1975: Barry Lyndon


Thanks to TOM  Tom and  MARK  who are hosting a mid-decade blogathon and allowing me to contribute. I selected the bewildering Stanley Kubrick film epic, Barry Lyndon, not because it was the easiest film to watch in 1975–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Best Film at the Oscars–but rather Barry Lyndon has had many a movie viewer scratching their heads and wondering what to say about it. When I think of Barry Lyndon, I think of wine lovingly created from Pinot noir grapes. To appreciate the film is an acquired taste that takes time and patience. In other words, when I watched it in my teens, I was bored. I still couldn’t appreciate it in my twenties or thirties. Now, I see the beauty, feel the sophistication, and marvel at the mastery of Stanley Kubrick.

Won: Best Set Design, Costumes, Score, Cinematography; Nominated: Best Director, Film, Adapted Screenplay

Why It is Great 

If you are fond of period pieces, Kubrick showcases the European, eighteenth century class structure. For the protagonist Barry Lyndon, all that mattered was improving his station to the rank of gentleman by any means possible. It was this ambition to circulate among the gentry that propelled his actions and the plot. Barry Lyndon rises as an Irish nobody to rubbing elbows with the aristocracy. His time in the British and Prussian armies show the servitude of its soldiers. Scoundrels rob coaches and horsemen. Widows and single mothers wonder how best to feed their children. The poor are hunched over and exhausted. The rich with powdered wigs and beauty marks sit in opulent galleries bored or playing cards and gossiping. Kubrick’s subtlety for demonstrating class divisions by painting a cinematographic portrait is perfect. The costumes, their props, chandeliers, fountains, and manicured grounds are breathtaking.


The film is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Kubrick stages and frames each shot with meticulous care. The beauty of the rolling hills of Ireland and England, the manorial estates, the duels, the military formations, the positioning of periphery people from each class is orchestrated. Now add the period music which is selected to enhance a transition or the mood of the scene. The viewer is privy to a ballet of poise and symmetry. I would not be surprised to learn Wes Anderson, who employs similar staging in his films, is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick. It is why I love Wes Anderson films.

The Narrator 


Michael Hordern. He had the warm, buttery voice of the quintessential British gentleman. He was a character actor you might remember in Where Eagles Dare (1968) or as the Admiral in Gandhi (1982). His voice represented all things having to do with the British canon. I remember him in the 80s animated series of The Wind and the Willows as the Badger and the voice of The Wise Man in The Labyrinth. In Barry Lyndon, his voice had an interesting role in the film.

Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray's novel into the screenplay.
Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s novel into the screenplay.

The adapted screenplay neatly divides the story with the narrator telling us how to interpret events and how to feel about Barry Lyndon. This approach reduces Barry to a puppet of fate and the audience is distanced from his internal thoughts. The narration also conveys key information which feels invasive. Notice how the narrator’s relationship with Barry Lyndon changes from Act I to Act II. He introduces our protagonist like an uncle who knows too much and gives away too much. By the end of the second act, he refers to him as Barry, and the formality is gone. We have traveled along with Lyndon during his escapades and are exhausted as though we parented a juvenile delinquent and don’t know how much of the blame resides with us. The narrator mimics the stuffy verbiage of British literature from the 1800s while discussing events which occurred in the 1700s. It’s a Victorian tale in love with the Romantic period. In 1975, mainstream audiences passed it by for more modern tales like Shampoo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 


Act II is more interesting than Act I because of the parallel construction of Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullington. Jealousy, betrayal, and revenge spark up dramatic tension. The saintly younger son, Bryan, brings out the best in Barry Lyndon while Bullington brings out the worst. There is moral ambiguity running through the story echoed by the narrator. Do you like Barry? Does Barry’s corrupted soul bring about his demise? Is a he a pawn of fate?

For me, the weakness of the film is the arm’s-length distance the viewer has with Barry Lyndon.  This distance is exemplified by the reversal of shots in the cinematography. Frequently, the shot begins as a close up and withdraws to the wide angle long shot and stays there. The upside would be to show Barry is lost in the big picture and unable to control his destiny. Clever. But the downside is that the distance keeps me disengaged. Perhaps it is the fault of Ryan O’Neill whose acting is wooden and his passive wife, Lady Lyndon, played by Marisa Berenson, is numb throughout? Maybe it’s because the film is 3 hours and 7 minutes long that has one looking for the ending before it happens? Epics are hard to watch. However, notice how the emotional peaks are connected around physical expressions varying from kissing, duels, whippings, fights, and bodily mutilations.


Stanley Kubrick’s wish to film using natural light to create a pre-electric world had him searching for lenses that were fast enough to capture the candlelit interior shots. He found his solution at NASA and was able to authenticate the natural world of the 1700s. I respect him for that. You can read more about his lenses HERE.

Do you think Barry Lyndon is Kubrick’s under appreciated masterpiece?

35 thoughts on “1975: Barry Lyndon

Add yours

  1. cindy, did you see the movie on a big screen or a video monitor? I saw it at a cinerama theatre, and the nothing seemed small in the long shots. i interpreted the movement of close-up to longshots as kubricks maintaining an intimate connnection of barry with the viewer before showing how unexceptional he is when contextualized in a social group. love your interpretation of the shiftin narration, never thought of that before, and i think you are right.


    1. Hi! I saw the film eventually on the big screen at a Kubrick Fest a long time ago. Now I watch it on Blue-Ray on my big screen and it looks great, but nothing can replace the experience of a theater screen. I regret I gave the wrong impression of the close up to wide shots in the film. They were unique and showed, as you say, how lost Barry is in his world. I concentrated on the settings of each shot and the purpose of the narrator. I do believe it’s one of Kubrick’s best films. Thank you very much for visiting 🙂


      1. Hey Cindy, that anonymous comment above was mine. i posted before logging in. overall, i think this is one of your very best posts. very well thought out and expressed. i loved your explanation of the shift in the narrative voice. never thought of that before.


        1. Hi Bill! I was hoping for your opinion, and was disappointed you hadn’t stopped by. I thought perhaps you had a dislike for Kubrick or my assessment. Glad to hear I didn’t disappoint. I worked hard on it. Cheers, friend 🙂


  2. What a good selection. I loved looking back and reading this fresh appreciation. I do think this is a production ahead of its time, which is often bad for business when a film first comes out, but good for us viewers since we dig these pictures out of warehouses and restore them lovingly decades later.

    I was in film school when this came out, and we had some passionate arguments over it, especially regarding pace and Kubrick’s emerging OCD. To me it made sense for things to develop languidly in such a remote period. It’s consistent with the way people of that time would experience events. The movie also emulates the composition and lighting of William Hogarth’s paintings, a conscious choice.

    Those opposed to the film in my circle noted that the novel is comic, and told in first-person by Barry, so they didn’t agree with the adaptation being tragic, and narrated by an omniscient. The book moves along more briskly too, since it was serialized (like Dickens) originally. I didn’t care. Books aren’t movies.

    I enjoyed it more than most audiences from the beginning. It’s the last film of Kubrick’s I do like.


    1. Hi Mikey–thanks for sharing your film school memories! I love it. First, I agree wholeheartedly that books and films are two different texts and I never had a problem separating the two. I think twists are fun. Anyway, thanks for mentioning William Hogarth, I remember reading about Kubrick’s intent to imitate the painting–another clever choice by him. I also agree the film rightly displays the narrative in a languid way–time today is rushed–not back then! Thank you 🙂


  3. A perfect review of one of my favourite films Cindy. I was 23 when it came out, and saw it on a big screen in a London cinema. I was immediately enthralled, and had no problem with the length of the film, or the periods of ennui, which I took to be deliberate, and compelling. The settings and scenery, costumes and script, all were immaculately done, in my opinion. Even the pull-outs to long-shot that you don’t like, I actually feel that they suited the film admirably.
    I never did read the book, but then films are so rarely like the books they are based on, and tend to disappoint lovers of the original literature.

    The huge flaw in the film is the casting of Ryan O’Neal. I always took this to be necessary to sell the film on the US market. Not only was he unsuited to the role as his acting was pedestrian at best, he had no sense of period, unlike much of the rest of the wonderful cast. I thought that this film stood alone as an almost perfect rendition of an historical period, until Peter Greenaway swept me away with the masterpiece that is ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’. But that is a very different film, and ‘Barry Lyndon’ is as good as anything Kubrick ever made.

    Best wishes from England. Pete.


    1. Oh, Pete, I am sorry I gave the impression I didn’t like the close-up to wide angle shots. I do! The film has a taste of the Greek Tragedy. He is a fool at the hands of the Gods and we watch him as though watching from Mt. Olympus. The distance I don’t care for, but I do like the effect of Barry as a minute speck of dust and than expand to the setting which is more majestic, ancient, and permanent than poor Barry. So the shots were perfect. Also, thanks for the Greenaway ‘The Draughtsman’s Contract’. I hope I can find it and rent it. Thanks again for your thoughts from England, Pete. 🙂


  4. I’ve always wondered at the casting of Peyton Place’s pretty boy, Ryan O’Neal, in the film. O’Neal has never much impressed me in any of the films he’s made. Marissa B. had a beauty that held my attention whenever she was on screen.

    An interesting and insightful review, Cindy. I enjoyed reading it.


      1. maybe it was because ryan o neill is so representative of mediocrity that kubrick felt he was perfect for the part of barry lyndon. i was skeptical before seeing the picture, but o neill won me over very quickly. i think it is our preconception of o neill that keeps us from seeing his suitability for the part. not that much different that albert finney as tom jones, another social climber who got lost in the big world.


        1. Another blogger thought the same thing about the casting. Many dislike him as the lead role because his delivery seemed lacking, but I’m starting to think he might have been the perfect Barry Lyndon because of how he needed to represent the character and we have somehow forgotten that. I thank you for your input.


  5. The only time I saw Barry Lyndon, was on a hot evening in an old cinema in Paris with no aircon a long, long time ago. I liked it a lot, but was also bored. I think you can have both at once. The photography is beautiful and the story is absorbing and sad. The weakness is Ryan O’Neal. He’s a did, with a charisma deficit. I can’t think of one movie O’Neal improved or ‘made’ with his presence, but some might argue Love Story.

    Anyhow, thanks for your review. Very interesting and a great reminder of a curious movie.


    By the way, Michael Hordern was the narrator for the original BBC version of Paddington Bear. A lovely voice. I grew up on it. We’re good at voices like that, us Brits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You most certainly are! Who better than Brits for speaking English? It’s music to my ears. Michael Hordern was exceptional at it. I have no idea the story behind the casting of Ryan O’Neill in the role. Anyway, it’s hard for me to sit still for three hours and keep fully absorbed. That’s when thrilling, action scenes and the CGI fireworks seem to help a film. (I’m not a fan of them, in general.) Thank you for your comments, Ren!


  6. Being a great Kubrick fan, Barry Lyndon is a movie I’ve wanted watch for ages, but still haven’t.
    1975 was definitely great year for some unique movies – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which you’ve mentioned, one of my favourite movies, and among the best roles of Jack Nicholson), Picnic at Hanging Rock (Australian movie), Julie (Hindi Film), Chupke Chupke (Hindi Film),Three Days of the Condor, Deewaar (Bollywood movie), Dog Day Afternoon, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Sholay (Bollywood movie), French Connection II, The Wilby Conspiracy, At Long Last Love etc etc ….
    And then there are so many movies am yet to watch, like – The Passenger, Aandhi (Hindi Film), Flic Story (French Film), Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Italian movie), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Love and Death, Rasputin, The Man in the Glass Booth, The Wild Party, The Sunshine Boys, Pasqualino Settebellezze (Italian movie), L’important c’est d’Aimer (French Film), Jitsuroku Abe Sada (Japanese Film), The Noah, Give ’em Hell, Harry!, Hababam Sinifi (Turkish Film), Galileo, Funny Lady, White Collar Blues (Italian movie), Cousin Cousine (French Film), The Romantic Englishwoman, The Stepford Wives, Royal Flash, The Story of Adele H (French Film), A Boy and His Dog. Oh! Boy I should stop now. The fact is there are so many movies that I’d like to watch, if & when possible. And this is just from 1975!!!! 😦


    1. Good heavens! That;s a long list — all from 1975? Wow. You better get at it. I admire your taste in foreign films. I recognize a couple of the titles, but not many. Thank you, Nuwansen.


  7. It’s a fantastic film and one of Kubrick’s greats. I suppose he will be remembered for 2001 or Clockwork Orange but this supposedly lesser film is wonderful stuff. The music is superb and it’s the archetypal picaresque adventure, although I have always admired Tom Jones, especially its hunting scene. Nice to see The Draughtsman’s Contract being mentioned too, although I seem to remember the violence putting me off, although I could be wrong about that. A great blog post which bought back many memories of my youth, rushing to see every serious film as soon as it came out.


  8. This is one of my favorite films of the ’70s. I was very impressed with how Kubrick used Ryan O’Neal’s blandness to the film’s advantage. I don’t understand people’s criticism — Barry IS supposed to be an uncharismatic opportunist. It’s one of the cleverest piece of casting I’ve ever seen. Anyhow, great review!


    1. Ha! Good for you for defending Ryan O’Neill. I would say the major protagonist needs to elicit some response from the audience. That is, at the end, I didn’t care one way or the other for him, and I thought I ought to have felt something. So glad you stopped by!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I haven’t seen Barry Lyndon, in fact there are several Kubrick films that I need to catch up with. I did recently get hold of The Killing and Killers Kiss on Blu-ray.
    I do agree with you though about Michael Hordern’s “warm, buttery voice.” As a child of the 70s he will always be the voice of Paddington bear to me.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I adore Michael Hordern’s voice. Buttery, indeed. The perfect voice to fall asleep to–which is why I probably did while seeing this film at too early an age. But I’m rallied to give it another go, Cindy, as I’m a massive fan of all things historical fiction. I read more so in the genre than see film, but I’ll seek it out. Anything that can bring the rich and detailed world to life–and Kubrick’s films have never let me down in that regard.
    Love the bit about NASA and Kubrick. I look forward to reading more about that relationship.


    1. Thanks, Shelley! There’s an on-going debate whether Ryan O’Neill was terribly cast as the lead or perfectly since the character is a bit of a wooden dufus. I hope you like it 🙂


  11. Thanks Cindy – a wonderful slow burner. I love the use of The Chieftains music in addition to the classical score to add Irish colour (you’ll find them featured on several Immortal Jukebox posts). Regards Thom.


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