At the 1975 Academy Awards, the film won four Oscars in production categories. Although having had a modest commercial success and a mixed reception from critics on release, Barry Lyndon is today regarded as one of Kubrick's finest films. In numerous polls, including those of Village Voice (1999), Sight & Sound (2002, 2012), Time (2005) and BBC, it has been named one of the greatest films ever made.
By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon
An omniscient (though possibly unreliable) narrator relates that in 1750s Ireland, the father of Redmond Barry is killed in a duel over a sale of some horses. The widow, disdaining offers of marriage, devotes herself to her only son.
As a despondent young man, Barry becomes infatuated with his older cousin, Nora Brady. Though she charms him during a card game, she later shows interest in a well-off British Army captain, John Quin, much to Barry's dismay. Nora and her family plan to leverage their finances through marriage, while Barry holds Quin in contempt and escalates the situation until a fateful duel beside a river when Barry shoots Quin. In the aftermath, Barry is urged to flee from incoming police and head through the countryside towards Dublin, but along the way he is robbed of purse, pistol, and horse by Captain Feeney, an infamous highwayman.
Dejected, Barry carries on to the next town, where he hears a promotional spiel to join the British Army, offering the chance at fame and glory (and a lifelong pension) in return for good service. Barry enlists. Some time after joining the regiment, Barry encounters Captain Grogan, a warm-hearted family friend. Grogan informs him that Barry did not in fact kill Quin, his dueling pistol having only been loaded with tow. The duel was staged by Nora's family to be rid of Barry so that their finances would be secured through a lucrative marriage.
Barry’s regiment is sent to Germany to fight in the Seven Years' War, where Captain Grogan is fatally wounded by the French in a skirmish at the Battle of Minden. Fed up with the war, Barry deserts the army, stealing an officer courier's uniform, horse, and identification papers. En route to neutral Holland he encounters the Prussian Captain Potzdorf, who, seeing through his disguise, offers him the choice of being turned back over to the British where he will be shot as a deserter, or enlisting in the Prussian Army. Barry enlists in his second army and later receives a special commendation from Frederick the Great for saving Potzdorf's life in a battle.
Two years later, after the war ends in 1763, Barry is employed by Captain Potzdorf's uncle in the Prussian Ministry of Police to become the servant of the Chevalier de Balibari, an expatriate Irishman and professional gambler. The Prussians suspect he is a spy and send Barry as an undercover agent to verify this. Barry reveals himself to the Chevalier right away and they become confederates at the card table, where Barry and his fine eyesight relay information to his partner. After he and the Chevalier cheat the Prince of Tübingen at the card table, the Prince accuses the Chevalier (without proof) and refuses to pay his debt and demands satisfaction. When Barry relays this to his Prussian handlers, they (still suspecting that the Chevalier is a spy) are wary of allowing another meeting between the Chevalier and the Prince. So, the Prussians arrange for the Chevalier to be expelled from the country. Barry conveys this plan to the Chevalier, who flees in the night. The next morning, Barry, under disguise as the Chevalier, is escorted from Prussian territory by Prussian army officers.
Over the next few years, Barry and the Chevalier travel the spas and parlors of Europe, profiting from their gambling with Barry forcing payment from reluctant debtors with sword duels. Seeing that his life is going nowhere, Barry decides to marry into wealth. At a gambling table in Spa, he encounters the beautiful and wealthy Countess of Lyndon. He seduces and later marries her after the death of her elderly husband, Sir Charles Lyndon.Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon
In 1773, Barry takes the Countess' last name in marriage and settles in England to enjoy her wealth, still with no money of his own. Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon's ten-year-old son by Sir Charles, does not approve of the marriage and quickly comes to despise Barry, calling him a 'common opportunist' who does not truly love his mother. Barry retaliates by subjecting Bullingdon to systematic physical abuse.
The Countess bears Barry a son, Bryan Patrick, but the marriage is unhappy: Barry is openly unfaithful and enjoys spending his wife's money on self-indulgent luxuries, while keeping his wife in seclusion.
Some years later, Barry's mother comes to live with him at the Lyndon estate. She warns her son that if Lady Lyndon were to die, all her wealth would go to her first-born son Lord Bullingdon, leaving Barry and his son Bryan penniless. Barry's mother advises him to obtain a noble title to protect himself. To further this goal, he cultivates the acquaintance of the influential Lord Wendover and begins to expend even larger sums of money to ingratiate himself to high society. All this effort is wasted, however, during a birthday party for Lady Lyndon. A now young adult Lord Bullingdon crashes the event where he publicly enumerates the reasons that he detests his stepfather so dearly, declaring it his intent to leave the family estate for as long as Barry remains there and married to his mother. Seething with hatred, Barry savagely assaults Bullingdon until he is pulled off by the guests. This loses Barry all the wealthy and powerful friends he has worked so hard to entreat and he is cast out of polite society. Nevertheless, Bullingdon makes good on his word by leaving the estate and England itself for parts unknown.
In contrast to his mistreatment of his stepson, Barry proves an overindulgent and doting father to Bryan, with whom he spends all his time after Bullingdon's departure. He cannot refuse his son anything, and succumbs to Bryan's insistence on receiving a full-grown horse for his ninth birthday. The spoiled Bryan disobeys his parents' direct instructions that Bryan ride the horse only in the presence of his father, is thrown by the horse, is paralyzed, and dies a few days later from his injuries.
The grief-stricken Barry turns to alcohol, while Lady Lyndon seeks solace in religion, assisted by the Reverend Samuel Runt, who had been tutor first to Lord Bullingdon and then to Bryan. Left in charge of the families' affairs while Barry and Lady Lyndon grieve, Barry's mother dismisses the Reverend, both because the family no longer needs (nor can afford, due to Barry's spending debts) a tutor and for fear that his influence worsens Lady Lyndon's condition. Plunging even deeper into grief, Lady Lyndon later attempts suicide (though she ingests only enough poison to make herself ill). The Reverend and the family's accountant Graham then seek out Lord Bullingdon. Upon hearing of these events, Lord Bullingdon returns to England where he finds Barry drunk in a gentlemen's club, mourning the loss of his son rather than being with Lady Lyndon. Bullingdon demands satisfaction for Barry's public assault, challenging him to a duel.
The duel with pistols is held in a tithe barn. A coin-toss gives Bullingdon the right of first fire, but he nervously misfires his pistol as he prepares to shoot. Barry, reluctant to shoot Bullingdon, magnanimously fires into the ground, but the unmoved Bullingdon refuses to let the duel end, claiming he has not received "satisfaction". In the second round, Bullingdon shoots Barry in his left leg. At a nearby inn, a surgeon informs Barry that the leg will need to be amputated below the knee if he is to survive.
While Barry is recovering, Bullingdon re-takes control of the Lyndon estate. A few days later, Lord Bullingdon sends a very nervous Graham to the inn with a proposition: Lord Bullingdon will grant Barry an annuity of five hundred guineas a year on the condition that he leave England, with payments ending the moment should Barry ever return. Otherwise, with his credit and bank accounts exhausted, Barry's creditors and bill collectors will assuredly see that he is jailed. Defeated in mind and body, Barry accepts.
The narrator states that Barry went first back to Ireland with his mother, then to the European continent to resume his former profession of gambler (though without his former success). Barry kept his word and never returned to England or ever saw Lady Lyndon again. The final scene (set in December 1789) shows a middle-aged Lady Lyndon signing Barry's annuity cheque as her son looks on.It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.
Critic Tim Robey suggests that the film "makes you realise that the most undervalued aspect of Kubrick's genius could well be his way with actors." He adds that the supporting cast is a "glittering procession of cameos, not from star names but from vital character players."
The cast featured Leon Vitali as the older Lord Bullingdon, who would then become Kubrick's personal assistant, working as the casting director on his following films, and supervising film-to-video transfers for Kubrick. Their relationship lasted until Kubrick's death. The film's cinematographer, John Alcott, appears at the men's club in the non-speaking role of the man asleep in a chair near the title character when Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel. Kubrick's daughter Vivian also appears (in an uncredited role) as a guest at Bryan's birthday party.
Kubrick stalwarts Patrick Magee (who had played the handicapped writer in A Clockwork Orange) and Philip Stone (who had played Alex's father in the same film, and would go on to play the dead caretaker Grady in The Shining) are featured as the Chevalier du Balibari and as Graham, respectively.
After 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick made plans for a film about Napoleon. During pre-production, however, Sergei Bondarchuk and Dino De Laurentiis' Waterloo was released and subsequently failed at the box office. As a result, Kubrick's financiers pulled their funding for the film and he turned his attention to his next film, A Clockwork Orange. Subsequently, Kubrick showed an interest in Thackeray's Vanity Fair but dropped the project when a serialised version for television was produced. He told an interviewer, "At one time, Vanity Fair interested me as a possible film but, in the end, I decided the story could not be successfully compressed into the relatively short time-span of a feature film...as soon as I read Barry Lyndon I became very excited about it."
Having garnered Oscar nominations for Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick's reputation in the early 1970s was that of "a perfectionist auteur who loomed larger over his movies than any concept or star." His studio—Warner Bros.—was therefore "eager to bankroll" his next project, which Kubrick kept "shrouded in secrecy" from the press partly due to the furor surrounding the controversially violent A Clockwork Orange (particularly in the UK) and partly due to his "long-standing paranoia about the tabloid press."
Having felt compelled to set aside his plans for a film about Napoleon Bonaparte, Kubrick set his sights on Thackeray's 1844 "satirical picaresque about the fortune-hunting of an Irish rogue," Barry Lyndon, the setting of which allowed Kubrick to take advantage of the copious period research he had done for the now-aborted Napoleon. At the time, Kubrick merely announced that his next film would star Ryan O'Neal (deemed "a seemingly un-Kubricky choice of leading man") and Marisa Berenson, a former Vogue and Time magazine cover model, and be shot largely in Ireland. So heightened was the secrecy surrounding the film that "Even Berenson, when Kubrick first approached her, was told only that it was to be an 18th-century costume piece [and] she was instructed to keep out of the sun in the months before production, to achieve the period-specific pallor he required."
Principal photography took 300 days, from spring 1973 through early 1974, with a break for Christmas.
Many of the film's exteriors were shot in Ireland, playing "itself, England, and Prussia during the Seven Years' War." Drawing inspiration from "the landscapes of Watteau and Gainsborough," Kubrick and cinematographer Alcott also relied on the "scrupulously researched art direction" of Ken Adam and Roy Walker. Alcott, Adam and Walker would be among those who would win Oscars for their "amazing work" on the film.
Several of the interior scenes were filmed in Powerscourt House, a famous 18th-century mansion in County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. The house was destroyed in an accidental fire several months after filming (November 1974), so the film serves as a record of the lost interiors, particularly the "Saloon" which was used for more than one scene. The Wicklow Mountains are visible, for example, through the window of the saloon during a scene set in Berlin. Other locations included Kells Priory (the English Redcoat encampment) Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard (exteriors of the Lyndon estate), Huntington Castle, Clonegal (exterior), Corsham Court (various interiors and the music room scene), Petworth House (chapel, and so on.), Stourhead (lake and temple), Longleat, and Wilton House (interior and exterior) in England, Dunrobin Castle (exterior and garden as Spa) in Scotland, Dublin Castle in Ireland (the chevalier's home), Ludwigsburg Palace near Stuttgart and Frederick the Great's Neues Palais at Potsdam near Berlin (suggesting Berlin's main street Unter den Linden as construction in Potsdam had just begun in 1763). Some exterior shots were also filmed at Waterford Castle (now a luxury hotel and golf course) and Little Island, Waterford. Moorstown Castle in Tipperary also featured. Several scenes were filmed at Castletown House outside Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, and at Youghal, Co. Cork.
The film—as with "almost every Kubrick film"—is a "showcase for [a] major innovation in technique." While 2001: A Space Odyssey had featured "revolutionary effects," and The Shining would later feature heavy use of the Steadicam, Barry Lyndon saw a considerable number of sequences shot "without recourse to electric light." Cinematography was overseen by director of photography John Alcott (who won an Oscar for his work), and is particularly noted for the technical innovations that made some of its most spectacular images possible. To achieve photography without electric lighting "[f]or the many densely furnished interior scenes... meant shooting by candlelight," which is known to be difficult in still photography, "let alone with moving images."
Kubrick was "determined not to reproduce the set-bound, artificially lit look of other costume dramas from that time." After "tinker[ing] with different combinations of lenses and film stock," the production obtained three super-fast 50mm lenses (Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/0.7) developed by Zeiss for use by NASA in the Apollo moon landings, which Kubrick had discovered. These super-fast lenses "with their huge aperture (the film actually features the lowest f-stop in film history) and fixed focal length" were problematic to mount, and were extensively modified into three versions by Cinema Products Corp. for Kubrick so to gain a wider angle of view, with input from optics expert Richard Vetter of Todd-AO. The rear element of the lens had to be 2.5mm away from the film plane, requiring special modification to the rotating camera shutter. This allowed Kubrick and Alcott to shoot scenes lit with actual candles to an average lighting volume of only three candela, "recreating the huddle and glow of a pre-electrical age." In addition, Kubrick had the entire film push-developed by one stop.
Although Kubrick's express desire was to avoid electric lighting where possible, most shots were achieved with conventional lenses and lighting, but were lit to deliberately mimic natural light rather than for compositional reasons. In addition to potentially seeming more realistic, these methods also gave a particular period look to the film which has often been likened to 18th-century paintings (which were, of course, depicting a world devoid of electric lighting), in particular owing "a lot to William Hogarth, with whom Thackeray had always been fascinated."
According to critic Tim Robey, the film has a "stately, painterly, often determinedly static quality." For example, to help light some interior scenes, lights were placed outside and aimed through the windows, which were covered in a diffuse material to scatter the light evenly through the room rather than being placed inside for maximum use as most conventional films do. A 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 tithe 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.
Despite such slight tinting effects, this method of lighting not only gave the look of natural daylight coming in through the windows, but it also protected the historic locations from the damage caused by mounting the lights on walls or ceilings and the heat from the lights. This helped the film "fit... perfectly with Kubrick's gilded-cage aesthetic – the film is consciously a museum piece, its characters pinned to the frame like butterflies."
The film's period setting allowed Kubrick to indulge his penchant for classical music, and the film score uses pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach (an arrangement of the Concerto for violin and oboe in C minor), Antonio Vivaldi (Cello Concerto in E-Minor, a transcription of the Cello Sonata in E Minor RV 40), Giovanni Paisiello, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Schubert (German Dance No. 1 in C major, Piano Trio in E-Flat, Opus 100 and Impromptu No. 1 in C minor), as well as the Hohenfriedberger March. The piece most associated with the film, however, is the main title music: George Frideric Handel's stately Sarabande from the Suite in D minor HWV 437. Originally for solo harpsichord, the versions for the main and end titles are performed very romantically with orchestral strings, harpsichord, and timpani. It is used at various points in the film, in various arrangements, to indicate the implacable working of impersonal fate.
The score also includes Irish folk music, including Seán Ó Riada's song Women of Ireland, arranged by Paddy Moloney and performed by The Chieftains. The British Grenadiers also features in scenes with Redcoats marching.
The film "was not the commercial success Warner Bros. had been hoping for" within the United States, although it fared better in Europe. This mixed reaction saw the film (in the words of one retrospective review) "greeted, on its release, with dutiful admiration – but not love. Critics... rail[ed] against the perceived coldness of Kubrick's style, the film's self-conscious artistry and slow pace. Audiences, on the whole, rather agreed..." This "air of disappointment" factored into Kubrick's decision for his next film – Stephen King's The Shining – a project that would not only please him artistically, but also be more likely to succeed financially. Still, several other critics, including Gene Siskel, praised the film's technical quality and strong narrative, and Siskel himself counted it as one of the five best films of the year.
In recent years, the film has gained a more positive reaction. As of October 2014 it holds a 97% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 52 reviews, eight of which are from the site's "top critics." Roger Ebert added the film to his 'Great Movies' list on 9 September 2009, writing, "It defies us to care, it asks us to remain only observers of its stately elegance", and it "must be one of the most beautiful films ever made."
Director Martin Scorsese has named Barry Lyndon as his favorite Kubrick film, and it is also one of Lars von Trier's favorite films. Quotations from its script have also appeared in such disparate works as Ridley Scott's The Duellists, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, and Wes Anderson's Rushmore.
In 1976, at the 48th Academy Awards, the film won four awards, for Best Art Direction (Ken Adam, Roy Walker, Vernon Dixon), Best Cinematography (John Alcott), Best Costume Design (Milena Canonero, Ulla-Britt Söderlund) and Best Musical Score (Leonard Rosenman, "for his arrangements of Schubert and Handel".) Kubrick was nominated three times, for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
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.
Kubrick based his adapted screenplay on William Makepeace Thackeray's The Luck of Barry Lyndon (republished as the novel Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq.), a picaresque tale written and published in serial form in 1844.
The film departs from the 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 narrator. Kubrick felt that using a first-person narrative would not be useful in a film adaptation:
I believe Thackeray used Redmond Barry to tell his own story in a deliberately distorted way because it made it more interesting. Instead of the omniscient author, Thackeray used the imperfect observer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the dishonest observer, thus allowing the reader to judge for himself, with little difficulty, the probable truth in Redmond Barry's view of his life. This technique worked extremely well in the novel but, of course, in a film you have objective reality in front of you all of the time, so the effect of Thackeray's first-person story-teller could not be repeated on the screen. It might have worked as comedy by the juxtaposition of Barry’s version of the truth with the reality on the screen, but I don’t think that Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy."
Kubrick also changed the plot. For example, the novel does not include a final duel. The film begins with a duel where Barry's father is shot dead, and duels recur throughout the film.