“Barry was one of those born clever enough at gaining a fortune, but incapable of keeping one, for the qualities and energies which lead a man to achieve the first are often the very cause of his ruin in the latter case.”
My father proudly displayed in our living room Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808.” The painting is very graphic – depicting Spanish resistance soldiers being massacred by Napoleon’s armies during the occupation of 1808. I spent a lot of time as a very young boy staring at the painting and being horrified by it. In the center of it, there’s a man who’s about to meet his fate – his hands raised while at his feet lay the bloodied bodies of his dead colleagues. I would tell myself how fortunate he was to have been frozen in time, the way that he was spared from death – and then, there were days I would ponder that it was ultimately prolonging his suffering. Regardless, I ultimately started to be aware of the role of the painter. Goya’s composition and manipulation of what he portrayed for us to see had an existential quality – capturing an act and immobilizing it for future generations. At that early age, it crossed my mind that the painting, its subject – and the artist’s control over it was emblematic of our existence – of fate.
Right around this time, in 1975, my dad took my brother and I to see Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” – and this three-hour film hit me like a ton of bricks. All the above ideas and musings about the absurdity of life and encapsulating it in a work of art – and the role of an artist – were being displayed on the screen. As I share this with you, I realize that I sat in the movie theatre having thoughts and ideas that a twelve-year old should not be having – but I was exhilarated to feel some form of validation. It was my earliest understanding and feeling of the creative hand of the filmmaker. After the three hour movie ended I remembered my dad commenting that it was a beautiful movie but that it was too long. My older brother was in love with the sensuality of Marissa Berenson.
Like a lot of Kubrick’s films, “Barry Lyndon” has grown in stature with the passage of time. Many critics complained about its length, its cold approach and some condemned it as self-conscious and pretentious. It’s my favorite Kubrick film. I begged my dad to take me to see it on the big screen several times while it was still playing – and I wish I could see it again in that manner. I recently sat and watched it on my nice system at home – and as good as that is – this epic film demands to be seen in the biggest format possible. It’s masterful – igniting in me a deep well of emotion and thought. The last card that appears on the film – the Epilogue – is a profound statement that is matched by everything that precedes it. “It was in the reign of George II that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.”
It is based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon” published in 1844. During the Victorian era, Thackeray was a very popular author second to Charles Dickens. Today he’s mostly known for “Vanity Fair.” “Barry Lyndon” follows the adventures of an Irish rake and fortune hunter called Redmond Barry and his rise from the low social class to the heights of a corrupt English aristocracy achieved by his wits – and his precipitous fall.
Kubrick made a major change to the novel. Instead of it being a first-hand account, we get a narrator – a god-like figure – who moves the story along – emphasizing the irony and the inevitability of Barry’s destiny. “Fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him, and that he should finish his life poor, lonely and childless,” the narrator tells us.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you this is one of the most beautiful movies you will ever see. Kubrick went to painstaking lengths to recreate the 18th century as it was portrayed in paintings by William Hogarth. The composition emphasizes the figures against the landscape – and he uses wide angle long shots that amplify the sense of small figures in the larger context of life. Notice the amount of space they have above them – the intrinsic weight of the landscape. He uses reverse zooms as a constant motif – in which a scene will start zeroed in on a particular close-up and the camera will pull back to show you the magnitude of the world around it. This mirrors the way you admire a big painting – by focusing on the particular and then receding to take it all in. The nighttime, candlelit sequences were shot with ultra-fast lenses to allow natural light. The costumes, the sets, the colors are all a sight to behold. Ryan O’Neal is perfect as the unheroic main character.
Kubrick frames his story with three ludicrous duels that mark the fate of Lyndon. Having lost his father early on in his life he encounters all these different father figures in the first half of the film – one of them is Captain Grogan. His death in the arms of Lyndon is one of the most demonstrative scenes — debunking the accusations that Kubrick is distanced and unemotional. “Kiss me me boy for we’ll never meet again,” says Captaing Grogan. Ironically Lyndon’s demise comes from being unfatherly to his stepson Lord Bullingdon.
Sir Charles Bullingdon: “He wants to step into my shoes. He wants to step into my shoes.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and to rent on Amazon Prime, iTunes, FandangoNOW, Microsoft, Redbox, Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu and DIRECTV.
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick
Based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Starring Ryan O’Neal, Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Krüger, Diana Koerner and Gay Hamilton
Bringing “Barry Lyndon” to the Screen
The screenplay was based on an obscure novel by William Makepeace Thackeray called “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” which was itself inspired by the true story of Anglo-Irish adventurer Andrew Robinson Stoney, a soldier, gambler, dueller and social climber whose attempts to mount the greasy pole of English society ended in ignominious failure. Telling this story would require pristine countryside as well as a series of grand 18th-century buildings and interiors: Ireland was quickly settled on as an ideal and convenient location. The making of “Barry Lyndon” would also require a lot of money – Kubrick’s budget started big and eventually swelled to a (for the time) whopping $11million. And Warners would only agree to finance his decidedly un-commercial project if he cast a major box-office star. Robert Redford and Ryan O’Neal were the two obvious candidates: both were the right age to play Lyndon, and both had strong Irish heritage. Kubrick asked Redford, but he said no, so O’Neal got the part. ((independent.ie))
The Making of “Barry Lyndon”
Stanley, his cast and crew arrived in Dublin in May, 1973, and though they did shoot one scene in Bray’s Ardmore Studios, they spent almost all their time on location. “Our base was Waterford,” remembers Jan Harlan, “and then we went to Thomastown, Carrick-on-Suir, Ballynatray, that whole area, they were beautiful locations and landscapes. We had a wonderful time in Ireland. Hard work, though!” The Barry Lyndon crew gained access to some pretty special locations, and filmed in both Dublin Castle and the old Powerscourt House, which would be destroyed by a fire just months after they filmed there. As always, Stanley insisted on retakes until he got the shot he wanted, and one scene where Barry Lyndon approaches his unfortunate bride-to-be Lady Honoria for the first time took over 100 takes. “Well, he would be very slow, that’s very true,” says Harlan. “He was incredibly careful, he shot for a long time and shot an enormous amount of footage. But you know, so what! He wanted to get it right.” On Barry Lyndon, his perfectionism was exacerbated by the challenges of filming lavish period interiors using only candlelight. Kubrick and his cinematographer, John Alcott, solved the problems of focus and definition in very low lighting by adapting a special Zeiss lens that had originally been developed by NASA for satellite photography, and rebuilding a movie camera to house it.
The Zeiss lens had a huge aperture and was very fast, and when used in Kubrick’s candlelit 18th-century interiors, created a beautiful and almost two-dimensional painterly effect, designed to mirror the work of Thomas Gainsborough and others. It looked great, but radically reduced the depth of field, posing big problems for Kubrick’s technicians and actors. “You couldn’t move around, you could barely stand up, you know,” Jan Harlan explains. “It all had to be carefully rehearsed. If you moved your head forward five inches you’re totally out of focus. That’s why they sometimes look a little bit stiff! “The background almost didn’t matter, it just had to have good colours, but we knew it was all totally out of focus. It didn’t matter, because the paintings of the time were also a little bit not sharp. But you had to get the lips and the eyes sharp, because that’s where people look. And that sometimes left you with a depth of field of only two to three inches. The candlelight photography was a real pain, but on the other hand it looked gorgeous. It would be a walk in the park today with all the new technology, but it wouldn’t look the same.” If Kubrick pushed himself hard, he expected similar levels of commitment from his actors. When former model Marisa Berenson was hired to play Lady Honoria, she was ordered to stay out of the sun for three months in order to look sufficiently pale. She was on screen for almost 15 minutes before she got to say anything, and was only given 13 lines of dialogue. Ryan O’Neal later commented that Kubrick “shoots a lot of takes, and you don’t get a stand-in. We shot for something like 350 days, and afterwards, they had to carry me away.” (independent.ie)
About Author William Makepeace Thackeray
Perhaps best known as a novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray was born in Calcutta, India, in 1811. His father died when he was five, and Thackeray was sent to England to be educated. He eventually attended the Charterhouse School—infamous for its discipline—and Trinity College, Cambridge, which he left after two years. After traveling to the continent and leading a life of socializing and gambling, he worked as a freelance journalist, submitting work to Punch, the Times, and other publications. Some of his novels were also published in serialized form in magazines. He wrote travel books, among them “The Paris Sketch Book” (1840) and “From Cornhill to Grand Cairo” (1844), and novels, including “Vanity Fair” (1847–48), “Pendennis” (1848–50), “The Newcomes” (1853–55), and “The Virginians” (1857–59). Thackeray’s wife suffered from depression, and in later life, he was frequently occupied with searching for a cure for her illness and raising their two children. Thackeray first wrote poetry while he was a student at Trinity. He wrote occasional poems, ballads, comic poems, and parodies, and some of his poems were published in Punch. In “On the Art of Thackeray,” H.N. Wethered noted that Thackeray “set the fashion for a type of light accomplished society verse which was remarkable for its vigour, daintiness and sense of rhythm.” Thackeray died, unexpectedly, in London in 1863. (poetryfoundation.org)
Editor Tony Lawson on “Barry Lyndon”
“…I think that in the film community, everyone believes—and to a large extent it’s still true—that you have to compose to the film, with one or two exceptions, like Martin Scorsese, the supreme exponent of taking prerecorded music and putting it to good effect in his films. But Stanley was, obviously, [an exception] too. He knew how to exploit every last emotional drop of energy from a piece of music, in terms of marrying it to the image and the story. Even the ordinary marches, they really were very emotional pieces. They really delivered a way of getting straight to the point of the scene. When we were recording the marching, the British tune [“The British Grenadiers”] that everybody marches to at various points, we had a click track, which was a horrible sound, a really aggressive, horrible sound. We were recording the drummers—four or five snare drummers—and we needed a bigger sound, so they were multi-tracked, several times. Stanley refused to allow [arranger] Leonard Rosenman, once he’d [recorded] the first part, to use the drums as the guide track, rather than the click track. Stanley said he must use the click track, because it’s perfect. By the third or fourth take, Leonard was bursting with anger. He stormed off the stage and Stanley had to go get him back and calm him down. It was wonderful, Stanley being so precise that it’s got to be exactly like the click track, and Leonard knowing that you don’t need it, once you’ve got one set of drums. But neither would give way. It was one of those startling moments where you suddenly realize characters come through in their behavior.” (filmcomment.com)
About Cinematographer John Alcott
A highly-acclaimed cinematographer, especially noted for his four collaborations with Stanley Kubrick, John Alcott emigrated to the USA in 1980 and became one of the most sought after directors of photography. He also started a lucrative second career directing and shooting TV commercials. The London native broke into films in the 1960s as what the British call a “focus puller” (a first assistant cameraperson in the USA). Alcott worked on various camera crews until 1968 when he was given a chance to shoot several scenes for Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” By 1971, he was Kubrick’s cinematographer of choice, working on “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “Barry Lyndon” (1975), for which he won an Oscar, and “The Shining” (1980). Alcott was known for his keen ability to give even the most horrific tale a high degree of visual attractiveness and beauty without detracting from the story. For example, his work on “The Shining” includes numerous daytime and nighttime shots set in a bush-enclosed maze. These scenes, particularly the snow-bound ones, appear as if painted on canvas–stark and vivid, the coldness being blown by a arctic wind from the screen, despite the terror displayed within them. Even Jack Nicholson’s son appears as if painted by Gainsborough, with hints of “The Blue Boy” in the lighting and framing. Alcott had evoked Gainsborough, Corot and Watteau in his award-winning work on “Barry Lyndon.” Shot throughout Europe, this 19th Century period piece included gorgeous tableaux, including several shot by candlelight and finely lensed battle sequences. While “A Clockwork Orange” worked as analytic cubism, “Fort Apache: The Bronx” (1981), despite its raw feel, at times could have been an urban mural as the characters seem placed in a backdrop of which they are prisoners not of their making. Alcott turned “The Beastmaster” (1982) into a colorful fantasy and “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984) into the green-hued world lacking in the old black and white films, a canvas in which the humidity melts on the screen. The Kevin Costner spy vehicle, “No Way Out” (1987), was dedicated to Alcott, as it was his last work before his death of a heart attack earlier that year. (tcm.com)
About Writer and Director Stanley Kubrick
Born in New York City in 1928, Kubrick took up photography in high school and became a staff photographer for Look magazine at age 17. A photo assignment on boxing inspired him to make “The Day of the Fight,” a short documentary film about boxing, in 1951. The short was bought by a news service, and he made two more documentaries before making a short feature-length film, “Fear and Desire” (1953), which dealt with war. The movie, produced independently, received little attention outside New York, where critics praised Kubrick’s directorial talents. Kubrick’s next two feature films, “Killer’s Kiss” (1955) and “The Killing” (1956), brought him to the attention of Hollywood, and in 1957 he directed actor Kirk Douglas in “Paths of Glory,” a story of military injustice in the French army during World War I. Douglas later enlisted Kubrick to take over production of “Spartacus” (1960), a historical epic about the slave rebellion led by the Roman slave “Spartacus” in 73 B.C. The film was a box office smash and won four Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, which was attributed to Russell Metty but was largely Kubrick’s work. Behind the scenes, the director’s characteristic obsession with detail created some tension with the cast and crew.
After “Spartacus,” he moved permanently to England, where he directed “Lolita” (1962), based on the controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov. Two years later, Kubrick scored another major critical and commercial hit with “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, “Dr. Strangelove” was a dark comedy about the nuclear arms race that earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (Peter Sellers). Kubrick spent four years working on his next film, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), co-written with English writer Arthur C. Clarke. Now widely regarded as the greatest science fiction film ever made, “2001: A Space Odyssey” won Kubrick a well-deserved Best Visual Effects Academy Award. Kubrick followed up 2001 with “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), a controversial social commentary set in the near future. It was given an X rating in the United States for its extreme violence and banned in the United Kingdom, but nonetheless received four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Barry Lyndon (1975) was a picturesque movie based on the 19th-century novel by William Thackeray. Kubrick, who had become famous for his perfectionist tendencies, took a record 300 days just to shoot the film. “The Shining” (1980), starring Jack Nicholson as the caretaker of a mountain resort who goes insane, was hailed as a masterpiece of the horror genre. “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) addressed the Vietnam War and was another critical and commercial success. In 1997, after a 10-year absence from filmmaking, Kubrick began work on “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999), an enigmatic thriller starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. The director died soon after turning in his final cut of the film. (history.com)