Barry Lyndon (1975)
Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick
I think Stanley Kubrick was one of those rare directors who could dramatically shift tone & aesthetics between films without losing his core themes. On a material level, the differences between A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon is a vast gulf. Sex & violence is still present, but it’s meted out in a much more measured fashion. The goal of Barry Lyndon is to communicate with subtlety, to control the camera to an almost ascetic degree in how it delivers information about the characters & conflict. Kubrick also plays with structure creating two very distinct halves that tell us different things about the same character.
Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) is a young Irishman infatuated with his cousin, Nora. Nora, however, has designs on marrying British army captain John Quin. Barry is furious and escalates the conflict to a duel where the young man shoots Quin. Fearing punishment from authorities, Barry heads out on the road to make his way in the world. He encounters larcenous highwaymen and eventually joins the British Army, which is currently engaged in the Seven Years War. After seeing battle for the first time, Barry is appalled and head out into the greater European continent disguised as an officer. This leads to his arrest and forced enlistment in the Prussian army, where he works up the ranks. An encounter with an Irish gambler disguised as a Chevalier working for the Austrians leads him down yet another prosperous path. All seems to be going well for the plucky young Barry until he meets the Lady Lyndon and his material fortunes turn. But is it for the better or worse?
Kubrick is meticulous in his cinematography, going from intricately posed tableaus, that we slowly pull out to take in, to shaky handheld footage when Barry and Bullingdon tussle in the middle of a recital. Barry Lyndon is famous for Kubrick’s use of NASA designed lenses on the camera to allow the most possible light to enter. This lets the director use only natural or period lighting for every scene. There were no big studio lights on the set of this picture, and so we get one of our most organic glimpses of the look and texture of a time before cameras. Kubrick had been researching to make a film about Napoleon, but after shoddier movies came out about the French dictator, he scrapped the picture. Instead, he took all of his notes on costuming, military tactics, art, and music and applied them to Barry Lyndon. The result is a painstakingly recreated mid-18th century Britain and Europe.
Redmond Barry is a man at the whim of fate. He does nothing but has things happen to him. A great example of this is early in his escape he crosses paths with the highwayman Captain Feeney who offers him a plate of food and drink. Barry declines the situation where he most certainly would have been robbed but encounters Feeney further down the road and still has his horse and money stolen. History is happening around Redmond Barry; he takes no action to engage with it or stop events from occurring. The one place we do see Barry actively manipulating fate is when he rigs card games with the Chevalier. Even then, the Chevalier would have been doing this without Barry’s aid, but our protagonist is just along for the ride.
In the first half of the film, Barry is a nobody. In the second half, he becomes somebody and then becomes more active in wanting to increase his standing, realizing that if he does not gain a title, he & his son will be left out of the limited prosperity of the time. When he is no one, luck seems to remove him from dangerous situations just at the right moment, but when he finally attains status, life becomes a misery. When allowed to rise through the classes and given the power to act, Barry makes all the wrong choices and creates the circumstances that doom him to a lonely, penniless death. He becomes greedy & violent, brutalizing his stepson Lord Bullingdon. When that conflict reaches its apex, Barry finally tries to do something right, firing his dueling pistol into the ground as a gesture to spare his stepson. Bullingdon responds by firing his gun at Barry and wounding his leg. The one act done out of charity and goodwill is repaid with violence.
Barry Lyndon does correlate with Kubrick’s other films thematically. We can parallel Barry to Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange and see that even a totally passive human being will end up subject to violence and ruin, while Alex is implied to be pampered by the ruling party for propaganda purposes. Kubrick has a deep strain of perceived pessimism in his work, but I think it’s more that he sees so much of our lives as out of our control. 2001 presents our entire race as being guided down a path of a more intelligent species. Dr. Strangelove reveals that a room of absurdly stupid men decides the fate of the whole planet. All of the people in positions of power are selfish & cruel. Fate is the most unstoppable antagonist, and you can do so little to fight it.