Film / Barry Lyndon

"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."

Barry Lyndon is Stanley Kubrick's 1975 period piece, widely considered one of his most underrated films.

Set over the second half of the 18th century, the film concerns the life of Irish peasant-turned-adventurer-turned-aristocrat Redmond Barry (Ryan O'Neal), who leaves his Irish home after his family con him into leaving alone his cousin with whom he is besotted. The film's first half shows how he then goes on to be a British deserter of the Seven Years' War, a Prussian conscript, a spy and then a travelling dandy. The second half, however, is far more downbeat and involves his quest to become an aristocrat, which eventually merely leads to tragedy as he spurns his beautiful but fragile wife and brings his stepson to hate him with a passion.

The film had very mixed reviews when it came out, and was seen as weird for Kubrick as he wasn't fond of period pieces. Nowadays, however, Barry Lyndon is widely regarded as a cinematographer's dream with its beautiful camera work (including scenes lit only by candles), and no other film has so convincingly brought the 18th century to life. It's a simple story, but if you allow yourself to be absorbed by it and accept the pace it's deeply engaging, romantic and even thought provoking. There are some truly classic scenes, such as the climactic duel between Barry and his stepson which has tremendous tension, and the first meeting and seduction of Lady Lyndon by Barry, which involves a room of gamblers, a balcony, and the slow movement of Franz Schubert's Piano Trio in E-flat major, which is just pure romance on film.

The film is based on the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of Vanity Fair.

This film provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Captain Feeny, who's awfully well-mannered for a thief.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Barry loses half of his left leg in the final duel of the movie.
  • All Are Equal in Death: The epilogue reads "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". See also the original novel.
  • Awkwardly Placed Bathtub: Lady Lyndon bathes in a clawfoot tub in the middle of a large room with no other furniture.
  • Big Brother Bully: Lord Bullingdon barely tolerates his younger half-brother Bryan. He spanks him for raising a ruckus over a pencil and later uses him in creating a scene to humiliate both his mother and Barry. It is heavily implied that he resents Bryan for being his mother's son by Barry, who he loathes with a passion. When he decides to reclaim his estate by dueling Barry, he does so to avenge the years of mistreatment he endured at the latter's hands and doesn't even acknowledge Bryan's death.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Barry's mother. She is introduced as a sweet old lady who is devoted to caring for her son after her husband's death. Once she reappears in the second act, however, she reveals herself to be a full on Lady Macbeth and Manipulative Bitch who cares nothing for Barry's new family and is willing to use them to ensure her and her son's welfare.
  • Chiaroscuro: The film is famous for its use of natural lightning (candles, lots of candles) during nighttime scenes, thus emulating the chiaroscuro painting technique.
  • Corporal Punishment: While Barry is serving in the Prussian Army, he witnesses corporal punishment. He later administers it himself upon his stepson, Lord Bullingdon, on two separate occassions.
  • Cry into Chest: Barry does this when Captain Grogan dies. He kisses him, and then collapses onto his chest, weeping. Justified, because the guy was probably the closest thing he had to a father figure.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The film itself, along with the narrator.
  • Deconstruction: Most period films of European settings before Kubrick, and after him as well (such as the films of Merchant-Ivory), tended to tell a Rose Tinted Narrative of aristocrats living a life of sophistication and good manners. Barry Lyndon was one of the first to show this period by emphasizing the strangeness of aristocratic social rituals as well as highlighting the ruthless class structure that they were intended to endorse. Kubrick moreover achieves this by avoiding Aristocrats Are Evil and glorifying his Social Climber hero, he simply shows the power and means at the disposal of the upper classes and that however much an outsider can break in, he can easily be cast out with nothing to show for it.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: So much so he gives up on love altogether.
  • Dirty Coward: Captain Quinn.
    • Lord Bullingdon as well, considering his final act of defiance.
  • Disturbed Doves: The climactic duel takes place in a barn with doves flying about. In a parallel to the general style of the film, they don't really interact with the combatants, but they are a noticeable presence nonetheless.
  • Driven to Suicide: Lady Lyndon after Bryan's death. The experience is, while not fatal, pretty damn painful.
  • Duel to the Death: The very first shot of the film shows Barry's father dueling to the death. This establishes a motif throughout the film, though none of the three duels Barry gets himself into end in death.
  • Downer Ending: Barry ends up losing everything: his son is dead, he's lost a leg, he is separated from his wife, his fortune has been reduced to a meagre monthly allowance from Lady Lyndon, and if he ever sets foot in England again, Lord Bullingdon will see him thrown in debtor's prison.
  • End of an Age: The film is very much about the opulence and high society of the 18th century and the bubble of privilege they lived in; the film ends in 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution, and cannot continue from there as the bubble of decadence that the aristocracy enjoyed in this period would soon shrink if not pop as from then on men will be judged more on their merit rather than birth or title.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: For all of Barry's faults, he does love his son Bryan. It must run in the family as the same can be said of his mother towards him.
  • The Film of the Book: Adapted from the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray.
  • A Fool and His New Money Are Soon Parted: Once Barry marries into money, he does not do a good job of keeping it.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The narrator has a whimsical tendency of predicting the outcome of the more suspenseful sequences in the movie, not to mention the end of the movie itself.
  • Freeze-Frame Ending: The film ends with a freeze-frame on Barry, after he's lost a duel and his whole life has been ruined due to his own selfishness.
  • Gold Digger: Every single scene but the final duel establishes Barry Lyndon as one.
  • Gone Swimming, Clothes Stolen: From two gay men nude bathing in a pond.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Barry versus the world. Barry does what he has to in order to survive, even sinking to very low methods when he has to and never against someone who could be considered evil. In the second act, this turns into Black and Gray Morality with the opportunistic Barry working against his step-son, a young man who's life he is effectively ruining but is not much better in terms of good character. It could even retain its grey on grey status or even be an Evil Versus Evil depending on how one views both men.
  • Hero Antagonist: Downplayed significantly with Lord Bullingdon. From a moral standpoint, one could easily argue that he is a lighter shade of grey when compared to Barry. At the same time, however, he comes off as a bigoted, cowardly, and narcissistic young man whose hatred of Barry derives as much from the latter's humble origins as much as him being a poor step-father. When the time comes for the final duel, Bullingdon defeats Barry in such a bad form that it comes off not so much as a young man reclaiming what is rightfully his, but rather that of a Dirty Coward kicking his opponent when he's at his weakest. So much so that the whole affair leaves a sour taste in one's mouth.
  • Honor Before Reason: Barry magnanimously delopes when Bullingdon misfires. It does not end well.
  • Hot-Blooded: Oh, Barry.
  • The Highwayman: Captain Feeny and his son, Seamus.
  • I Am Not Left-Handed: Averted. Barry really is left handed and is able to soundly defeat different opponents with pistols and swords. He mostly likely would have defeated Lord Bullingdon this way had his conscience not interfered.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Say what you will about Barry, but the man loves his son. It's hard to not feel sorry for him, then, when Bryan dies.
  • Join or Die: Captain Potzdorf puts Barry in front of a choice: getting killed as a deserter or join the Prussian army. He joins them.
  • Kissing Cousins: Barry's first love is his cousin Nora.
  • Kubrick Stare: Captain Quin pulls several during his duel with Barry.
  • Last Kiss: Barry and Captain Grogan, who asks for one, saying that it's the last time that Barry will ever see him. He's been shot.
  • Manly Tears: Barry cries FOUR TIMES during the film, which is a heck of a lot of crying for a male character in one movie. He cries when his friend Captain Grogan dies, when he meets another Irishman while in exile, when his son dies, and when his leg is cut off.
  • Morality Pet: Barry dotes on his son, and the boy is arguably the only thing he genuinely cares for.
  • Never Be Hurt Again: The death of Grogan is the last time Barry ever loves anyone save his son, and he dies, too.
  • Oh, Crap!
    • When Barry realises that Captain Potzdorf has been leading him on and exposed him as a deserter.
    • When Lord Bullingdon's pistol misfires. He retches, cries, and generally subverts the idea of the cool-headed righteous avenger, showing himself to be little more than a (justifiably) angry young boy vastly out of his depth.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Ryan O'Neal, full stop. Given Kubrick's reputation as a notorious perfectionist, it gives one pause to wonder why he didn't hire someone who could convincingly emulate an Irish accent (or, you know, hire someone who naturally speaks the dialect) for the title role of the movie.
    • Apparently this was because Kubrick was contractually obligated by Warner Bros to cast an actor who was currently one of the top 10 highest box office earners, or else they wouldn't fund his film. Most of the 10 were ruled out, because they were too old or unsuitable or female, leaving only two - Robert Redford and Ryan O'Neal. He couldn't get Robert Redford.
    • Another reason is that O'Neal wasn't talented enough to convey a wide range of emotions, and Kubrick used this to show just how soulless Barry Lyndon is.
    • This is pretty debatable, as O'Neal's performance is sometimes intensely emotional. Makes you wonder how many of Barry's actions are sincere or just acting.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Redmond Barry loses his only trueborn son by Lady Lyndon to a horseriding accident when the boy wanders off to try to tame a horse by himself. This sends both Barry and his wife into a deep depression, while it also weakens his hold over Lady Lyndon's inheritance (Barry having married the beauteous widow for the money that she inherited from her late husband), opening himself up for challenge by his older stepson.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Barry goes through his life simply having things happen to him, such as being robbed, or being press-ganged, or having his child die. Even his initial action, shooting an officer in a duel, turns out to have been a fake duel, planned all along by his friends. Despite his attempts to gain agency over his life, at the end of the movie, he's just as much a victim of fate as he was in the beginning.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Kubrick made many changes for his adaptation. The book is narrated from Barry Lyndon's first person perspective and Kubrick noted that the style of the book, with Thackeray's Footnote Fever generally got humour from pointing out how much Barry was an Unreliable Narrator. Kubrick felt that this was a literary device that wouldn't work in film but he added a third-person narrator who generally used euphemisms to undercut the story and pretensions of the characters. There are also more duels in the movie, indeed a running motif throughout the film which was missing in the book. The book was a serial picraresque story with a lot of Padding and Kubrick's film generally condenses the narration. The book's tone was also more openly satirical while Kubrick made it colder and dryer in his retelling.
  • Professional Gambler: Barry becomes one under the tutelage of the Chevalier de Balibari.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Barry starts out as a love-sick young man whose passions are rejected in favor of monetary gain. From there he goes through life constantly getting the short end of the stick all while learning to adapt to his surroundings by lying to and conning other people. By the film's second half, Barry has become a willful participant in the morally depraved society he finds himself in and has become a ruthless con man, social climber, an unfaithful husband, and abusive stepfather. He turns out to be a possible subversion of the Alternate Character Interpretation variety depending on how one views his sparing of Lord Bullingdon.
  • Protagonist Title
  • Really Gets Around: The war widow Barry meets is played as a romantic encounter, but the narrator states in the most dignified way that the woman is a slut and sleeps with every soldier that drops by (in front of her infant son, no less.)
  • Self-Made Man: Barry, though it doesn't last. As the narrator reminds us, the qualities that allow men to amass fortunes often make them ill-suited to keeping them.
  • Scenery Porn: The film was was shot on custom-made NASA lenses that allowed Kubrick to film nighttime scenes by sheer candlelight, evoking the chiaroscuro period technique, while zooming away from the central action in order to frame the shots as if they were period paintings. Not only that, but a good portion of the film was shot during a few precious moments of golden sunrise/sundown. Sure enough, cinematographer John Alcott won an Award for his work.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The second part of the movie geometrically undoes every bit of luck Barry has enjoyed during the first part of the movie, and he ends with less than he began with.
    "It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now."
  • Sophisticated as Hell: The entire film. The film is mannered in the extreme, but much of the humor comes from the Very Proper Narration.
  • Spoiled Sweet: Barry, for all his many faults, loves his son dearly, and dotes on the boy. His son, in turn, is a happy Cheerful Child who stands outside Barry's intrigues with the rest of the family. But, ultimately, he literally spoils the kid to death, buying him a horse before he's old enough to handle it because the boy begs him to.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: Deconstructed. All of the characters attempt to remain as emotionless as possible, and Barry is an outcast from society for being too emotional.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Barry in the second half. Oddly, this is not a spoiler thanks to the narrator establishing a Foregone Conclusion.
  • Undying Loyalty: Barry's mother. She ends up caring for him after he's lost everything.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: During the final duel, Barry has Lord Bullingdon at his mercy, but throws the duel because he sees part of himself in the younger man. Bullingdon, however, is unmoved and gleefully shoots a defenseless Barry. Possibly justified if one takes into account the years of mistreatment Bullingdon suffered at the hands of Barry.
    • Nora is arguably this, of the "Bitch" variety. Despite Barry's genuine affection for her, she mostly deflects his advances on the grounds that he is "only a boy." She leads him on, yet makes it clear that she is set to marry Captain Quinn. After Barry is driven to exile, she marries Quinn anyway.
  • Unreliable Narrator: See Foregone Conclusion above.
    • Consider the book source, where Barry himself is the unreliable narrator.
  • Villain Protagonist: Some viewers take Barry's opportunist side and grant him the benefit of redemption during the final duel while others identify with the Lyndons' pejorative view of the "upstart Irishman". He has, without a doubt, the Values Dissonance of his times, but is he really any more villainous than the remainder of the cast?
  • You Can't Go Home Again
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Barry's mother is willing to manipulate her daughter-in-law as well as encourage her son's expensive ventures that serve only to run his family finances into the dirt, but there is no question she does so out of concern for Barry and her grandson's security.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The Chevalier disappears from the story after Barry's marriage to Lady Lyndon.
  • Widow Woman: Barry's mother refuses every marriage proposal.

Alternative Title(s): The Luck Of Barry Lyndon