Throwback Thursday: Ryan O’Neal Is an Irish Rogue Out for Himself in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

There are a number of unmade Stanley Kubrick film projects, among them a film based on Napoleon Bonaparte. Thankfully, since he wasn’t able to make that, instead we were given Barry Lyndon. Set in Europe in the late 18th century, this film details the life of Irishman Redmond Barry from his teenage years through the majority of his life. It is set up in two acts: In Act I, Barry is a poor young man whose father was killed in a duel, and we see his life through the Seven Years War and how he rises up through society to become a gentleman. Act II details his fall from grace and high society.

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Theatrical poster

Barry would probably be classified as an antihero, but I think he is more self-centered than a by-the-book antihero. He does try to do the right thing most of the time, but his focus on self-preservation, and wanting to rise above his original station tweaks his outlook on life so much that he ends up making a lot of bad decisions. However, the way Kubrick presents his story, and the inclusion of a somewhat cheeky narrator, shows that the director cares about this character, right or wrong.

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First duel for “honor”

Ryan O’Neal plays the Irish rogue with a certain hesitant quality—like he’s trying to read people so that he can figure out the exact right thing to say or do. He does play Barry throughout the entire film, from teen to older man, and the beginning scenes are a little harder to watch because he doesn’t play “naïve young boy” well, and on a first viewing this can possibly pull you out of the story. However, on repeated viewings, it makes more sense and fits in well with his character arc, or lack of one. (Interesting side note: watch this as a double feature with Full Metal Jacket and you’ll see a huge overlap between O’Neal’s Barry and Matthew Modine’s Joker.) Marisa Berenson is the Lady Lyndon, whom Barry marries to take a title, and she is gorgeous throughout the film. She doesn’t have a lot to do except pay for things, but that’s part of the point. Barry treats her as an item to be used, not as a person. He’s definitely not a hero, but he doesn’t want to be a hero. He wants to be a gentleman.

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Lady Lyndon and her son

In fact, the film focuses a lot on what it means to be a “gentleman.” You could be a complete asshole, but if you followed protocol, you were still in line with society and what was considered gentlemanly. This is shown by the moments of violence throughout Barry’s life. The film starts with showing how he lost his father in a duel; the next duel we see shows Barry trying to be a gentleman while following his heart, but it ends with him being tricked and forced to run away from home. We then are shown Barry, having joined up with the British army, fighting a fellow solider over perceived slights—which, again, is accepted because the fight follows the rules laid down. The first battle his regiment is in shows how war was fought. Lines of soldiers marching and being mowed down, tragic but also honorable.

The one scuffle that occurs that does not follow the rules ends up casting Barry from the society he has tried his whole life to get into, which is in marked contrast to the final duel the film ends on. (There’s actually a short coda after the duel and a wonderful epilogue that ties the film together). He tries to do the honorable thing and help his stepson save face, and his life, but he ends up losing everything. An argument could be made that he starts to lose things before this, and I would agree, but the nail in the coffin comes from the final duel. The film definitely has something to say about the subject.

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Playing cards in the candlelight

It wouldn’t be a Kubrick film without gorgeous cinematography, and this is one of his most luscious productions. Every frame is like a moving Renaissance painting. Another interesting note is that Kubrick had new camera lenses created for this film. Wanting the scenes to look distinct and unlike other costume films of the time, he had decided to shoot with as much natural light as possible, but this was problematic when it came to indoor shots, which relied on candle flames for their only light source. To overcome camera limitations of the time, which showed the candles as grainy and caused light to flicker, he helped to modify some high-tech NASA lenses to allow wider apertures. (If you’re interested in cameras and lenses at all, check this out—it’s a clipping from American Cinematographer that details exactly the problems Kubrick and his team had and what they did to overcome them.)

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The final duel

Another quick side note: if you’re a historical costume buff, I think your mouth will water at all the details in these outfits. I’m not a costume person, but even I was in awe of the outfits. In fact, I hesitate to call them costumes because even though they are brilliant, they’re “lived in” and don’t feel straight out of a museum—which is funny seeing as a lot of them now are in museums.

All told, this is probably Kubrick’s grandest film. If you’ve seen other films of his—The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey—I would recommend this as another beautiful, panoramic, sumptuous film, but there is a distance to the narration like most of his films. You’re watching what happens, but you’re not asked to engage. But that’s okay with a film this beautiful.

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All we are is dust in the wind . . . dude.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix rental and streaming right now, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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