THEY ARE ALL EQUAL NOW: A MOVIE REVIEW OF “BARRY LYNDON”
By Avellina Balestri (alias Rosaria Marie)
Word count: 3569
Summary: Our dear chief editor gives her well-informed opinion on “Barry Lyndon.”
Length: 184 minutes
Maturity: PG (for intense thematic elements and some sexual innuendos)
Cast: Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Marie Kean (Barry’s Mother), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon), Leonard Rossiter (Captain John Quinn), Godfrey Quigley (Captain Grogan), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier du Balibari), Hardy Kruger (Captain Potzdorf), Murray Melvin (Rev. Samuel Runt), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), King George III (Roger Booth), Arthur O’Sullivan (Captain Feeny, Highwayman), Seamus Feeny (Billy Boyle), Michael Hordern (Narrator)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Personal Rating: 4 Stars
As my longtime readers will know, I have had a hard time grinning and bearing the sorry succession of modern historical epics, inculcated with rampant historical inaccuracy and blatant revisionism that destroys both feel and form. And yet every once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised to watch a movie that captures its given era in an artful and appropriate way. Such is the case with Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.
While it may not be my favorite plot-line per se, for a period piece it stands out as being comfortable in its own skin, with swagger, elegance, and wry British wit to boot. Also, looking for spiritual insights, I would say that the film should not be mistaken for light entertainment about a naughty boy who overplays his hand, but rather recognized as analysis of the mixed capacity of the human nature and a cautionary tale about the dangers of seeking greatness over goodness.
Ryan O’Neal stars as Redmond Barry, a young middle-class Irishman in the mid-18th century whose father is killed in a duel. He is raised by his devoted mother, who struggles monetarily and has high hopes that her son will climb socially and bring glory to the family name. However, when Barry falls in love with his flirtatious cousin, Nora Brady, he is almost undone by her wiles after she throws herself at Captain John Quinn, a wealthy British army officer who comes to Ireland on a recruiting mission after the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. Letting his fiery temper get the best of him, Barry throws a wine glass at his rival, and a duel is arranged between the two. When Barry hits his target, he is forced to flee for fear of repercussions.
But a twist of fate in the form of a roadside robbery causes Barry to enlist as a redcoat in the British army. Taken under the wing of his friend, Captain Grogan, and able to win the respect of his comrades through his cheeky disposition and fighting prowess, it seems that he might have found his calling. But when Grogan is killed in their first skirmish in Germany, Barry begins to lose his zest for battle. The burning and pillaging only add to his distaste, and soon he makes up his mind to desert by commandeering one of his officer’s uniforms and claiming that he is carrying dispatches to the Prussian allies. But he is found out by the clever Prussian Captain Potzdorf and subsequently inducted into the even more brutal Prussian service.
Barry takes a downward turn in his personal behavior, becoming a cynical survivor in what he sees as the game of life. However, he does save the life of Potzdorf after he is trapped in a burning building, and as a result is taken out of the army and put into the secret service to observe a certain Chevalier de Balibari, a noted gambler and gourmet whose allegiances are in question. When Barry discovers that the Chevalier is a fellow Irishman, he becomes a double-spy for him instead, and ultimately escapes the country as his partner in the art of the gaming table. His skill with the sword is also useful to gently persuade reluctant gentlemen to pay the piper after losing at cards!
In Belgium, Barry takes fate into his own hands in an effort to earn himself a title and embarks on a love affair with the beautiful Lady Honoria Lyndon, an English aristocrat on holiday with her aged husband, Sir Charles Lyndon. After her husband’s death (stress-induced, after Barry skillfully and heartlessly taunts him), the two are married, and Barry believes that his way upward is secured. But Honoria’s son, now styled as Young Lord Bullingdon, is not duped by the swaggering Irish rogue and refuses to acknowledge him as his new father.
Honoria herself becomes disillusioned with her new husband over time. His grasping after personal aggrandizement and multiple affairs drain the family wealth and leave her out in the cold. But Barry and his wife do have a son of their own named Bryan Patrick, and Barry proves to be a tender and loving father who will do anything to secure his child’s happiness and advancement. Indeed, his affection for the boy stands in stark contrast to his flagrant neglect of his wife and domineering attitude towards his stepson.
As he grows older, Young Bullingdon tries his best to bear up with Barry’s disgraceful flaunting of the family name as he adopts the style Lyndon, a slap-in-the-face to his dead rival, and continues to squander what should be Bullingdon’s inheritance. Tensions also flare during lessons alongside his spoiled little half-brother, leading to a humiliating thrashing from Barry. Eventually Bullingdon can stand the circumstances no longer, and after a major confrontation with Barry in front of a parlor full of guests, leaves his home in self-imposed exile.
However, after little Bryan is killed by a horse his father had bought him, Barry rapidly deteriorates in grief. Abandoned by his fair-weather friends in the English ruling class, he takes to heavy drinking and continuing to hemorrhage what was left of the family finances. Lady Honoria, meanwhile, is kept a virtual prisoner in her own home. It is at this junction that Young Bullingdon realizes that it is his duty to rescue his mother and reclaim his inheritance.
Artistically and cinematically, Barry Lyndon is breathtakingly beautiful. The director Stanley Kubrick was inspired by the works of the 18th century painters and determined to shoot the film using natural lighting techniques in both exterior and interior scenes. The result is a lush panorama of sequences that appear to be still shots from an art gallery brought to life and set in motion. The outdoor sky-shots in particular look like watercolors.
Costuming and sets are exquisite and detailed. Those beautiful red coats and sparkling gorgets were my particular weak spot, not to mention all the pristine satin and silks of the dandies and their ladies…and the wigs! Sheer bliss!! The music, too, was perfectly period appropriate, including the almost continuous underpinning of a Baroque score, the rousing versions of “British Grenadiers” and “Lilli Burlero”, and the haunting ballad “Women of Ireland” played by The Chieftains. From the military marches to the country dances, to the gaming parties of the rich and famous, everything is richly and evocatively portrayed.
But the film has more to recommend it than eye candy. All too often, costume dramas will excel in the visual department but remain unable to penetrate the historical barrier. Instead of trying to make the viewer feel as if they are traveling back in time, the plot and dialogue is cluttered with presuppositions and prejudices foisted onto the past by modernistic emissaries in costume, some depicting over-the-top villains who represent the evils of the age and others portraying forward-thinking, farsighted wonder-bunnies for heroes and heroines. The whole thing becomes a cheesy would-be morality play glorifying modernism as opposed to trying to truly empathize with those who have gone before us. Not so with the slyly satirical yet admirably even-handed Barry Lyndon.
I particularly appreciated the way that ceremonial conduct of the age was depicted, which has all too often been turned into a complete mockery in films such as The Last of the Mohicans, The Patriot, The Battle of the Brave, etc. But the characters in this movie seem quite comfortable with all of it, as well they should within their own time period. They easily address each other as “Sir” and “Madam”, live within the cultural norms of the day, and maintain a certain code of verbal civility even in activities such as fist-fighting and dueling. Fair play is vitally important in these, as are the concepts of courage and personal honor. While some of these manifestations may seem strange to our modern sensibilities, and the dour British narrator takes quite a few pricks at the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the era, one cannot help but admire at least some of the “gentleman’s code”, even if not everyone followed it and some used it the wrong way.
Within the plot, character portrayals are constantly challenging stereotypes. Each individual is unique and has both good and bad traits. There are no over-the-top baddies or hair-slicked-back-heroes to be found. Redmond Barry, of course, is the epitome of this complexity. He starts out as a warm-blooded young romantic, and is in some ways lovably roguish and daring as he makes his own fortune in a world where birth and breeding can make or break a man. And yet we find ourselves increasingly disillusioned by his methods, going from a deserter to a double-spy to a gambler to a licentious adulterer and indirect killer.
Ultimately, his house proves to be built on sand, and his obsession with obtaining a title and becoming a member of the peerage drains his wife’s fortune. Furthermore, his own cynicism towards life that enabled him to survive and thrive by throwing out the rule book now almost prevents him from being able to love anyone at all, living only for the fleeting pleasures he may grasp by any means necessary. And yet Barry still has some goodness left in him, which is brought out in his genuine devotion to his mischievous son Brian. But it seems almost as if his degeneration of character has cast of a curse over his family, because the young Brian dies mounting a horse that his father purchased for him in an effort to further demonstrate his prestige and his ability to shower his heir with gifts. In this way, the story is one both of keen pathos and subtle humanity.
I always wondered why the front cover of Barry Lyndon portrayed a shadowy figure pointing his pistol to the ground. Now I have come to see it as alluding to the moment of his partial redemption. When Barry’s son-in-law, Lord Bullingdon, returns to rescue his mother and reclaim his rightful inheritance, he challenges Barry to a duel. In the process, the young man accidentally sets off his pistol before taking aim. According the strict rules of the duel, he has used up his shot, and must stand and receive the shot from his opponent.
Bullingdon is horrified, and throws up in the corner before recovering himself and honorably standing to await the shot. That sparkle of decency that we always knew Barry had shows itself again, and he calmly fires his pistol into the ground. This allows Bullingdon to choose to either end the contest, or to take another shot. He takes another shot, and hits Barry in the leg, which is later amputated, ending his reign as a Lyndon. (Notice that dueling is the main motif of this film, which opens with Barry’s father being killed in a duel, hinges on his duel with John Quinn, and finishes with his duel with Bullingdon.)
The other characters, too, are given well-rounded treatment, including British officer Captain John Quinn. Quinn may be pompous, but he’s not evil, a fact which I have ceased to take for granted after watching too many horrendous epics with redcoat insta-baddies. In fact, he doesn’t really do anything wrong except fall in love with the same flirtatious female who stole the heart of Barry! It’s true that he has cash to back him, but Nora was ready and willing to accept his marriage proposal and settlement. Barry is totally out-of-line in throwing the glass at Quinn, which smashes in his face and leaves a gash on his forehead. In the duel, Quinn is willing to let the whole thing go if Barry apologizes and goes off to Dublin, but Barry will have none of it. Unbeknownst to them all, Nora’s family put fake bullets in Barry’s gun, so his shot merely knocks Quinn out from the impact, but he later comes to and marries Nora!
Reverend Rump, Honoria’s chaplain, is an intriguing character as well. While at first I thought they might characterize him as a pasty-faced paid hireling, using his religious robes to obtain a juicy income, he actually turns out to be a figure of moral strength and integrity. While he is the one chosen to marry Barry and Honoria, and initially encourages young Bullingdon to accept his “new father”, he later comes to realize that Lady Honoria’s Irish lover-turned-husband is a cad and wastrel. Rump is one of her sole supports during the years of neglect, and serves as the tutor of both her sons. When Bryan is tragically killed, he is the one who performs the funeral service, and again serves as a major support for Lady Lyndon in her grief, who is on the border of a nervous breakdown and locked in her own house.
When Barry’s mother, who emigrated from Ireland to become the matriarch of the household, tries to fire Rump from his post, he calmly states that he’d be happy to go without the pay, but he cannot leave Lady Lyndon in her present condition. He then stands up to her, and says they have no right to hold her prisoner in order to hide Barry’s misappropriation of funds and alcoholism. When he is forced to go anyway, Lady Lyndon tries to commit suicide. Rump and another loyal servant are then instrumental in bringing news to Young Bullingdon of the deteriorating situation, and encourage him to launch his rescue attempt. I have to admit that there were times I thought Rev. Rump might have had feelings for Lady Lyndon, and could not help but think that after all the suffering they had gone through together they would make a good pair. So yeah…can we file for an Anglican annulment for Barry and Honoria so Samuel and Honoria can get married and start afresh?
Young Bullingdon is probably my favorite character in the movie. I can’t imagine what I would do in this kid’s position, but he handles it with a fair amount of dignified resolve. I mean, Barry practically killed off his father, misuses his mother, squanders his inheritance, and usurps the family name only to disgrace it by his dissolute conduct. When his mother says he should kiss his “new father” goodbye, he responds boldly “My father was Sir Charles Lyndon; have you forgotten him, Madam?” (Round of applause from me!) He is then chastised with the whipping stick by Barry, but the fight is on, and the young nobleman will not be broken.
For most of the movie, he manages to keep his emotions in check in spite of the worsening situation. Even in his very hottest moments, when he calls out Barry as “an Irish peasant and ruffian”, there is a certain noble bearing that contrasts with Barry’s striving for nobility. Basically, Barry can fake it, but he can’t make it, and all his noble connections are simply using him for their own ends. In the end, perhaps this is the most paradoxically tragic critique of the class system. It breeds both honor and dishonor, all tied up in its refusal to let a man be anything more than his birth made him. It is a strangulation that creates self-fulfilling prophecies of peasants being ruffians and rogues, because desperation drives them to it.
Still, Bullingdon himself never completely loses his own sense of honor. When he finally takes his revenge, it is done out of necessity, to rescue his mother and estate. While some would accuse him of hardness of heart for refusing to back down from the duel after Barry spared him, if he had done so his mission would have been a sorry flop. Still, after he shoots his stepfather in the leg, he does send a message to Barry’s mother informing her where her son is so she can be with him. He also offers him an annuity to live on after his leg is amputated, providing that he leaves England never to return. The once-proud Barry has no option but to take the annuity and leave.
Barry Lyndon is a very British film, complete with dark humor, meandering pace, and a profound, cut-dry finale. Some people get lulled to sleep or puzzled by this style, and in some cases I would agree with them. But for this setting, I think it worked to a tee. It is also very British in the way it characterizes the Irish as a hot-tempered, somewhat untrustworthy race with charm and charisma but compromised morals and motives. Nevertheless, there is also a grudging respect for their indomitable spirit and refusal to be cowed, which is epitomized by Barry’s declaration to John Quinn (who was offering him a way out of the duel if he’d leave town), “I’d as soon go to Dublin as to Hell!”
The real question is…are Barry and his Irish family and friends Catholic Celtic-Irish or Protestant Anglo-Irish? I originally thought it might be the latter since they are middle-class landholders capable of joining the military. But there are subtle Catholic undertones in the story, such as when Captain Grogan is once seen making the sign of the cross. Perhaps they are Catholics who apostatized under the pressure? Perhaps this also could be chalked up to a feverish desperation to climb at all costs?
With regards to content and rating, this is the story of a rake’s rise and fall, so scandal is in the air. But for a ‘70s movie, it doesn’t get too “in the weeds” with regards to Barry’s sexual escapades, aside from are a couple of scenes with brief flashes of female nudity and passionate kissing. An important part of the story does hinge on a “game” played by the promiscuous Nora Brady, who has Barry reach inside her bodice to pull out a ribbon…only to have John Quinn do the same a little later on! But that’s her character; she’s not above board. The guys, of course, shouldn’t be playing the game at all, but their participation ultimately makes them both pretty foolish looking.
While some people have complained of the stiffness, slow pace, and odd juxtaposition of satire and tragedy in the movie, one advertisement for the film trumpeted: “Its aching beauty will wipe you out!” I agree that there is something about Barry Lyndon that does have an aching beauty about it, and it’s not just the picture-perfect scenery. By the end of the film, Barry is a pathetic creature who sold his soul to get to the top, and lost everything. But we can’t just relish his deserved decline, for he embodies too many of our own warped desires and desperations and the consequences of larger societal injustices. He starts out as a naïve, starry-eyed romantic with hopes of greatness for the future, but the class system prevents him from ever achieving those goals, unless he plays outside their boxes, striking below the belt. He becomes his own worst enemy in using every person and circumstance he encounters as merely another prong on the ladder of success.
And still he is not all bad. He dearly loves his only child, and refuses to kill his archenemy stepson coming back to avenge the insults to his honor, even when he is more than capable of doing so as a skilled duelist. Throughout the film, he is also shown as being emotional by nature, beneath his cynical façade, and given to tears, especially upon the death of his friend Captain Grogan, the meeting of a fellow Irishman in Chevalier du Balibari, and the death of Bryan.
It is during these heartfelt moments when one wants to console and rehabilitate Barry, telling him that there is still time to patch up the messes he had made and live a different sort of life. There can be redemption for him yet, for in truth, a person’s identity does not depend upon the titles of the world or on how high they can rise in public estimation, but who they really are, based in the quality of their soul.
But perhaps the story of Barry Lyndon must remain unfinished, for there are so many unfinished stories just like his in the world today, victims of circumstances both within and beyond their control. Perhaps the lesson for us here is to remember well the passing nature of all worldly splendor and to commit all those trapped in cycles of insecurity and sin to the mercy of God, before whom all earthly titles are null and void and all souls are equal. This is formalized in the closing scene of the film where it is written: “It was 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.” And that, I think, is a very profound epilogue for this panoramic picture of historical significance.