Many viewers feel that Barry Lyndon exemplifies director Stanley Kubrick’s best and worst tendencies. While it is meticulously detailed in its recreation of 18th-century Europe, right down to an acute sensitivity to source lighting, it also displays a detached, observational style that often comes off as stiff and pretentious. Contemporary critics thought that the film looked staggeringly beautiful but felt chilly and remote, not to mention less subversively adventurous than the Kubrick films that preceded it. The fact that it won more Oscars (all in the technical fields) than any of his other films only confirms this preconception.
Few consider the ramifications of Kubrick’s timing in producing this elaborate costume drama. Barry Lyndon hit the screens roughly eight months before the bicentennial celebration of the 13 Atlantic colonies’ declaration of emancipation from Great Britain. America’s breakaway is even acknowledged in a brief scene when King George III compliments the title character for raising a militia to fight for the Crown. Lyndon’s preoccupation with the War for American Independence runs deeper than this mere cameo suggests. Its protagonist, despite being more than a bit of a rogue, brims with sensibility, an embodiment of the qualities that the enlightened gentry (who, in America, best articulated the philosophical grist of the conflict) saw as suitable for engaging in the task of self-government. Seen in this light, Barry Lyndon offers not only a subversive take on the Whiggish ideology that gave birth to the Declaration of Independence, but also a surprisingly empathetic depiction of those who suffered under its delusions.
Kubrick’s opus is based on a satirical novel by William Makepeace Thackery that chronicles the rise and fall of an unfortunate Irish orphan who, after losing his fortune when his father is killed in a duel, loses the object of his romantic ardor to a British officer. After believing he killed the said officer in a duel, young Redmond Berry soon has the last 20 guineas of his estate stolen by a father-and-son team of erudite highwaymen, who find the lad’s plight “among the most touching that they have ever heard”. Following numerous continental adventures during Queen Anne’s War, the protagonist develops an aptitude for duplicitously maneuvering through the courts of Europe under the tutelage of the Comte du Beri Beri, a fellow Irish wanderer who cheats the nobility at cards. After several years, Barry seduces and marries a widow, thus returning to the privilege to which he was born. In a bitter reversal of Marx’s dictum, history soon repeats itself from farce to tragedy.
Barry is a man of many faults, but he also displays admirable qualities — courage, to cite one example. When facing his romantic rival, Captain Jack Quinn with pistols at dawn, his composure and assurance in the face of death severely outclasses his opponent. He is a skillful boxer who won’t take any guff from one of the burlier members of his military outfit. In the midst of battle, he saves a Prussian officer’s life from a burning barn. His swordsmanship enables him to collect debts from deadbeat aristocrats. Barry may suffer from a variety of moral shortcomings but he masters certain masculine virtues that make him a partially sympathetic hero.
This affirmation of young Redmond’s character would have been bolstered by the erratic fortunes of the mid-to-late 18th century. As the movie displays, fate played a huge role in one’s rising and falling social stature. A steely reserve in facing down adversaries was an essential component of preserving one’s estate (and life). One could not fully eliminate bad luck, but making suitable preparations could bolster opportunities, as well as allow one to save face. The rituals of play in Barry’s set, like gambling, establish a rehearsal for future challenges that lie ahead. Through enduring cycles of victory and loss at the tables, one develops an honorable comportment in the face of adversity (as well as an ability to seize opportunity when it arises). Despite the erosion of his fidelity to the truth over the narrative’s course, Barry possesses the attribute of personal honor which allows him to hold his own among society’s privileged few.
Barry Lyndon’s preoccupation with stoicism contributes to its reputation for coldness. It would be a mistake, however, to ignore the emotional undercurrents flowing beneath its masks of strength. The protagonist is also a man of sense and romantic longing, passions having the potential to derail his quest to regain his social stature. The viewer first sees Barry as a naïve youth. His relationship with his doting mother, from whom he seeks guidance in securing his ill-gotten estate, demonstrates devotion. Even though he openly pursues adulterous relationships with the servants (and presumably other ladies of the nobility) he apologizes to his wife. For all of the violent masculine passions displayed throughout the film, the protagonist honors numerous sentimental obligations to the women’s sphere with a degree of sincerity.
This notion of sentimental obligation also extends to the men who mentor Barry down his mistaken path. On two occasions, the garrulous Sergeant Grogan stands by him in his troubles, first in his duel with Quinn and later with a promise of money. When Grogan falls in battle, Barry is quite moved, even though the sergeant betrayed his word in action. Barry also saves the officer who blackmailed him into the Prussian army and dutifully serves the Count as a right-hand man until he pursues entrance into the nobility through marriage. Barry Lyndon’s sentimental undercurrent is not restricted to strata of heterosocial domesticity but to the paternalistic space of male mentorship.
While we often think of the 18th century as the Age of Reason, Barry Lyndon, through its engagement with the protagonist’s sentimental side, reminds us that it was also an Age of Sensibility. In adapting a novel that mimics the comedic grotesqueries of Fielding and Hogarth, Kubrick uncovered a world in which the development of selfhood reconciled the vicissitudes of emotional temperament to a world of abstract systems of power. Thanks to the popularity of Freudian psychology, the modern relationship between emotion and logic is seen as repressive, but in the period in which the movie is set, the landed governing classes sought a harmonious balance between these attributes.
This was particularly true in Kubrick’s native United States. In Sentimental Democracy, Andrew Burstein argues that this nation’s forefathers were not just led by the power of their minds but the feelings in their hearts. Americans, according to Burstein, viewed their culture as exceptional because of their susceptibility to emotions. While European politicos coldly manipulated their subjects, Americans recognized both the benefits and temptations that their senses provided them. By the time of the Revolution, patriots such as “the martyr” Joseph Warren demonstrated their commitment to public virtue by exercising sentimental passion while restraining excess emotion. Although Barry Lyndon is set in the United Kingdom, it not only expresses ideals that took root in post-Revolutionary America, but locates its origins in Irish Republicanism (of the Burkian variety) and the liberal English political classes. In displaying the systemic corruption of the upper classes, the film implies that an ideal form of selfhood could not be achieved on its European shores.
The man who masterfully balances the heart and the mind often plays the role of a father figure. Thus, paternalism develops as a system that defines the social world of the enlightened autocrat. This notion first limited itself into the confines of the nuclear family itself, but later, as argued by key historians of slavery like Eugene Genovese, expanded to include models of social relations between different socio-economic classes as defined by the gentry. Barry Lyndon’s second half explores this evolution, albeit in its more limited iteration, as its antihero struggles to reconcile his feelings towards his family while securing his newly-won fortune.
In this part of the movie, we witness Barry develop an outpouring of affection for the biological son whose parentage he shares with Lady Lyndon. He regales the lad with tall tales of his military exploits and throws him lavish birthday parties and gifts. At the same time, he expresses an antipathy to the son of the previous Lord, even going so far as taking a branch to his stepson’s backside for abusing his younger half-brother. Barry’s discipline draws Lord Bullington closer towards Lady Lyndon, fueling an Oedipally based resentment against the usurper. The young lord displays all of Barry’s passion but none of his virtues in combative skills or restraint. These weaknesses become evident as he reveals his mother’s shame in public, provoking Barry to strike the raw youth in front of his hereditary peers, sabotaging his attempt to secure a title for his biological heir’s security.
Social convention forces Barry to refrain from actions in which he excels in order to maintain a semblance of dignity in front of the nobles he has sought to impress with bribes and gifts. Following Lady Lyndon’s failed suicide attempt, Bullington challenges Barry to a duel, requiring skills that he clearly can’t master: he accidentally discharges his weapon while cocking it at his first shot and vomits when faced with the possibility that his stepfather might kill him during his turn. As shooting a lord would totally derail his scheme, Barry stoically discharges his weapon into the ground and faces fire again. Although he stares down this challenge with composure, his luck runs out. He is crippled and while recuperating, falls victim to an in-house coup in which he is pensioned off.
Barry Lyndon’s back half extends the ironic distance between its society’s representation of domestic order and the corrupt foundation of the Lyndon estate. Among the 18th-century nobility (and gentry) memorializing the family in epic portraiture embodies the patrimonial ideal of harmony and order. The private sphere, in its way, was supposed to provide comfort for the paterfamilias in his dealings with the strife of public life. Barry indulges his son with magicians and tall tales of military derring-do framed beneath a huge painting of family togetherness. The light permeating the windows, however, can’t fully illuminate the room, foreshadowing the tragedy that will unfold from the outpouring of fatherly affection. As the boy lies dying from injuries endured in an accident, all the father has to ease his pain with are the fictitious stories of a romantic past that obscure the cynicism of the means by which he obtained his estate.
This deathbed scene reconciles the distance between the movie spectator and the main character’s realization that he has no place in the world he has striven to enter. The protagonist’s sentimental awakening through his son’s death is rendered through the film’s clinical recreation of 18th-century aesthetics. Its use of natural light sources and candlelight mimic the art of the time, and the high-speed lenses that Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott developed capture that illumination with a fidelity that was revolutionary for the time. In the works of Joshua Reynolds and John Constable, the pastoral world of the United Kingdom harmoniously balanced sentiment and reason. Barry Lyndon’s perfectionistic verisimilitude evokes that ideal.
Yet in adapting the novel, Kubrick also emphasizes the gap in time between the movie’s dramatic events and the present. Hovering from a vantage point outside of the story’s time frame, the voiceover narration, whether it is conversing on the use of sex to gain security near the battlefield or foreshadowing the tragedy that is about to befall the protagonist, provides context that is not directly shown in the projected image. The director even underscores how each innovation in cinematic technique replaces a previous trope. The voice-over supplants title cards, and the recorded use of period music to evoke the past recalls the early days of live motion picture accompaniment. Even the film’s celebrated use of reverse zooms replicates the iris in and outs that early cinematographers used to emphasize details in a larger scene. Although Barry Lyndon boasts a meticulous replication of a specific past, its style underscores the progression of time towards a modern perspective.
(I find it interesting that Kubrick deploys handheld camera movements only during physically intimate, violent altercations. These scenes [a boxing match, a battle scene, and a domestic dispute] dramatize the breakdown of an imposed sense of order that the characters otherwise maintain, serving as dramatic punctuation to the movies’ overall placid tone.)
Through achieving an aesthetic balance between authentic recreation and historical perspective, Barry Lyndon recuperates the paternal gaze with the hindsight of time. Positioned to emerge during the awards season prior to the U.S. Bicentennial (as was Robert Altman’s more overtly satirical Nashville), the movie sought to capture the sentiments of a particular form of republicanism whose origins had been lost over the course of two centuries. Although the characters’ actions may have been deemed hypocritical during their lives, they can be understood, if not forgiven, by the distance afforded by time. Rich or poor, honest or corrupt, they are all equal now.