY LYNDON by me that means I’ve finally seen BARRY LYNDON. An exciting day. I get to go over to the Homicide: Life On the Street dry-erase board and change the letters from red to black.

Ryan O’Neal (THE DRIVER) stars as Redmond Barry, horny Irish ne’er-do-well who has to leave home and have adventures because he thinks he killed an English officer in a duel. I’m not clear how old he’s supposed to be in the early scenes, but it’s funny that they keep referring to mid-‘30s, manlier-than-everyone-around-him O’Neal as a “boy.” Maybe they should’ve made him sit in oversized furniture like Martin Short in CLIFFORD.

But he does at least act like a childish brat; he’s obsessed with his older cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton, THE DUELLISTS) because she got him to touch her boobs once, and he becomes possessive of her when she starts seeing this rich Army captain, John Quin (Leonard Rossiter, THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN). His family keep having to run around kissing ass because Nora marrying this guy would get them out of debt but nitwit Barry keeps chasing him off by throwing a glass at his head during a toast and shit like that.

Barry’s ridiculous stubbornness is pretty amusing, and the insult to his ego is made funnier by Quin not being a particularly attractive dude. He’s a regular looking fiftyish man who could play the mean bank manager in a movie, but in this world he’s supposed to be hot shit because he’s rich and wears a fancy red uniform. And what Barry takes from that is that he needs to get himself one o’ them uniforms.

First he kind of becomes kind of like his era’s equivalent of a beatnik roadtripper or backpacker, excited to build a new life with the money in his pocket… which is immediately stolen from him (along with his horse) in a funny encounter with notorious (and quite witty) bandit Captain Feeney (Arthur O’Sullivan, RYAN’S DAUGHTER).

As you must know, since you must’ve seen it, he goes on to fight in a war (where he’s made fun of for complaining about the quality of the water), go AWOL from a war, impersonate an officer, get caught, get forced into the Prussian army, actually be pretty good at his job, be sent undercover to catch an Irish spy, but then feel a kinship to the spy and help him escape and travel with him as gambling buddies, then meet a wealthy Countess and seduce her in time to slide in there when her old husband dies and get himself a castle and the title of Barry Lyndon. That’s part I, then part II is about his lackluster approach to marriage (he leaves her at home with the kids while he goes off to orgies and shit) and his stepson Lord Bullingdon who hates his guts and his actual son Bryan who he actually cares about which makes it all the more shitty how much he doesn’t care about anyone else and eventually he and Lord Bullingdon have to duel.

There are a ton of fancy lad characters in this but one I want to mention is Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin, THE KRAYS), the loyal lifetime stooge, chaplain and personal flautist to the Countess (Marisa Bernson, WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART, one episode of Murder, She Wrote). He clearly disapproves of Barry and works a bunch of shit about lust and fornication into the wedding ceremony (subtweeting, we call it now), and it’s just funny to watch his face getting mad about Barry, or not being able to hide his delight when things go bad for Barry, which is not very Christlike in my opinion.

Anyway I bring him up because they do an amazing job of making him look completely bizarre, a face you’d expect to see in a very old painting but not on a modern human. I think it’s a combination of his actual features, his uptight expressions and postures, and his dainty makeup and wigs. Together they make him perfectly alien. His entire time in the movie I couldn’t stop staring at him and thinking he looked like some Disney character. I guess he’s a little like the villain from POCAHONTAS squeezed into the size of the villain in HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. But maybe he dresses more like Ichabod Crane.

It’s also fun to hate Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage [director of various 2000s TV movies] as a kid, Leon Vitali [Kubrick’s long time assistant and Red Cloak in EYES WIDE SHUT] as an adult), who makes bigger scenes about his hated stepfather than Barry ever did about his cousin’s boyfriend. He refuses to call Barry his father, but also won’t call him by his title, only his original name of “Redmond Barry,” like how Kylo Ren calls his dad “Han Solo.”

It’s interesting to read that the original book, an 1844 joint by William Makepeace Thackeray of Vanity Fair (the book, not the magazine) fame, was first-person-narrated by unreliable braggart Barry. The movie amusingly uses an omniscient narrator, Michael Hordern (THEATRE OF BLOOD, LABYRINTH, Jacob Marley in the 1951 Alastair Sim version of SCROOGE and the 1971 animated version), who seems amused by the ruling class dipshittery he’s describing.

I’m glad I got to see it in the era of blu-ray. I kept being struck by how beautiful it looked, especially in the outdoor scenes. It’s usually just a light smattering of sun, the colors very subtle, and it’s got a little bit of that visible film grain I love in a transfer. I kept thinking how much it looked like a painting. In one shot I started thinking maybe the background was a painting, but then an in-scale bird seemed to fly across it. They definitely studied many paintings in the design of the movie, although I read that they decided against imitating the lighting schemes of certain paintings because it made it look flat.

I’m not really in the market for BARRY LYNDON merch, but this logo would make a hell of a t-shirt iron-on, patch or tattoo.

I had of course heard about the groundbreaking cinematography by John Alcott, who worked in the camera department for 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE before becoming Kubrick’s main guy for a bit. Famously, they found a way (modifying super-fast developed-for-the-moon-landing 50mm lenses and camera shutters and developing the film differently) to shoot the interior scenes really using the light of the candles and nothing else. Which really does make it look different from so many generic costume dramas and makes you feel transported to another time.

Alcott won an Oscar for his efforts, then went on to shoot THE SHINING, as well as TERROR TRAIN, VICE SQUAD and THE BEASTMASTER. He has a cameo as the guy asleep on the chair when Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to the fateful duel. My choice for a spin-off/prequel character.

Kubrick’s whole crew had to be topnotch. An elite team. The best of the best. So he got editor Tony Lawson (DRAGONSLAYER), production designer Ken Adam (DEAD BANG), art director Roy Walker (SORCERER), costume designers Milena Canonero (BULWORTH) and Ulla-Britt Soderlund and music adapter/conductor Leonard Rosenman (ROBOCOP 2).

The movie is three hours long and pretty well documented, so rather than go through everything in detail I want to focus on my favorite part: the climactic duel between Barry and his stepson. These musket duels happen throughout the movie so it had already struck me how ridiculous they are – supposedly civilized men solving their pig-headed disputes with a death match. It’s not even a matter of skill, it’s just basic gun competence combined with luck. Not to mention it’s generally over in one shot, and there’s not gonna be a Sam Raimi QUICK AND THE DEAD montage, so how cinematic can it ever be?

Well, leave it to Kubrick to figure out a way to make an incredibly drawn out, suspenseful sequence out of one duel. Lord Bullingdon, who has been basically waiting his whole life to instigate this showdown, finally gets his chance to kill Redmond Barry, but misfires and blows his load into the ground. His comical oh shit expression and frozen pose is one of my favorite flavors of Kubrick – the parts I think are dryly, darkly humorous that I’m not sure other people see as funny at all.

The judges explain to him that that counts as his shot, that’s the rule. Barry confirms that that is the rule and that he will insist on following it and taking his turn next. Lord Bullingdon looks like he’s gonna shit his pants, but instead he runs over to a wall and pukes a couple times. When he’s ready he comes back to his spot, stands sideways and waits to get a hot explosive ball shot into his flesh to likely cause a slow, painful death courtesy of the man he most hates in the world who he could’ve just learned to live with but instead chose to force into this deadly confrontation.

And it’s so painfully bucket-of-blood-pouring-on-CARRIE slow to get to the point when it becomes clear that Barry will in fact just point his gun down and intentionally fire it into the ground. You know, he freaks him out a little, but he’s not gonna shoot him. Lord Bullingdon looks up and sees that Barry missed him on purpose. That he did the honorable thing. The merciful thing. Uncharacteristic of Barry, honestly. Maybe we, and Lord Bullingdon, should reconsider him.

The judges seem very relieved. Lesson learned, face saved, problem solved, peace made, disaster averted, time to pack up and go home and leave this whole mess beh— what? Oh, Lord Bullingdon doesn’t want to call it a draw? He wants to move on to the next round? Gulp. Okay.

It’s just such a perfectly caustic encapsulation of mankind, this casual barbarism of obstinate men killing each other instead of learning to make concessions. They dress it up in fancy clothes, rituals and rules, judges very calmly and politely preparing the guns, explaining the rules, announcing the rounds. And even they are taken aback that this little dweeb is still gonna go through with it when he got his out, but they’ve already signed onto this, this is the system, they’ll go through with it too.

I love the sardonically dismissive epilogue text. It sums up pretty well what I got out of it: here are these people covered in layers of makeup, frills, pleats, ribbons and embroideries, sitting in ornate furniture dwarfed by gigantic rooms filled with paintings as big as billboards, the top half of the frame empty to fit the towering ceiling in the shot; they are impossibly rich and self important, but they’re still a bunch of doofuses like anybody else, getting all in a tizzy about stupid bullshit, treating their wives bad, failing to balance their checkbooks. Barry got everything he wanted and he’s still a dumb fuckup, undone by his need to marry into a rich family, and subsequent mistreatment of the countess and her son, just like his dad was undone by some unspecified disagreement over a horse transaction. I bet if he would’ve occupied himself with more worthy passions he could’ve lived longer in smaller rooms and more comfortable clothes.

Maybe it’s just me, but I kept thinking O’Neal looked like Thomas Jane in this movie. So that’s who I think they should cast if they ever decide to do the sequel, LYNDON HAS FALLEN.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 6th, 2020 at 10:39 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Barry Lyndon”

  1. This is a good movie, in my opinion at least.

  2. I’m probably stupid or something. Or too drunk. But did you LIKE the film, Vern? I think it’s obviously a much lesser effort for Kubrick. Maybe his smallest effort ever. But you know, it’s still Kubrick. So there are a lot of things to admire.

    So, I saw it like 25 years ago and I remember appreciating it, but I can’t remember a single thing about it. And at the same time so many Kubrick films are basically a part of my cinematic soul.

  3. I love this movie so much. Nice review Vern, and great description of the best scene in the movie. And I love the look on Ryan O’Neal’s face when Lord Bullingdon insists on another round – “I did the noble thing for once in my life and I’m gonna get screwed for it!”

  4. My favourite Kubrick picture, people acting like assholes has never been more beautiful.

  5. Paths of Glory is probably my favorite Kubrick, but this one’s a very close second. I only caught up with it last summer, when there was a print making the rep house rounds. I’d hemmed and hawed over seeing this one for years, since lengthy historical costume dramas are not generally the first thing I reach for, but its dry humor and glorious amorality won me over in a big way.

    Two scenes set me laughing to the point of tears. One was the climax, the other was the great bit near the beginning where Barry’s watching John Quin dancing with his cousin. They’re out in a field at some big countryside social event, and Kubrick holds the shot for a full minute as Quin does this elaborate fancy lad jig, finally cutting to Barry as he seethes with hatred and jealousy behind a neutral expression. I’m not explaining it well, but it’s just such a wonderfully simple and economic way to establish – without any dialogue or narration – Barry’s essential pettiness and spitefulness (while I guess the final scene shows what happens when, for the first and only time in his life, he doesn’t follow these instincts; no good deed goes unpunished). This was the scene where I knew the movie and I were going to be friends.

  6. MajorCalloway

    May 6th, 2020 at 4:56 pm

    This movie is like STRANGELOVE if STRANGELOVE were an 18th century landscape painting. I love it so much. It would absolutely be my favorite Kubrick except that 2001 also exists (and that movie is so geometrically perfect that it’s almost closer to architecture than film).

  7. onthewall2983

    May 6th, 2020 at 6:20 pm

    I was really surprised at how engaged I was with this, as films of this period do not appeal to me at all, even if the GOAT is directing it. I think about what kept me invested in the story, it had to be the voice-over. I’ve heard people refer to it as a crutch but really great VO is like the cherry on top. Barry is not a very likable character by design. The most sympathetic an audience should be to him is also when he is at his most tyrannical. The narration felt like a defense mechanism, as if the film itself knows he is a bastard but is doing this to help it go along.

    This is Scorsese’s favorite film of Kubrick’s, and it’s all over THE IRISHMAN particularly but with the added dimension of the voice-over coming from the main character as opposed to being disembodied. Another film that takes a lot from it is THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. Wes Anderson referenced it a bit more subliminally in RUSHMORE, but Alec Baldwin’s voice-over is a pretty direct homage to this.

  8. The best Kubrick film, hands down.

  9. I can only join the choir of praise for this fantastic movie. And to anyone further down the line who claims it’s too slow, I recommend THE DUELLISTS for an action packed but similar experience.

  10. I remember enjoying this years back. Might be due for a rewatch. Also, nice on the Clifford reference. I saw it, and forgot it existed.

  11. I have no time for people who would complain this movie is too slow. It is such a gorgeous, captivating film and the second half, where’s it’s mostly domestic drama instead of the war/action of the first half, is even more so. I think this and Paths of Glory might be the only two Kubrick films that have genuine empathy for the characters. Even if most of them are shits, there is still a more humanist approach to their troubles. The moment where Kubrick cuts from Barry crying at his son’s side to the lambs pulling the coffin, accompanied by that magnificent score, is incredibly powerful and right up there with the ending of Paths of Glory in terms of emotional impact. What a glorious movie.

  12. I second THE DUELLISTS! Magic film, with a similar vibe, from when Ridley Scott was fantastic.

  13. I think A CLOCKWORK ORANGE through its filmmaking style also has empathy for Alex and his POV.

  14. Thank you for having written this. From the moment I saw that you’d reviewed Barry Lyndon my day was instantly brightened, to say nothing of the happiness brought from actually reading this piece. I needed a day to think about how to respond that was not simply reiterating your thoughts, or being effusive in a way that contributes little to the conversation.

    I am grateful that you had not written about this one earlier – besides the “I wish I could listen to Motor Booty Affair for the first time” sort of happiness one person can have for another, we would have been without your parallels to our current world of grisly, destructive stubbornness that miserably transcends socioeconomic strata and proves that humankind has an in-life equality of the potential for limitless stupidity.

    Plus, were this written much earlier we wouldn’t have had your Star Wars Minus Lucas analogy. I wonder if this was actually a point of reference for the sequel trilogy?

    Of anything I’ve seen, the movie that seems to most openly tout Lyndon’s influence is Marie Antionette, with the differences like being born into a social context, gender, Frenchyness-not-Irishness and the music of Bow Wow Wow being of secondary importance to the movies’ similarities of theme, tone and outlook.

    Maybe you know this already, but if not I will have you know that in their discussions Stanley Kubrick and Leon Vitali would at times refer to the character as “Lord Bowlingball”.

    I thought you’d enjoy that one, it is a joke of the sort you excell at more than any other person, with “George Roger Rabbit Martin” being only one of my hundreds of favorites.

    Thank you, Vern, for your principaled, hilarious and committed writing. Here’s to worthwhile concerns and smaller rooms.

  15. Republican Cloth Coat

    May 7th, 2020 at 5:02 pm

    This movie is aces, and as the review points out, the voiceover goes a long way toward keeping the original comedy intact. The novel is quite readable and I highly recommend it. Lyndon is an unreliable narrator, but a lot of fun comes from his limitations and belated rationalizations over something stupid he’s done.

  16. Saw this years ago and was in awe, and it became my favorite Kubrick movie…then I saw 2001 in IMAX, which…well, not much compares to that. Still, this is a mesmerizing work of art. I’ve put this on in the background before while I was doing computer work and had to turn it off after 30 minutes because all I could do is gawk at the thing.

  17. I just saw this for the first time last year on the big screen and it’s fantastic, one of Kubrick’s best.

    There’s a documentary about Leon Vitali called Filmworker from 2017 which I recommend. There’s a lot about Barry Lyndon in it because that is where Leon became obsessed with Kubrick, gave up acting and became Kubrick’s assistant. Their relationship is fascinating. Vitali would do absolutely anything for Kubrick, from casting to overseeing overseas trailers. And Kubrick was a huge asshole who frequently abused Vitali.

    They interview Ryan O’Neal in the documentary. There’s a scene in Barry Lyndon where Lyndon abruptly attacks Lord Bullingdon from behind and starts punching him. Kubrick made them do it over and over insisting that O’Neal punch harder. O’Neal is literally in tears when he talks about shooting that scene, because he feels so sorry for how much he had to hurt Vitali.

  18. The official Warner Brothers YouTube uploaded the doc STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES that came out a few years after his death. One of the better docs about movies, directed by his long-time associate and brother-in-law Jan Harlan.


  19. Well, yes, but, of all the fights I’ve seen Pat Roach lose – and I remember him as a heel on Saturday afternoon wrestling on World of Sport – that fistfight with Ryan O’Neal is one of the least believable. It’s well staged and shot an’ all, and O’Neal had experience as a junior boxer, but nothing up to that point has suggested that young Barry could take Trooper Toole and it just looks wrong. It feels like the needs of the plot outweighing the needs of the character, which now I think about it is how a lot of Kubrick makes me feel.

  20. Ancient Romans

    July 2nd, 2023 at 6:47 am

    I’d been wanting to re-watch this for years, to the point where my viewing of it last week was the first time I’d really meaningfully seen it. I understood it this time. I understood it too well. And, if I’d watched it two weeks earlier, I’d still have been able to “read” the film at the same level, but I wouldn’t have had the reaction that I had the other day: that I am Barry Lyndon. I am a sullen, passive mediocrity who lets things happen to me and, when I do try to make things happen, I fail spectularly. I even brought misery and some amount of ruin to a woman already beset by tragedy. I almost had to turn it off. Life is weird and dumb and strange, seemingly portentous coincidences happen but, ultimate, we will all be equal

  21. Ancient Romans

    July 2nd, 2023 at 6:48 am

    (Sorry if that was weird. I’m going through some stuff, but I’ll be okay.)

  22. No worries, AR. I’m sure we can all relate to that sentiment. We’re all getting older and coming to grips with our own mediocrity. None of us here are Great Men, and we’re all better off for it. Great Men made the world what it is today. Is that really something you want on your conscience?

  23. I like the idea of trying to be a better person, like Jack in GOOD AS IT GETS. Not to prove something to yourself or anyone else or to earn anything, but just because the invitation is there, and the pursuit itself is life-giving. I would rather be privately decent than publicly great, anyway. That’s what Jack learns. He’s a success and minor celebrity, but it’s the struggle just to be decent that is the greatest and most rewarding one. Not the world’s best film, but the message rings more and more true as I age. I’d rather be privately decent and continually learning than publicly “great.”

    Hang in there, Romans.

  24. Thanks, guys

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