The Stanley Kubrick Project: Barry Lyndon

I guess we should start with my confession that I have never read any Thackeray. Which is ridiculous when you consider that William Makepeace Thackeray is a totally bitching name (not “bitchen”, which I am assured is the correct spelling. “Bitching” seems only appropriate in this context). That is likely going to be my regret on my death bed: that I was a voracious reader in my youth, but I read mainly forgettable pulp crap. Sorry, Dr. Savage.

Well, enough of that. I’m still dealing with one of my chief regrets while still on my lifebed, and that is my neglect of significant mainstream movies. Oh, I still truck heavily in my first love, disposable genre movies, but my attempt to educate myself with a better class of entertainment has been educational, if not always… well, entertaining.

A case in point is the latest in my endeavor to watch all of Stanley Kubrick’s films in order, Barry Lyndon, based on the serialized novel of the same name by the aforementioned Thackeray. It’s the tale of Redmond Barry, a member of the landed Irish gentry who winds up in one form of trouble or another, serves in the English and Prussian armies in the Seven Years War, marries a Countess, and eventually loses it all because he’s really pretty much an opportunistic jerk.

It’s tempting to make something of the fact that Ryan O’Neal plays Barry, but the simple truth is that was mandated by Warner Brothers. WB made a whole lot of the creative freedom they gave Kubrick, but they’re weren’t above demanding things like he cast someone in the Top Ten of Moneymaking Faces for such a non-commercial film. The only two in the Ten who were gender and age-appropriate were Robert Redford and O’Neal, and Redford turned the role down. O’Neal is fine as Barry, but his star was already dimming, and he fell off that Top Ten soon after.

As you’ve likely already determined, I don’t feel Barry is a very likable protagonist; his journey is fascinating but not at all edifying, and is a prime tale of someone getting what they wanted and proceeding to completely screw it up. While the performances are not powerhouses, they are uniformly far more than adequate, a solid ensemble that does not overpower the story, but produces a solid patina of workmanship, very much in keeping with the contemporary paintings that Kubrick strives to emulate onscreen. This is history represented as a series of museum pieces, wonderful to gaze upon, absorbing in detail and execution, but – as is all art – untrustworthy as to its truth. Barry is a cipher, continuously re-inventing himself, and though an unseen narrator is constantly informing us of how things turn out before we actually see the mechanics behind his prophecies, so too is he studiously unspecific.

This is a gorgeous movie, if not a happy one. Kubrick had managed to successfully scam two of the older Mitchell rear-projection cameras out of Warner Brothers, who had switched to front-projection and was no longer using them; he then procured a lens made by the German firm Zeiss for NASA, a lens that was designed for satellite photography and had the widest aperture ever created at that time. Kubrick had the lens grafted onto one of the older Mitchell cameras and finally had an instrument that could film nighttime scenes lit only by candlelight. That is one of the most startling things about Barry Lyndon: those wonderful, candle-lit scenes. Technical nightmares to be sure, as the huge lens aperture meant no depth of field, and if an actor leaned back an inch, he might suddenly find himself out of focus – and I don’t even want to think about the continuity problems with the length of candles, given Kubrick’s penchant for multiple takes.

There are a few scenes that almost certainly required artificial light, but Kubrick’s determination to use natural light as much as possible – given a dry run on A Clockwork Orange – yields astounding pictures of great beauty, again echoing the paintings of that era. Where he found such unspoiled vistas for such long, loving shots is beyond me (but not, apparently, beyond Ken Russell, whom Kubrick asked for advice on the subject).

This painstaking period detail and the skill with which the regimental scenes are done in the first part of the story make me pine for the Napoleon movie Kubrick had wanted to make, but abandoned in the face of the disastrous 1970 Waterloo. The scenes of formations marching into battle, while not as extended as a similar scene in Spartacus, are still breathtaking, especially in this day and age, since it’s obviously a ton of extras, with no sweetening by CGI. Seeing a Kubrick-conceived battlefield between Wellington and Napoleon would have been truly astounding.

So this is my take-away from Barry Lyndon. It is a beautiful work of art. Though the story is not ideally compelling, it is intriguing enough to continue watching, to see what new window will open up to a time long gone, what painting is next in our walk through this exhibit. Though I doubt I will ever revisit the movie, I am happy to have seen it, and to have been able to share  this vision.