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Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" Joins the Criterion Collection

Although the late Stanley Kubrick took great pains to never repeat himself as a filmmaker, a pattern would eventually begin to emerge whenever he would release one of his meticulously crafted efforts. Although the films would usually achieve some degree of commercial acceptance, the initial critical response would often be mixed—some would praise him to the skies for advancing the art of cinema with each of his efforts while others would deride them as pretentious bores that were stunning on a technical level but merely stunned in emotional and narrative terms. However, within a few years, the critical tides would begin to shift decisively in Kubrick’s favor as the once heavily critiqued works were now deemed to be masterpieces, sometimes by the very same people who had written them off when they first came out. For example, when “The Shining” (1980) first came out, it was considered to be a botched take on the Stephen King bestseller that not only failed to receive a single Oscar nomination but found itself competing for a couple of Razzies. Nowadays, it is regularly considered to be one of the greatest horror movies ever made by practically everyone other than King himself.

With the possible exception of his still-undervalued 1999 swan song, “Eyes Wide Shut,” no film of Kubrick’s would undergo a longer period of reevaluation than “Barry Lyndon,” his 1975 adaptation of the satirical 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray that he originally published in serial form. When it was first released, it received the usually array of highly mixed notices, though it would receive seven Oscar nominations and win four of them, but for once, audiences more or less rejected it as well, especially in the United States (though it would do a little better in Europe). Whether it was the chilly tone, the self-consciously deliberate pacing and visual style, the lack of a conventionally sympathetic main character or the overly opaque performances from leads Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson, it just did not click with most observers, was written off as a rare failure on Kubrick’s part and probably helped inspire him to tackle “The Shining,” a more overtly popular and contemporary work, as his next project.

As time passed, one would hear isolated bits of praise for the film and its considerable achievements—Martin Scorsese and Lars von Trier would both cite it as a favorite (and its influence could be seen in Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” and a number of von Trier’s films)—but for the most part, deeming it to be a masterpiece was considered to be kind of perverse, like claiming that “The Trial” was your favorite Orson Welles film. In recent years, however, the critical tide regarding the film has shifted decidedly in its favor with the new consensus suggesting that it is one of the greatest and most audacious of all of Kubrick’s films. Polls conducted by the Village Voice, Time, Sight & Sound and the BBC have placed it as one of the best films ever made and it became a part of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies collection. Now, to fully solidify its newly enhanced reputation as a masterpiece, “Barry Lyndon” has been released on home video by the esteemed Criterion Collection in a special edition as lavishly appointed as the film itself that gives the film the bells-and-whistles treatment that it has long deserved.

It is widely assumed that Kubrick’s decision to make a film of “Barry Lyndon” was inspired at least in part by the failure of another project that took place at roughly the same time. This was “Napoleon,” an epic biopic that he had originally planned to make right after “2001: A Space Odyssey” with the possibility of Jack Nicholson in the lead role. Unfortunately, the combination of the rapidly spiraling budget and the failure of another expensive Napoleon film, “Waterloo” (1970), caused MGM to pull its funding during pre-production. Kubrick went on to make “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) instead and after he was through with that still-controversial work, he tried reviving the Napoleon project but could not find the money to make it. However, after having made two futuristic movies in a row (three, depending on how one scores “Dr. Strangelove” [1964]), Kubrick was presumably in a mood to make a film set in a world that was as remote from contemporary times. At one point, he considered adapting Thackeray’s best-known work, “Vanity Fair,” but could not figure out how to condense that book’s sprawling narrative into a conventional screen running time. From there, he came to “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” a book that contained a number of details that made it a more ideal fit for him, such as a number of the same thematic points as “Vanity Fair” but within a framework that was easier to rejigger into cinematic terms, a section involving the Seven Years War would allow him to make use of some of the battle concepts that he had devised for “Napoleon.” Perhaps best of all for Kubrick, who was even then notorious for the levels of secrecy surrounding his projects, it was a book that gave him a fully fleshed-out narrative that he could then tweak as he wished without risking the sort of criticism he received in some quarters for the alterations within his adaptation of “Lolita” (1962).

The story follows the rise and fall of a roguish Irish opportunist by the name of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal). As the film opens, we observe from a distance as his father is killed in a duel, as the omnipresent narrator (Michael Hordern) informs us, “over the purchase of some horses.” Barry soon becomes infatuated with his cousin, Nora (Gay Hamilton), who flirts with him for a bit as an amusement but then accepts a far more financially and socially advantageous marriage proposal from Captain John Quinn (Leonard Rossiter). Barry impetuously challenges the captain to a duel and when he triumphs, he heads off to Dublin with 20 guineas in his pocket and the promise of a new life before him. That dream is almost immediately scuttled when he is relieved of money and horse by a father/son team of highwaymen. After hearing promises of money, glory and position in exchange for his service, Barry enlists in the British army and finds himself serving as cannon fodder for the Seven Years War. Eventually, he tires of this and deserts the army but, through a stroke of dumb, unfortunate luck, he ends up being forced to enlist in the Prussian army and winds up serving with some distinction.

After the war ends, the Ministry of Police employs Barry for a mission to determine if expatriate Irishman and inveterate gambler the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee) is a spy or not. Barry is to serve as the Chevalier’s servant and report back any information that he is able to uncover. However, perhaps seeing the Chevalier as a sort of father figure, Barry immediately informs him of his real purpose and the two begin working in tandem—while Barry continues to string the Prussians along, he instead helps the Chevalier to cheat at cards. and when the heat gets too great, he is able to use his unique position to sneak the two of them out of Prussian territory literally under their noses. After spending several years traveling through Europe helping the Chevalier cheat at cards, Barry tires of this particular grind and decides to find a wealthy woman to marry instead. He soon sets his sights on the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), who is rich, beautiful and titled. Alas, she is also married to the elderly Sir Charles Lyndon (Frank Middlemass) but one cardiac attack at the gambling tables and Barry and the Countess are free to wed.

Having finally achieved wealth and the trappings of power at the end of the first half of the story, the second half finds Barry, now freely spending his wife’s money on wine, women and gambling, seeing it all slip through his hands. Much of this is at the hands of Lord Bullingdon, the son of Sir Charles and the Countess who, even at the age of ten, correctly clocks Barry as someone who only loves his mother’s money and is frequently beaten by his stepfather for his insolent truth-telling. Before long, the Countess has Barry’s child, a son named Bryan (David Morely) but while Barry truly loves the child—possibly because it is one thing that he can legitimately claim to be his own—his relationship with his wife and Bullingdon grows ever frostier. However, when Barry realizes that if the Countess dies, her fortune will go to Bullingdon while he and Bryan will be left without a shilling, he uses a large amount of her money to buy himself a title that will ensure his position among high society once and for all. All of his efforts, so to speak, go to waste, when the now-adult Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) arrives at his mother’s birthday party to publicly denounce Barry as a money-grubbing monster, a play that results in Barry leaping up and brutally beating Bullingdon in front of everyone and becoming a social pariah in front of his newly purchased peers. They are not offended by the fact that he beat Bullingdon, mind you—his crime, in their eyes, was to lose control and do it so publicly.

Oftentimes when a novel as long and detailed as Thackeray’s is transposed from the page to the screen, so much of the narrative ends up getting dropped along the way that the resulting film can seem more like a collection of scenes than an actual story. In adapting “Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick stuck with the basic arc of the novel but made several changes to the material that actually helped to enhance the story instead of taking away from it. Instead of the first person approach used in the book, with Barry serving as the increasingly unreliable narrator of his own story, Kubrick shifted it to the third person with the unnamed narrator relating the tale in a cool and dispassionate tone throughout. He also did the usual amount of compressing certain events and characters in order to streamline the material and added a couple of new scenes, including the Barry/Bullingdon confrontation and their eventual fateful duel. 

Although the resulting film clocks in at over three hours in length, it never feels particularly long and indeed, it almost serves as a model of economic storytelling. This is a film with a sprawling narrative and a large cast of characters, a combination that can lead to confusion among moviegoers who have never read the book (and even among those who have) but Kubrick always manages to figure out a way of imparting plenty of information with a mere line or two of dialogue or just the right bit of set dressing to establish who the characters are and what drives them. The use of the narrator also helps enormously in this regard as well. Some have complained about the narration, feeling it is a crutch for lazy filmmakers who elect to tell the story instead of showing it, especially in the instances when the narrator informs us of the outcome of events that have not occurred as of yet (such as the fate of Barry’s son). In fact, the device is used brilliantly here and even the conceit of revealing events before they occur works—not only does it help to keep the twists and turns of the plot from seeming to be contrived but they help to underscore that what we are witnessing is from an era that, for good or ill, will never be seen again.

While “Barry Lyndon” is ostensibly unlike anything else in the Kubrick canon, the story does allow him to explore a couple of his favorite thematic concerns. One is the dehumanizing effects of ritualized behavior on people and the pitfalls that await anyone daring to stand up to such a way of living. Perhaps more so than any other Kubrick film—certainly among the ones not dealing with military matters—this is one that most overtly depicts a world totally dominated by rules of behavior that seem fairly ridiculous now but were of all-consuming importance back in the day. You name the activity—wooing a potential love, challenging an enemy to a duel, gambling huge sums of money or paying off those huge sums of money—and the film illustrates an elaborate code of conduct to go along with it. Even the highwayman who robs Barry early on of his money and horse allows him to keep the ornate boots that he might have otherwise snatched because to do otherwise would simply be bad form. Barry’s problem is that while he recognizes these rituals, he is often too headstrong to obey them—apparently thinking that he is somehow above the fray—and that is when his passions get him into trouble. For a while, he learns to control this self-destructive impulse—ironically while running his card scam with the Chevalier, wooing and marrying the Countess and then trying to use her money to buy himself the position and respectability that he craves—but he loses it all again when he lashes out at Bullingdon. Even during the his duel with his stepson, he somehow believes that he can once again sidestep the way things simply are with his noble but ultimately foolish gesture. After that, he presumably learns his lesson at last but by then, he no longer has a leg to stand on.

One of the chief criticisms of “Barry Lyndon” was that many felt that it was a film that told a story driven by a character who was cold, self-centered and thoroughly disreputable throughout. If that wasn’t enough, the character was portrayed by Ryan O’Neal, an actor not known for possessing the kind of roguish charm that might have made such a character more palatable to watch for three hours. I would not necessarily disagree with the above description of the character of Barry but to leave it at that, as even the otherwise all-knowing narrator essentially does, is to willfully overlook the fact that he, for all of his faults, does posses some admirable qualities after all. Although mostly driven by self-interest, he does have an emotional side that is occasionally let out—he sincerely weeps over the body of an old friend cut down in battle and he genuinely loves his son, perhaps just as much as himself. He is also, to a degree, governed by his passions and while he does his best to control them, even he is occasionally swept up by them, generally to his immediate regret. A more high-spirited actor—say Kubrick’s proposed Napoleon, Jack Nicholson—might have given the film more pull at the box office but would have been all wrong for the part; this is a character who should not be bounding with good cheer throughout. The more opaque O’Neal, as it turns out, really was ideally suited for the part. His performance is not only the best of his career but one of the most ultimately humane in the entire Kubrick filmography.  

The other Kubrickian conceit given full flower here is the mercurial nature of the passage of time. “Barry Lyndon” is a story that covers about 40 years or so over the course of its 184 minutes but viewers never really get much of a fix on either time frame. In many films of this sort, we are always being reminded of just what year we are in at any given time with careful note given to any significant jump forward. That sort of detail is of so little concern to Kubrick here—the man who once showed the passage of thousands of years with the tossing of a single bone—that there are only a couple of occasions when he supplies a fixed year to the events being shown with the most significant being the date shown being written on a check in the final moments. At the same time, he does an interesting thing by having the story hurtle from one incident to the next while depicting them all in the same stately and measured manner so that there is generally no real sense of the passing of time for the most part. The one. The single exception to this approach comes towards the end during the extraordinary sequence—indeed, it is one of the finest in the entire Kubrick canon, one that is hardly wanting for such things—covering the Barry/Bullingdon duel in which the entire thing plays out in real time (maybe 9-10 of screen time) that allows viewers to fully absorb every single aspect of the occasion, from the excessively formal proclamations to the moments of shameful indignity to the ironic conclusion, in a way that is quite simply spellbinding to behold.

The one aspect of “Barry Lyndon” that did receive universal acclaim, even from those who otherwise disliked the film, was its awe-inspiring visual look. Simply put, this is one of the most beautiful-looking movies ever made with every frame of film looking as if it could hang in a museum. Taking their inspiration from artists such as Gainsborough who painted in the era covered during the story and utilizing special lenses sensitive enough to allow shooting by candlelight that were developed by no less of an outfit than NASA, Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott (who had worked as a camera operator on “2001” and “A Clockwork Orange” and would later shoot “The Shining”) have created one the most distinctive-looking period film ever made. Thanks to the ability to shoot with low levels of light (though not, as is sometimes rumored, shot entirely with natural light), the film has a realistic look to it that is utterly removed from virtually every other period drama ever produced—it really gives viewers the sensation that they have been transported back to another era. At the same time, as the story progresses, the look subtly takes on a drained and claustrophobic look as the action, such as it is, shifts to a series of lavishly appointed but utterly airless rooms. (Even the final duel takes place within the confines of a barn.) Towards the end, the characters are so pale and drawn that they resemble ghosts—which they are, in a sense.   

Presumably due to its reputation as a rare Stanley Kubrick flop, the home video representation of “Barry Lyndon” has long been woefully inadequate. On VHS, the gorgeously composed images were reduced to a smeary hash due to the inevitable limitations of the format. When it eventually made its DVD debut in 1999 as part of a collection of Kubrick titles, it was by far the worst-looking of the lot with a transfer that, even for the early days of the format, looked simply ghastly. A remastered version issued a few years later looked somewhat better but even as other Kubrick titles were getting bonus features, the only extra to be had was a grim-looking trailer. When it eventually made its Blu-ray debut, the film looked much better but it once again contained no extras beyond that single trailer. 

With this long-awaited special edition, Criterion has finally given the film a treatment worthy of its stature as a classic. The film itself has been given a brand-new 4K restoration and is presented with both the original monaural soundtrack and a new 5.1 surround version. The extras kick off with a newly produced documentary on the making of the film that features the participation of many of the surviving participants and audio excerpts from a 1976 interview with Kubrick conducted by critic Michel Ciment. There are featurettes centered on the visual style (that include bits of Ciment’s 1980 interview with Alcott) and production designer Ken Adam and an archival interview with costume co-designer Ulla-Britt Soderlund. There are new interviews with editor Tony Lawson, Ciment and Leon Vitali, who became an assistant to Kubrick for the rest of the director’s life and who helped supervise the new soundtrack as well as a piece focusing on the art-inspired aesthetic of the film conducted by curator Adam Eaker. Finally, the accompanying booklet features an essay of the film by critic Geoffrey O’Brien as well as two articles on the film—an interview with Alcott and an essay by camera designer Ed DiGiulio. All in all, it is a package both as lavishly appointed and as ultimately satisfying as “Barry Lyndon” itself.

To purchase your copy of "Barry Lyndon" on Criterion Blu-ray, click here. 

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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