Forty years ago this month, when your now world-weary blogger was but a whipper-snapper of a high school senior, I arrived early one day into my two-day-a-week journalism class and told the teacher how much I had enjoyed seeing Barry Lyndon, which had recently opened at the local multiplex. “Oh, I saw it, too—it was boring.” The she added, “You’re just saying that because it’s Stanley Kubrick.” I came up with a less-than-sparkling comeback about how she must have missed Kubrick’s cutting critique of 18th-century class structures but she was having none of it. Instead, she compared the film, about an Irish bounder who rises to the top of Georgian high society before his inevitable downfall, to a special issue of National Geographic, featuring photos of European estates that are brought (slightly) to life.
Maybe I had tipped my hand a couple of months earlier by enthusing about 2001 (within earshot) to a friend in the same class. At any rate, what I had meant to say to her was: “You should have been smart enough to realize that Kubrick is using a 1700s template to warn us a time quickly approaching when all good people of the land will be threatened by a new oligarchy. This will be a ruthless pack of clever little rich bastards who will try to trick us into thinking that we could all be just like them while shredding the social safety net and squashing the once robust middle class that previously served as a buffer against those very same people who want to hold all the money and power.” OK, that’s my 2015 self thinking that, with video “highlights” of the latest Republican debate still festering in my brain.
How White My Shirts Can Be
Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel “The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” Kubrick’s 180-minute, slow-lane cinematic spectacular premiered in December of 1975 and I have re-visited the film many times since, most recently in glorious Blu-ray. It didn’t long for me to find updated symbolism—–well, it did take a while because it really hit home in the movie’s second act, especially in the last of its many dueling scenes. Halfway through film the former Irish villager Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) had reached, in the narrator’s words, the “pitch of prosperity” by marrying the beautiful young widow Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) or, more accurately, her vast fortune. This doesn’t sit well with her young son, the moody sperm-lottery winner Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), setting off a vicious rivalry that many years later culminates in a pistol duel. Bullingdon wins a coin toss and gets to first shot, but his gun misfires. Told he must hold his ground before receiving a new pistol, Barry fires into the ground (a practice called “deloping” in the arcane world of dueling) and the seconds hopefully ask Bullingdon if he has received “satisfaction.” (This is kind of a hoot, since Vitali bears a strong resemblance to a young Mick Jagger). But of course he hasn’t and with the next shot he essentially blows his stepfather’s leg off—while also symbolically maiming the 99% (thought I to myself). I mean, really?? Shooting your opponent after a deloping was seen as especially vicious back then, even for Bullingdon’s class of people. For fuck’s sake, all he had to say was, “How much is it going to cost me to make this problem—you, namely—go away?” Which is exactly what happens anyway, but only after making his rival a cripple.
Stanley Kubrick in windbreaker, on location in Ireland.
More on that later, but first a little backstory. This whole confrontation originated from the day when Bullingdon interrupted a music recital with Lady Lyndon at the harpsichord to ripely insult both the commoner Redmond Barry and his mother for taking “this upstart Irishman into your bed.” Well, I could think of at least a few snappy comebacks that would have put Lord Sourpuss back in his place but that just wasn’t done and the vaporous Lady Lyndon (after all, a consenting adult free to marry who she wishes) stays silent while Barry responds with a vicious punch to the small of the back and, in the handheld-camera donnybrook that follows, closes the door on ever getting in with the upper crust, a distinct long shot to begin with. The game is rigged, of course, but Barry had a pretty good run.
Mad magazine’s take on the recital room brawl and Ryan O’Neal’s unrelenting good looks.
It doesn’t take long for Kubrick to get the machinery of fate kicking into gear. In the opening scene there’s a rainy-day card game with his fetching cousin Nora. While the Chieftains’ exquisite “Woman of Ireland” plays on the soundtrack, the lad is obliged to retrieve a ribbon from the depths of her downy décolletage. His ensuing crush becomes most inconvenient when Nora is subsequently courted by a priggish English army captain who could bring 1500 a year into the struggling family. In several scenes played out in lush scenery beneath the Wicklow Mountains, the still-guileless Redmond (the first phase of Ryan O’Neal’s finely nuanced performance) makes it clear that it’s either him or the flustering blowhard Quinn for Nora’s hand (Quinn is deliciously played by Leonard Rossiter, who also had a brief role in 2001 as the Russian scientist who grills Heywood Floyd).
But money always gets the last word and after his family rigs the inevitable duel Redmond is set up with twenty guineas and a horse (the cost of doing business when we’re talking 1500 a year) and told to go to Dublin “’til matters blow over.” But after an encounter with a captain of a different stripe—-the noted highwayman Capt. Feeney—-he is divested of that sum and is soon enlisted in the army and shipped off to the Seven Year’s War, an aristocratic conflict ever in need of cannon fodder drawn from the lower classes. Against a series of eye-wateringly beautiful backdrops, Redmond Barry’s life plays out in a strangely pre-destined sort of way, an object lesson of being impoverished by a disillusioned and disaffected effort to survive and prosper. The aggressively picturesque estates, country lanes and battlefields dovetailed nicely with my own developing aesthetic preferences, especially as they mirrored certain progressive rock reference points (did you catch my “All Good People” reference from earlier?).
Break the Etiquette
In not-so-quick succession, Redmond ingratiates himself while a soldier in both the British and Prussian armies, lands a job as a spy with the Berlin police, and while at the job goes turncoat, joining up with a fellow Irishman he is supposed to be investigating for cheating at cards with Prussian royalty. After sneaking across the border, the two of them continue card-sharking noblemen in neighboring countries. In these hellish-red gambling rooms (lit only by candlelight for authenticity and filmed with specially-manufactured Carl Zeiss lens), populated with grotesqueries in powdered wigs and beauty spots, there’s no sense of “sticking it to The Man” or anything else subversive, it’s just what they do to get along. When our boy Redmond Barry gets tired of that he makes the key mistake of setting his sights on the lovely cipher who is Lady Lyndon and entering into a world full of people corrupt to the core and uncaring (or even unaware) of the world outside their opulent but suffocating rooms. This inert, closed-shop of privilege is studiously re-created by Kubrick almost to a fault: its deadening disconnect is so realistic that the emptiness is seen to be in the technique and not in the theme.
In this fun, fan-made trailer, Barry is recast as a 18th Century bad-ass taking on the aristocracy single-handed.
Barry Lyndon opened in December of 1975 to the usual mixed critical cacophony that greeted any new film by the maximalist Bronx-born director, who had long since moved to England. “A three-hour slide show for art history majors,” sniffed inveterate Kubrick-hater Pauline Kael, who wasn’t the only one to complain about the film’s languid pace. There were also many writers who admired it and the film’s original trailer protested this praise a bit heavily, knowing that it would be a hard sell for those more used to the glad-handing nature of more conventional Hollywood fare.
What everyone did agree on was the movie’s gorgeous visuals. Barry Lyndon may remain the most formally beautiful film ever, and in early 1976 it won Oscars for cinematography (John Alcott) as well as for Art Direction, Costume Design and Musical Score, while being nominated for Best Picture and Director “Kubrick’s message is that is that people are disgusting, but things are lovely,” Kael continued, the sort of quippy reductionism that seemed to earn her a lot of followers at the time. It should have been at least somewhat obvious that it was the class system that was disgusting and was (or so it seemed) about to be relegated to the dustbin of history by a revealing detail in the film’s drawn-out final scene.
There are unconfirmed reports that while filming this scene, Stanley Kubrick called out, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of Pauline Kael’s eyes.”
You Say You Want a Revolution
It’s been many years since the spendthrift Barry Lyndon has been out of the family’s life. The terms: an annuity of 500 guineas a year and the understanding that he never return to England. At a desk in the middle of an impossibly large hall that passes for a room, Lady Lyndon sits at a desk with her checkbook out, with Bullingdon and two retainers at her side. Reprised on the soundtrack is the award-winning adaptation of Schubert’s Piano Trio, the stately metronomic keyboard theme counterpointed by the violin which seeks to pull at any heartstrings available. When it comes time to sign her name to the check written out to her banished husband, there is a pause in the music as well as in Lady Lyndon. She stares out in the space as if to wonder what might have been, while Bullingdon looks on cautiously. But it’s only a false alarm and the march-of-time piano starts up again and the stultifying rhythms of aristocratic life continue—at least for the moment: the date on the check is December 1789 and the French Revolution is in full swing just across the English Channel.
Yes, it is a subtle touch by Kubrick and one maybe he thought to enhance with the closing intertitle which notes that the persons you have watched all lived two hundred years ago and that “They are all equal now.” Some commentators thought this was a bit simplistic (Death as the great leveler) or worse that Stanley doesn’t think there is any distinction between his characters. But four months after the newly-empowered French National Assembly passed both the “Decrees Abolishing the Feudal System” and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” maybe there was a different idea behind it: that there was a new equality that would provide for a world where one could make a comfortable life without paying manorial obligations (it is fitting that location where the climatic duel was filmed had been a tithe barn) and that people like Redmond Barry could use their skill sets more productively rather than worming their way into an all-powerful an unaccountable upper upper class that would just as soon have your leg off.
Barry and his mother (Marie Kean) in a scene filmed at Stourhead estate. In my re-boot, they hatch a plan to feed all the hungry children in England by making off with Lady Lyndon’s petty cash box.
Although things got better with the subsequent development of Western democracies, it seems like history has spent the last quarter of a millennium trying to tack back the other way. When the people on the Forbes 400 list have combined wealth exceeding that of the bottom 60% of American households, and when a handful of individuals can, post-Citizens United, openly seek to control the political process, one wonders if the pendulum hasn’t swung back almost all the way back to the days of flintlocks and twenty paces. Oh sure, there’s no formal feudal system preventing clever folks from gaining their fortune and any citizen over 35 can run for president. But at the top it looks a lot like the old government for the aristocracy by the aristocracy. Even Barry Lyndon as the re-imagined pistol-packing, sword-flashing, back-punching, countess-seducing superhero could hardly hope to defeat it. But even with the odds, the historical record of the 1% shows that to end up on the side of the angels, it’s better to fight them than to join them. Kubrick’s deterministic epic may not exactly raise that banner itself, but it will remain one of filmdom’s most exceptional illustrations at just how ugly it can get at the top—-despite all the surface beauty.