Sunday, February 19, 2012

Film # 74: Barry Lyndon (1975)



Director: Stanley Kubrick

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 12 years ago)

*Weird, Egotistical Note: After now watching 74 shows from TIME’s “100 All-TIME Films” list, this is the first film released within my lifetime. Funny to think that, as viewers were seeing this movie for the very first time, I was wailing away in a crib on a military base in South Carolina.

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

18th century Irish commoner spends lots of time on many rungs of the social ladder. Duels and massive decorative hats abound.

Extended Summary (Longer plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)

What follows is a fairly complete summary. For a meticulously detailed synopsis, check out imdb’s version through this link.

Late 18th century Ireland. Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) is a young lad whose father is killed in a duel. He soon falls in love with his cousin, Nora, who returns his affection readily. However, when Nora accepts a marriage proposal from a stately, if uppity, English officer, Barry becomes furious. He insults the officer to the point of demanding a duel. Barry shoots the officer, seemingly killing him. On the advice of his cousins and his second, an Irishman in the English army named Grogan, he flees his hometown for Dublin, hoping to escape the inevitable pursuit of the law.

Langdon getting held up as he flees from the English army.

On the way to Dublin, Barry is robbed of all but his clothing. Desperate for any kind of escape, he joins the British army and heads off to war. After a few brief skirmishes and witnessing the death of his lone friend, the rediscovered Grogan, Barry decides to desert his post. Using a stolen officer’s uniform and identification papers, Barry enters Prussian-controlled areas near Holland. His hope is to return to Ireland.

Instead, he is captured by a savvy Prussian officer, Captain Potzdorf (Harry Kruger), and forced to join the Prussian army. Barry spends several years with Prussian forces, among a regiment composed mostly of scoundrels and cold-blooded killers. From these, Barry learns the cold means of survival and the arts of deceit. In one particular battle, Barry saves Potzdorf. This act is rewarded with back-handed recognition, a reward, and some small measure of trust.

Barry is recruited by Potzdorf and the Prussian Minister of Police to keep tabs on a suspected spy, a gambler of Irish origin named the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee). Barry readily accepts; however, upon meeting the Chevalier, he becomes emotional in the company of a fellow countryman and betrays his true mission. The Chevalier takes him in and the two become co-conspirators. Barry helps the Chevalier cheat nobles in games of chance, at the same time feeding the Prussian government useless information about his new confidant.

Eventually, Barry and the Chevalier manage to concoct a ruse to escape from Prussia unscathed. They then spend several years traveling around Europe. The Chevalier continues to cheat wealthy aristocrats out of their money, and Barry assists by successfully dueling any reluctant debtors.

Barry plies his trade as a master duelist, a perfect profession for any amoral rogue with the necessary skills.

Barry eventually sets his sights higher – true wealth in the form of the English countess Lady Lyndon, whom he meets at a gambling table. Barry courts the married Lady, which infuriates her aged and decrepit husband. The Lord Lyndon is so enraged, in fact, that when he starts an argument with the calculating Barry, he dies of a heart attack. This leaves the way wide open for Barry to swoop in and marry the love-struck Lady Lyndon and assume his new title – Barry Lyndon.

Over the next several years, Barry’s married life on his wife’s English estate disintegrates. While his wife stays home and looks after her son from her first marriage, Sir Charles, and hers and Barry’s son, Bryan, Barry himself lives a life of opulent leisure. His excessive drinking and philandering does not go unnoticed by his step-son, Sir Charles. Though merely ten years old when his mother remarries, the boy quickly develops acute hated for his rogue of a stepfather. This hatred only grows stronger as time passes.

Within these years, Barry’s mother comes to live with them and she points out how Barry needs to attain his own title, thus decreasing his total reliance on his wife’s fortune. Following this advice, Barry begins to spend lavishly on art, parties, and greasing the social wheels for his ascendancy into “higher spheres” of social worth. Things seem to be moving in the right direction until, at a party on the Lyndon estate, Lord Charles bursts in and announces his utter hatred for his stepfather in front of the guests. The enraged Barry mercilessly attacks his step son and pummels him in front of their guests. Word soon spreads of Barry’s brutality, and his “friends” completely ostracize him.

Barry turns his attentions toward his natural son, Bryan. As opposed to his horrid treatment of Lord Charles, Barry showers Bryan with true love and affection. Unfortunately, Bryan suffers a terrible horse riding accident just before his ninth birthday and dies a few days after. Barry and Lady Lyndon are so distraught that Barry’s mother must take over the family’s finances. When she dismisses Lady Lyndon’s closest associate, the vicar Reverend Runt, word gets out to Lord Charles, who has been living away from his family’s estate after the beating received at the hands of his stepfather.

Barry in the center of the frame, Attempting to drown his sorrow over his son's death. Little does he know that things are about to get even worse...

Lord Charles, supported by some of his family’s close friends, seeks out Barry and challenges him to a duel. In a secluded barn, Lord Charles wins the right to the first shot, but misfires. Upon his chance to return fire and likely kill Lord Charles, Barry opts to fire his pistol into the ground. Lord Charles, instead of being satisfied, demands another shot. He takes it and hits his stepfather in the leg. Barry is taken to a nearby inn for treatment, while Lord Charles rushes back to his family estate and quickly reasserts control over the household.

Barry must suffer his leg being amputated. More than this, though, he is given an ultimatum from Lord Charles – leave England forever and accept a 500 guineas annuity from the Lyndon family, or stay and suffer arrest on the grounds of his massive debts. Barry leaves England, and we are told that he returned to continental Europe to return to the gambling profession, “without his previous success”.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Written after this recent viewing, before any research.)

A story about this viewing of Barry Lyndon:

My girlfriend and I sit down a few evenings ago to watch it. The film moves on at its’ leisurely pace and time clicks on. At roughly the 90-minute mark, the “Intermission” screen pops up. My girlfriend goes slightly slack, her eyes widen, her jaw drops, and she asks, “How long is this movie?!” With a semi-knowing grin, I turn and reply, “It’s three hours long. We’ve got 90 more minutes to go.” Eyes still wide, she shakes her disbelieving head. After hanging in for another 30 minutes or so, she gives up and goes to bed. I stay up and watch the full film, enjoying it right up until the end.

This little tale of our viewing I think sums up how nearly all people feel about Barry Lyndon – you either love it, or you see it as too long and dull to take. Clearly, I am in the former group.

I have to say that this is one of those movies that you have to know what you’re in for and be in just the right state of mind to watch. Barry Lyndon is slow. Extremely slow. Kubrick took the approach of relying far less on dialogue and far more on slow zooms of panoramic landscapes and interiors. If you prefer more kinetic action and emotional dialogue, the three-hour Barry Lyndon will be an effort in frustration. I, however, love watching the movie. The lush colors, attention to detail, and expansive wide-angle shots are like classic works of art slowly coming to life (emphasis on “slowly”). The beauty of the natural surroundings, castles, and costumes throws into contrast the dastardly deeds that people are committing throughout the film.

This is the very first shot of the film, both in filming terms and in dueling terms. The entire visual style and story theme are set up within this shot - breathtaking beauty wholly encompassing human destruction.

The story itself is epic in scale, and I’m a sucker for a good epic. Following the roughly twenty-year rise and fall of Langdon Barry is a spectacle, as it allows the viewer to traipse through the Europe of William Makepeace Thackeray (the author of the source novel). To be sure, there is some interpersonal exploration done, but the movie is mostly given to sweeping powers of the times - war and class distinction – and their effects on humanity.

One of the recurring themes in the film is the duel, and it is these scenes that are most striking and intense to me. While all of the duel scenes (three with pistols, one with swords) are incredibly hypnotizing, it is the final one between Barry and his stepson, Lord Charles Bullingdon, that is an absolute masterpiece. The measured ritual with which the scene plays out and the very visible terror on the face of Bullingdon are perfection. The scene plays out with agonizing deliberation, forcing you to get into the heads of those involved. Once you do this, it’s not difficult to imagine just how terrifying a prospect it must have been to stare at someone standing ten paces from you, and you stared into their eyes just before they killed you or vice versa. It’s a version of Sergio Leone’s extended western gunfights, though a far more chilling one.

Guiding us through Barry’s journeys is a bemused narrator. As a rule, I find narration in films to be something of a crutch, borrowed from the realm of literature. Films should be able to tell their stories through visuals and dialogue. However, there are a few films in which it can enhance, and Barry Lyndon is a mixed bag. At times, the narrator’s commentary is tinged with sly gallows humor that I can only guess was Thackeray’s and which adds some welcome levity. In other moments, it does indeed seem a cheap way out of conveying humor or emotion directly through the characters’ words or actions.

Barry, we are told by other character and the narrator, is a hot-blooded young man. You'd hardly know it from his face here, which is the same bland expression he wears through nearly the entire film.

This downplay (or lack of) emotional dialogue is probably one clear reason that people may not like this movie. There is an overall stillness to the movie, save perhaps a few scenes of warfare and brief fighting. Knowing that Kubrick was a meticulous perfectionist, I am quite sure that this was intentional, and this tranquility pervades even to the acting. Even during tense confrontations and emotional moments, everything is very placid. While this is soothing in most places, after about two-and-a-half hours, the characters almost seem devoid of any real feeling.

This sensation of dead calm would not be so obvious if not for the performance of the title character actor, Ryan O’Neal. Some of the film’s minor characters do actually show more spirit. In stark contrast, O’Neal’s facial expression almost never changes throughout the movie, which leaves the viewers to rely on the narrator and guesswork to glean Barry’s true desires. Perhaps we viewers are supposed to take this as an outward sign of Barry’s emotional detachment, but it really just comes off as flat and unengaging most of the time.

This brings up the other reason most people probably dislike this movie. The morning after I watched it, my girlfriend and I discussed it. As she considered how Barry is a mostly despicable character, she rightfully wondered, “What’s the point?” I imagine countless other viewers have asked the same question. When I ponder the answer, I always return to the epigram of the film:


With this final message, we are left to wonder perhaps not about the point of the movie, but rather about the point of all of the violence and pain depicted in the movie. Violence and pain that certainly was based on real actions of the times. In watching Redmond Barry get caught up in the materialism and territorial struggles of his age, I can’t help but think of a movie critic who suggested something very cogent about Stanley Kubrick’s films. Kubrick’s movies, while covering a vast spectrum of genres, including war, action, science fiction, horror, and drama, all had the same basic message underlying them: humans are not fallen angels, but rather ascendant apes. Barry Lyndon, like all of Kubrick’s other films, shows just how not just one person but an entire society can slip into barbarism. Even when the players are dressed in the finest of clothes, living in the plushest of mansions, and possessing the most stunning of lands, they are no less capable of the basest primitive cruelties.

A happy message, it is not. But it is certainly one worth pondering. Barry Lyndon gives you the chance to calmly mull it over while drinking in the cultural splendor of a bygone age. It’s not for everyone, but I’d recommend everyone at least watch the 90-minute first act and find out for themselves.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after a little further research.)

A few surprises on things that I’ve found (and not found) in reading up a little more in Barry Lyndon.

The movie was, as mentioned, based on a far lesser known novel my William Makepeace Thackeray, who is now far better known for Vanity Fair. Barry Lyndon, though, is often referred to as the first “anti-hero” English novel. Kubrick clearly kept this idea true to its roots. Kubrick also kept the setting and characters basically the same, though he took out a few family connections that were in the novel. One such is that the Chevalier de Balibari (as I probably should have figured, based on the name) is, in the book, actually an uncle of Barry’s who had fled Ireland. The novel’s tale goes that he was kicked off his land and dispossessed by the Lyndons themselves, into whose family Langdon marries much later. This is probably a more interesting plot connection, and I wonder why Kubrick left it out. Perhaps he felt it far too convenient, but who knows?

Another interesting departure from the novel is that the film ends significantly before the novel’s tale, with several notable differences. In the film, the story ends just after Barry is shot and loses his leg in the duel with Lord Charles, and he is forced to leave England, accepting his modest annuity. In the book, the duel does not exist, and Barry actually becomes a member of British parliament. He sends his step-son to the Americas to fight in the Revolutionary War, and is accused of trying to have his son killed. He is stripped of his title and forced out of the country. Eventually, he is jailed for debts and spends the final seventeen years of his life in prison, with only his elderly mother to attend him. Obviously, Kubrick couldn’t tell all of this story using the measured pace that he wanted, so he chucked it.

A fairly recent edition of Thackeray's original novel. Kubrick was faithful to most key elements, but made several notable changes.

Another interesting difference between novel and film is the tone. From what I’ve read on it, Thackeray’s novel is told in first person by Barry himself, with an overtly humorous tone. In it, Barry is an early example of the “unreliable narrator”, who seems oblivious to his own shortcomings. Kubrick eschewed this and achieved a much more objective look at the character and his world. This accounts for the very detached feeling of the movie.

When released, Barry Lyndon was something of a disappointment. While it did pull in seven Academy Award nominations (winning four in the technical categories of art direction, costumes, cinematography, and music) and received fair critical acclaim, it did not win over all critics or the public, especially those with high expectations of Stanley Kubrick. In his original review in 1975, Roger Ebert probably summed up a lot of the feeling of the day. He described it as having “the arrogance of genius” and lauds its many brilliant merits. He does, however, note of O’Neal’s performance that “Kubrick has directed Ryan O’Neal in the title role as if he were a still life. It's difficult to imagine such tumultuous events whirling around such a passive character.” This is really the only critical note I found of O’Neal’s flat-line turn as Barry.

In recent years, Barry Lyndon has gradually gained more attention as one of the greatest of films. More and more, critics seem to be willing to see its cold, calm tone not as an example of a bad decision on Kubrick’s part but rather a very unique and artistic way of observing and telling a human story. One can call it hopeless or dreary, and I can’t necessarily argue, but I have to say that I will always find it mesmerizing.

That’s a wrap 74 shows down. 31 to go.

Coming Soon: Taxi Driver (1976)


Oh, boy. Anyone who’s seen this movie knows that it contains every ounce of dark despair that the mid-1970s United States could muster. It’s also an incredible piece of film making, and the first of three Martin Scorsese movies on the list. Come on back in about a week or so to see what I make of my return to the sad tale of Travis Bickle.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.