In recent years, it has come to be regarded not only as one of Kubrick's finest films, but indeed as a classic of world cinema. It was part of Time magazine's poll of the 100 best films as well as the Village Voice poll conducted in 1999 and was ranked #27 in 2002 in a poll of film critics conducted by Sight and Sound. Director Martin Scorsese has cited Barry Lyndon as his favorite Kubrick movie. Quotations from it appeared in such disparate works as Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, Lars von Trier's Dogville and Wes Anderson's Rushmore.
Kubrick was also interested in Thackeray's Vanity Fair but dropped the project when a serialised version for television was produced. He told an interviewer:
The film did not do well at the box office in the United States, but it was a hit in Europe. This mixed reaction factored in Kubrick's filming of Stephen King's The Shining — a project that would not only please him artistically, but also succeed financially.
In the opening scene, set in 1750s Ireland, the father of Irishman Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is killed in a duel over the sale of some horses. The widow (Marie Kean), disdaining offers of marriage, devotes herself to the raising of her son.
When Barry is a young man, he falls in love with his cousin, Nora Brady (Gay Hamilton). She likes him well enough to seduce him, but when the well-off English Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter) appears on the scene, the poverty-stricken Barry is quickly dropped. She and her whole family are set on relieving their financial difficulties with an advantageous marriage. Barry refuses to accept the situation and (seemingly) kills Quin in a duel.
Fleeing the law, Barry travels towards Dublin, but is robbed by a famous highwayman, Captain Feeney (Arthur O'Sullivan), and his son Seamus (Billy Boyle), leaving Barry little choice but to join the British army. Later, he is reunited with a family friend, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley), who informs him that the duel was faked. Barry's pistol was not loaded with a real bullet, but one made with tow, and Quin was only stunned. It was staged so as to get him out of the way, so the cowardly Quin could be coaxed into marrying Nora, thereby securing the family's financial situation.
Barry's regiment is sent to fight in the Seven Years' War in Europe. During one skirmish, Grogan is fatally wounded, and Barry deserts at the first opportunity, impersonating a courier. He spends a few pleasant days with Lischen (Diana Körner), a lonely woman whose husband is away fighting. When he resumes his journey, he encounters a Prussian captain, Potzdorf (Hardy Krüger), who sees through his disguise. Given the choice of joining the Prussian army or being taken for a deserter, Barry enlists in his second army. During one battle, he saves Potzdorf's life.
After the war ends in 1763, Barry is employed by the Prussian Minister of Police, Potzdorf's uncle. It is arranged for him to become the servant of the Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), a professional gambler. The Prussians suspect that he is a spy and Barry is assigned to try to determine if he is. However, when Barry finds out the chevalier is a fellow Irishman, he confesses all to him and they become confederates. Barry assists the chevalier in cheating at card games, but when the Prince of Tübingen (Wolf Kahler) suspects the truth after losing a large sum, they are unceremoniously expelled from Prussia. They wander from place to place, cheating the nobles. Barry proves to be very useful; when a loser refuses to pay his debts, Barry's excellent swordsmanship convinces him otherwise.
Hardened by his experiences, Barry decides to better himself by marrying well. During the course of his travels, he encounters the beautiful and wealthy Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). Barry has little difficulty seducing her. Her sickly husband, Sir Charles Lyndon (Frank Middlemass) dies; the following year (1773), she and Barry are married.
Young Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage), Lady Lyndon's son by Sir Charles, hates Barry from the beginning. The marriage is not a happy one, although they welcome a new son, Bryan Patrick. Barry enjoys himself and is unfaithful to his wife while keeping her in dull seclusion.
Barry brings his mother over from Ireland to live with him. She warns her son that his position is precarious. If Lady Lyndon were to die, all her wealth would go to her son Lord Bullingdon (now a young man played by Leon Vitali); Barry would be left penniless. Barry's mother advises him to obtain a noble title to protect himself. He cultivates the acquaintance of the influential Lord Wendover (André Morell) with this goal in mind, spending much money to grease his way. All this effort is wasted however. One day, Lord Bullingdon announces his hatred of his stepfather and is beaten by Barry in front of many important guests. Bullingdon leaves the family estate after this. Barry's public cruelty loses him all the powerful friends he has worked so hard to make and he is shunned socially.
As badly as he has treated his stepson, Barry proves to be a doting father to Bryan. However, when he is eight, the boy is thrown from a horse and soon dies. The grief-stricken Barry turns to drink, while Lady Lyndon seeks solace from religion, assisted by the Reverend Samuel Runt (Murray Melvin), tutor first to Lord Bullingdon and then to Bryan. Barry's mother dismisses Reverend Runt partly because they no longer need a tutor, partly for fear that his influence is only making Lady Lyndon worse. Plunging even deeper into grief, she attempts suicide. Upon hearing of this, Lord Bullingdon returns and challenges Barry to a duel.
A coin flip gives Bullingdon the privilege of shooting first, but his pistol misfires. Barry fires into the ground, but Bullingdon refuses to let the duel end here. He fires again, this time hitting Barry in the leg, which has to be amputated at the knee.
While Barry is recovering, Bullingdon takes control of the estate. He offers his stepfather an annuity of 500 guineas if he leaves England; otherwise, with his credit exhausted, his creditors will see to it that he is put in jail. Wounded in spirit and body, Barry accepts. He goes first to Ireland with his mother, then to the European continent to resume his former profession of gambler, though without his former success. He never sees Lady Lyndon again. The final scene (set in 1789) shows the middle-aged Lady Lyndon signing Barry's annuity check.
|Ryan O'Neal||Barry Lyndon|
|Marisa Berenson||Lady Lyndon|
|Patrick Magee||The Chevalier de Balibari|
|Hardy Krüger||Capt. Potzdorf|
|Gay Hamilton||Nora Brady|
|Godfrey Quigley||Captain Grogan|
|Steven Berkoff||Lord Ludd|
|Marie Kean||Belle, Barry's mother|
|Murray Melvin||Rev. Samuel Runt|
|Frank Middlemass||Sir Charles Reginald Lyndon|
|Leon Vitali||Lord Bullingdon|
|Leonard Rossiter||Capt. John Quinn|
|André Morell||Lord Wendover|
|David Morley||Bryan Patrick Lyndon|
|Diana Körner||Lischen (German Girl)|
|Dominic Savage||Young Bullingdon|
|Arthur O'Sullivan||Capt. Feeny|
|Billy Boyle||Seamus Feeny|
|Anthony Sharp||Lord Hallam|
Leonard Rosenman won a 1975 Academy Award for Best Musical Score for adapting the various pieces of baroque and classical music. Ironically, years later, Rosenman expressed bittersweet memories (both of this movie and of Kubrick): "He would shoot take after take needlessly. He just didn't know what he was looking for, until after he found it. Still, he's one of the best friends I've ever had or will have, and I told him so. Thus, for the sake of that friendship, we both agreed never to work together on the same movie again for as long as we lived." (They never did.)
The film is famous for its cinematography, which was overseen by director of photography John Alcott (who won an Oscar for his work), and for the technical innovations that made some of its most spectacular images possible.
Alcott used three lenses developed by Zeiss for NASA for use in the Apollo moon landings, which Kubrick discovered in his search for a lens that could film in low-light situations. The super-fast lens allowed him to shoot scenes lit with actual candlelight with an average lighting volume of only three candlepower. In fact, the film features the largest lens aperture in film history.
Most shots, however, were achieved with conventional lenses but were lit in a way that mimics natural light. This has the dual result of making the lighting seem more realistic and giving a look to the film similar to 18th century paintings (because, of course, painters of the period were depicting a world devoid of electric lighting). For example, to light a room, rather than placing the lights inside as would be done in a conventional movie, the lights were placed outside and aimed through the windows, which were covered in a diffuse material to scatter the light evenly through the room. Not only did this give the look of natural daylight coming in through the windows, it also protected the historic locations from the damage caused by mounting the lights on walls or ceilings and the heat from the lights. One telltale sign of this method occurs in the scene where Barry duels Lord Bullingdon. Though it appears to be lit entirely with natural light, one can see that the light coming in through the cross-shaped windows in the barn appears blue in color, while the main lighting of the scene coming in from the side is not. This is because the light through the cross-shaped windows is daylight from the sun, which when recorded on the film stock used by Kubrick showed up as blue-tinted compared to the incandescent electric light coming in from the side.
Principal photography took 300 days, from spring 1973 through early 1974, with a break for Christmas.
The source novel is written by Lyndon while imprisoned looking back on his life. Lyndon is a notable example of the literary device of the unreliable narrator – throughout the novel the reader is constantly asked to question the veracity of the events described by him. Although later editions dropped the frame device of FitzBoodle's (Thackeray's pseudonym) editions, it is crucial in unmasking Lyndon's narcissism through occasional notes inserted at the bottom of the page noting information that is contradictory or inconsistent in relation to what Lyndon writes elsewhere. Andrew Sanders mentions in his introduction for the Oxford Classics edition, these annotations were relevant to the novel as an ingenious narrative device as Thackeray constantly invites the reader to question Lyndon's version of the events.
Kubrick however felt that using a first-person narrative would not be useful in a film adaptation :
As in the case of most literary adaptations, Kubrick shortens or in some cases omits characters who were significant in the novel. The time period constituting his escape from the Prussian army to his marriage is given greater detail in the novel than the film.
It's also interesting to note that the film ends much before the novel's ending. At the end of the film, Barry Lyndon survives with an amputated leg from a duel (an incident absent in the novel) and returns to his gambling lifestyle with lesser success while Lady Lyndon pays the debts accumulated during her marriage to Barry, including the sum promised to Redmond in return for leaving the country. Though these events occur in the novel as well, it also shows that upon Lady Lyndon's death, the sum promised to Barry is cancelled and he becomes destitute eventually winding up in prison for his confidence schemes. It is at this place where Barry writes his memoirs, which end noting that he has to 'eke out a miserable existence, quite unworthy of the famous and fashionable Barry Lyndon'.
At this point Fitz-Boodle writes an epilogue of sorts about Barry's final days, where his only visitor is his mother. He dies after spending nineteen years in prison.
Thackeray based the novel on the life and exploits of the Irish rakehell and fortunehunter Andrew Robinson Stoney, who married (and subsequently was divorced by) Mary Eleanor Bowes, the Countess of Strathmore, who became known as "The Unhappy Countess" due to the tempestuous liaison. The Countess of Strathmore is one of the ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II.
The revised version, which is the novel that the world generally knows as Barry Lyndon, was shorter and tighter than the original serialization, and dropped the FitzBoodle, Ed. device. It generally is considered the first "novel without a hero" or novel with an antihero in the English language. Upon its publication in 1856, it was entitled by Thackeray's publisher The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. Of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim.
Barry Lyndon departs from its source novel in several ways. In Thackeray’s writings, events are related in the first person by Barry himself. A comic tone pervades the work, as Barry proves both a raconteur and an unreliable narrator. Kubrick’s film, by contrast, presents the story objectively. Though the film contains voice-over (by actor Michael Hordern), the comments expressed are not Barry's, but those of an omniscient, although not entirely impartial, narrator. This change in perspective alters the tone of the story; Thackeray tells a jaunty, humorous tale, but Kubrick's telling is essentially tragic, with many subtle humorous jabs toward 18th century society, such as how Barry tries to learn the correct behavior for a gentleman, and pays a huge price when he does so.
Kubrick also changed the plot. The novel does not include a final duel. By adding this episode, Kubrick establishes dueling as the film’s central motif. The movie begins with a duel where Barry’s father is shot dead, and duels recur throughout the film. Also, in Thackeray's novel, the Chevalier de Balibari (played by Patrick Magee in the film) is Barry's long-lost uncle, and by marrying into the Lyndons, Barry intends to regain his family fortune (his ancestors were dispossessed by the Lyndons). In the film, Kubrick eliminated these familial connections from the story.
Kubrick won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Direction. John Alcott won for Best Cinematography. Barry Lyndon was also nominated for Best Film, Art Direction, and Costume Design.