I’m going to come right out and say it, Barry Lyndon is a really long movie. I will try not to let that contagion infect this essay but no promises. I think it’s fair to describe Barry Lyndon’s story as both epic and meandering, powerful and lackluster. As always, Stanley Kubrick’s intentions when he crafted the film remain ambiguous, but his talent does not. I’ve posed the theory in the past that Kubrick’s films are included in the conversation for “best of” in nearly every genre: 2001 tops most lists of best Sci Fi movies, The Shining is easily one one of the most influential horror movies, Dr. Strangelove has been called the greatest political satire on film, Full Metal Jacket is considered one of the best movies about war, and I’ve heard at least one argument that Lolita is the most romantic film ever made. In that spirit, I think it’s safe to enshrine Barry Lyndon as one of the best period pieces ever made.
Much has been written about how this film was designed to evoke the atmosphere of classic oil paintings from the era in which the story is set. There are images of static figures in scenes naturally lit by oil lamps and candle light, but otherwise shrouded in darkness. There are wide stunning shots of countrysides that are green and lush, dotted by shadows cast from perfect fluffy clouds in the big blue sky. That vast, expansive, landscape serves as the setting for most of the film, leaving no doubt that Kubrick intended this to be a pastoral story — one that was primarily concerned with a man navigating through complex life experiences anchored, and at times condemned or advantaged, by that “simplistic” rurality.
The country setting, the recurrent image of the single man on his horse, and the series of duels also act as a reminder of the American Western tradition and the commonalities shared between the aesthetics of both periods. The story of a lone cowboy-esque character in a lawless land is one that has been repurposed over and over throughout the history of literature. It’s easy to draw comparisons between Barry Lyndon and countless epic tales about a man wandering alone through the frontier in search of salvation and learning from the symbolic individuals he encounters on that journey (Pilgrim’s Progress, The Odyssey, Don Quixote). Barry Lyndon recycles this classic form, but instead of building the narrative around a classic hero above reproach, we’re guided by a less redeeming and more obviously morally questionable, narcissistic, rascal.
Barry’s most adamant defender throughout the story is the narrator and he consistently mentions the role of “fate” and “destiny” in his life. That focus is misleading because each step in Barry’s journey appears to be a direct result of his actions, and not at all related to a guiding hand or mysterious omnipotent force. This is a character study of Barry himself, especially his underlying psychic forces. The most prescient force influencing his decisions are personal finances, and that economic roller coaster is the strongest thread lacing together all of the episodes in his life, and the motives behind each of his actions. On one of Barry’s upswings, nestled between his bouts of destitution, the narrator tells us that:
“Barry felt he was now in his proper sphere. And determined never again to fall from the rank of a gentleman.”
The vow is short lived, but the determination remains within him, even when he eventually realizes that priority is misguided. In the third act, Barry’s mother tells him, “Money, well-timed and properly applied can accomplish anything” but shortly later we’re reminded by a priest at his son’s funeral “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Money is a temporal and superficial element in Barry’s life, one that he gains and losses but chases with vigor.
When his son dies, Barry realizes what had only existed in his subconscious prior to that point: relationships are the most meaningful mile posts in our lives. Barry Lyndon’s story begins with the death of his father in a duel, and that prologue proves significant as Barry hunts out mentors to fill that hole in his life in each episode. Captain Grogan and the Chevalier are knaves but Barry seeks their tutelage and loves them wholeheartedly, as he does his own son. This sense of loyalty and kinship is applicable to only the father figures he adopts, his mother, and his biological son.
If anything, it appears Barry’s journey is one that reminds us the his quest for grandeur and significance can never fill the gaping hole left by his loss. Ultimately, the torch of that Freudian despondency is passed to his step son, Lord Bullingdon, who begins the cycle anew. The epilogue succinctly summarizes the existential therom behind Barry’s story: It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.