Barry Lyndon

barry lyndon

Barry Lyndon is a 1975 period film directed by Stanley Kubrick based on the 1844 novel ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’ by William Makepeace Thackeray which recounts the exploits of an 18th century a man of the Irish gentry trying to become a member of the English aristocracy.

The film is divided into two halves each headed with a title card: ‘I. By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon.’ ‘II. Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon.’ The epilogue read: ‘It was in the reign of King George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.’

The cast featured Leon Vitali as the older Lord Bullingdon, who would then became Kubrick’s personal assistant, working as the casting director on his following films, and supervising film-to-video transfers for Kubrick. Their relationship lasted until Kubrick’s death. The film’s cinematographer, John Alcott, appears at the men’s club in the non-speaking role of the man asleep in a chair near the title character when Lord Bullingdon challenges Barry to a duel.

After ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ Kubrick made plans for a film about Napoleon Bonaparte. During pre-production, however, Sergei Bondarchuk and Dino De Laurentiis’ ‘Waterloo’ was released and subsequently failed at the box office. As a result, Kubrick’s financiers pulled their funding for the film. He was furious, having put considerable time and effort into the development of the Napoleon project. Left with no alternative, he turned his attention to his next film, ‘A Clockwork Orange.’

Subsequently, Kubrick showed an interest in Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ but dropped the project when a serialised version for television was produced. He told an interviewer, ‘At one time, Vanity Fair interested me as a possible film but, in the end, I decided the story could not be successfully compressed into the relatively short time-span of a feature film…as soon as I read Barry Lyndon I became very excited about it.’

Having garnered Oscar nominations for ‘Dr Strangelove,’ ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ Kubrick’s reputation in the early 1970s was that of ‘a perfectionist auteur who loomed larger over his movies than any concept or star.’ Having felt compelled to set aside his plans for a film about ‘Napoleon Bonaparte,’ Kubrick set his sights on Thackeray’s 1844 ‘satirical picaresque about the fortune-hunting of an Irish rogue,’ Barry Lyndon, the setting of which allowed Kubrick to take advantage of the copious period research he had done for the now-aborted Napoleon project.

Many of the film’s exteriors were shot in Ireland, playing ‘itself, England, and Prussia during the Seven Years’ War.’ Drawing inspiration from ‘the landscapes of Watteau and Gainsborough,’ Kubrick and cinematographer Alcott also relied on the ‘scrupulously researched art direction’ of Ken Adam and Roy Walker.

The film—as with almost every Kubrick film—is a ‘showcase for [a] major innovation in technique.’ While ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ had featured ‘revolutionary effects,’ and ‘The Shining’ would later feature heavy use of the Steadicam, Barry Lyndon saw a considerable number of sequences shot ‘without recourse to electric light.’ Cinematography was overseen by director of photography John Alcott (who won an Oscar for his work), and is particularly noted for the technical innovations that made some of its most spectacular images possible. To achieve photography without electric lighting ‘[f]or the many densely furnished interior scenes… meant shooting by candlelight,’ which is known to be difficult.

Kubrick was ‘determined not to reproduce the set-bound, artificially lit look of other costume dramas from that time.’ The production got hold of three ‘super-fast 50mm’ f/0.7 lenses ‘developed by Zeiss for use by NASA in the Apollo moon landings,’ which Kubrick had discovered in his search for low-light solutions. These super-fast lenses ‘[w]ith their huge aperture [the film actually features the largest lens aperture in film history] and fixed focal length’ were problematic to mount, but allowed Kubrick and Alcott to shoot scenes lit with actual candles to an average lighting volume of only three candlepower, ‘recreating the huddle and glow of a pre-electrical age.’

Although Kubrick’s express desire was to avoid electric lighting where possible, most shots were achieved with conventional lenses and lighting, but were lit to deliberately mimic natural light rather than for compositional reasons. In addition to potentially seeming more realistic, these methods also gave a particular period look to the film which has often been likened to 18th century paintings (which were, of course, depicting a world devoid of electric lighting), in particular owing ‘a lot to William Hogarth, with whom Thackeray had always been fascinated.’

The film has a ‘stately, painterly, often determinedly static quality.’ For example, to help light some interior scenes, lights were placed outside and aimed through the windows, which were covered in a diffuse material to scatter the light evenly through the room rather than being placed inside for maximum use as most conventional films do. Despite such slight tinting effects, this method of lighting not only gave the look of natural daylight coming in through the windows, but it also protected the historic locations from the damage caused by mounting the lights on walls or ceilings and the heat from the lights. This helped the film ‘fit… perfectly with Kubrick’s gilded-cage aesthetic – the film is consciously a museum piece, its characters pinned to the frame like butterflies.’

The film’s period setting allowed Kubrick to indulge his penchant for classical music, and the film score uses pieces by Bach, Frederick the Great, Vivaldi, Giovanni Paisiello, Mozart, and, and Schubert. The piece most associated with the film is the main title music: Handel’s stately ‘Sarabande from the Suite in D minor HWV 437.’ Originally for solo harpsichord, the versions for the main and end titles are performed very romantically with orchestral strings, harpsichord, and timpani. It is used at various points in the film, in various arrangements, to indicate the implacable working of impersonal fate. The score also includes Irish folk music arranged by Paddy Moloney and performed by The Chieftains.

The source novel is written by Lyndon while imprisoned looking back on his life. Lyndon is a notable example of the literary device of the unreliable narrator – throughout the novel the reader is constantly asked to question the veracity of the events described by him. Kubrick however felt that using a first-person narrative would not be useful in a film adaptation: ‘I believe Thackeray used Redmond Barry to tell his own story in a deliberately distorted way because it made it more interesting. Instead of the omniscient author, Thackeray used the imperfect observer, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the dishonest observer, thus allowing the reader to judge for himself, with little difficulty, the probable truth in Redmond Barry’s view of his life. This technique worked extremely well in the novel but, of course, in a film you have objective reality in front of you all of the time, so the effect of Thackeray’s first-person story-teller could not be repeated on the screen. It might have worked as comedy by the juxtaposition of Barry’s version of the truth with the reality on the screen, but I don’t think that Barry Lyndon should have been done as a comedy.’

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