in Oscars Fortnight, Review

Barry Lyndon (1975)

The 48th Academy Awards (1976)
Nominations: 7
Wins: 4

I should hate this movie. It’s an English-period piece. It’s 3 hours long. It has Ryan “Oh God, Oh Man, Oh God” O’Neal. Yet against all odds, I loved it! It’s kind of a boring take to say it’s because Stanley Kubrick is a genius but there is a magic touch he brings to everything he touches.

What I like about Barry Lyndon is that it’s a scrappy American take on an English story. It’s engaging and exciting and funny. It’s beautiful to look at. It’s a great story with a great character (even with Ryan O’Neal playing him). Kubrick knew how to bring out the best in any actor. And even though it’s a 3-hour movie. I’d watch it again.

Barry Lyndon, shares a few interesting similarities with the last film I selected, Ben-Hur. Both are based on novels from the 1880s—in this case, the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray—both are about men who find themselves under control of the enemies at one point, and both are epic adventures. The difference is Barry Lyndon is a real piece of shit. Though that’s what makes the character great. Barry is petty, he lies, and on the rare occasion where he tries to do the right thing is screwed. Most of all, he’s believable as an Irish rogue who will do anything to get ahead in life.

The movie starts with Barry being in love with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) who plans on marrying a well-off British military Captain (Leonard Rossiter) to help the family. But no, Barry doesn’t like that, so he challenges the Captain to a duel, and let me tell ya, these duels are almost reason enough to watch the movie. See these are olden times so dueling basically meant you stand like ten feet apart and then each guy fires with their shitty gun that misses easily and can’t even be guaranteed to kill your opponent. The fear you see in these characters’ eyes in the leadup to these duels is palpable. Spread that on toast, man. Or maybe an English Muffin.

Barry goes through with the duel and shoots the Captain. Though fearful of repercussions he flees his village. What makes this event even better is we learn Nora’s family loaded the guns with a non-lethal material to ensure the Captain would be fine and to get Barry to fuck off. So even when Barry believes he’s a badass, he’s undermined.

From here we follow Barry in a stint with the British military (he flees), we see him try to pretend to be a high ranking officer to get past some Prussian soldiers (he fails and is forced into the Prussian military), and even after he becomes respected in the Prussian army, he betrays them on his first solo mission joining forces with a cheating pro gambler (Patrick Magee) he was supposed to spy on.

Nobody can trust Barry to ever do the right thing but he isn’t always rewarded in the way he wants. He does eventually become an aristocrat by marrying a wealthy widow (Marisa Berenson) but even then he has trouble maintaining his wealth due to bad investments. Even worse is his relationship with Lady Lyndon’s son Lord Bullingdon (played as a child by Dominic Savage and as an adult by longtime Kubrick collaborator Leon Vitali).

The reason this three-hour movie is never boring is because of all the roadblocks Barry faces on his quest for power. That and the fact that a film is a technical marvel. I think it’s well known at this point that Barry Lyndon’s painterly visual style was because cinematographer John Alcott (who won an Oscar for this movie) only used candles and natural light for the entire film. This effect was made possible because of cutting-edge lenses developed by NASA. Which I assume Stanley also used when he filmed the moon landing. 😉

The film looks and sounds great but I think a great deal of credit also has to go to the cast. It’s interesting to see what kind of casts Kubrick put together considering how few films he made post-2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick loved to use eclectic character actors to fill out supporting roles. R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket comes to mind. Or having two directors (Todd Field and Sydney Pollack) in prominent roles in Eyes Wide Shut.

The greatest find in the cast of Barry Lyndon is Leon Vitali as Barry’s arrogant and defiant step-son Lord Bullingdon. My favorite moment in the entire film is when Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel and misfires his gun trying to load it. He’s that pathetic. I love it.

Ryan O’Neal has gotten a lot of flack for this performance but I don’t think it hurts the movie. Actually, the fact that O’Neal was an arrogant meathead in real-life pairs nicely with the stubbornness of Barry Lyndon. Also, it sounds like Kubrick was kind of forced into a corner by the studio when it came to casting the lead. Despite his affinity for character actors, he wasn’t opposed to casting huge names in the lead roles like Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Jack Nicholson, Kirk Douglas, etc.

It’s fascinating how consistent Kubrick was whether he was making a war movie or a comedy or a horror movie. He approached each genre with the same attention to detail. He could have made a movie about anything. He could make a movie about this shitty review and it would be a classic. I just hope he doesn’t cast Ryan O’Neal as me… Actually, he’d probably make that work.