May 23, 2013
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Grade: 94/100

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson, Michael Hordern

What it's about. A costly costume epic set in Europe during the second half of the 18th century, and legendary director Stanley Kubrick's longest and perhaps, least accessible film. Based on a novel written circa-1840 by William Makepeace Thackeray.

As the film begins, Barry (Ryan O'Neal) is an earnest, physically imposing, and blank-faced young Irishman in love with his flirtatious cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton). When she courts wealthy but awkward English officer Quin (Leonard Rossiter), the impetuous and jealous Barry challenges him to a duel.

The outcome forces Barry to flee for Dublin. Still naive, he is robbed by highwayman Arthur O'Sullivan. Now broke and without prospects, he enlists in the English Army, then engaged in the Seven Years War. He adapts well, outclassing bully Pat Roach, but is disillusioned with war once his mentor, Captain Grogan (Godfrey Quigley) dies on the battlefield.

Barry steals the costume, horse, and identity of a British officer messenger to the Prussians, a British ally in the war. He rides east, stopping briefly at the farm of lonely young mother Diana Koerner, whose husband is at war, or quite possibly dead. Barry soon leaves her, and is stopped by shrewd Prussian officer Potzdorf (Hardy Krüger). Potzdorf recognizes him as an Irish deserter and forces him to enlist as a private in the Prussian Army.

However, Potzdorf befriends Barry after the latter saves his life during a battle. The war ends, and Barry joins the staff of Potzdorf. Barry is given an assignment to spy on Balibari (Patrick Magee), a gambler, cheat, and suspicious character. Instead, Barry becomes Balibari's partner in crime, and they tour Europe, fleecing nobles at court.

In England, Barry spots Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), the comely wife of wealthy and elderly Sir Charles Lyndon (Frank Middlemass). Barry seduces her, and marries her not long after her unpleasant cuckold husband dies of an apoplectic fit. But Barry's new stepson, Lord Bullingdon, despises Barry, whom he correctly sees as a wastrel and opportunist. Also at the estate are Bullingon's affected tutor Reverend Runt (Murray Melvin), and Lady Lyndon's humble bookkeeper Graham (Philip Stone).

The newlyweds have a son, Bryan (David Morley), an adorable but spoiled and mischievous lad. Barry's mother (Marie Kean) moves in and advises Barry to seek the title of Lord. Barry spends much of his wife's fortune in this pursuit, but is unsuccessful due to his public cruelty to the teenaged Bullingon (now played by Leon Vitali). Things then go from bad to worse for Barry, but as the dry narrator Michael Hordern informs us, they are all equal now.

How others will see it. Kubrick could only get financing for Barry Lyndon by selecting a top box office draw for the lead. Hence, Ryan O'Neal was chosen, who had commercial successes with Love Story, Paper Moon, and What's Up, Doc?. But the public proved ambivalent about O'Neal, and the movie was a financial loss for Warner Bros. Given the continued popular interest in Kubrick, it may yet break even.

Critics, though, favored the film from the start, despite its uncharismatic lead and the departure in style from prior Kubrick movies. John Alcott's cinematography was especially praised for its emphasis on natural lighting. Barry Lyndon won four Oscars, though losing in all categories in which Kubrick was nominated (Best picture, director, and screenplay). Kubrick did win Best Director at BAFTA.

Today at, the user vote total is 64K, highly respectable for a three-hour costume drama filmed nearly 40 years ago. The user rating of 8.1 is extremely high, enough to place the movie within the bottom reaches of the Top 250, though one wonders whether it would have made it there had Kubrick directed it under a pseudonym. Surprisingly, young men enjoy it most (8.6 out of 10) and there is a slow reduction to a nonetheless respectable 7.7 among men over 45.

Women like it less, with nearly one-quarter of all women over 45 (who could not care less what anyone else thinks about the movie) giving it just 1 out of 10. Presumably, this is due to the passive character of Lady Lyndon, the tragic death of young Bryan, and the downbeat ending. Would older women have enjoyed the film more if Barry had actually shot his sniveling stepson in the heart during the duel? Probably so.

How I felt about it. It is clearly an outstanding movie. The photography, costumes, and sets are beautiful. The script is both intelligent and credible. Kubrick is no hurry, and this bothers me not the least. When Graham shows up to visit the newly crippled Barry, small talk is required first. A "modern" director would have replaced the scene with Lord Bullingdon bursting into the room instead, intimidating and confronting Barry. Such unnecessary drama. We like it better this way.

It is interesting how the supporting characters are often intense and memorable, such as the highwayman, the bully, Quin, Grogan, Sir Charles Lyndon, etc. while Barry himself is generally stone faced throughout. It is if Barry is cutting a path through life, uprooting all in his path, yet spiritually unmoved by nothing except the death of his beloved son.

Also interesting is the comparison between Barry and his stepson. The former does the wrong thing the right way, while the latter does the right thing the wrong way. Kubrick makes it open to interpretation as to which of the two is more infamous.