Reflections on "Barry Lyndon" (1975)

Written and directed by Stanley Kubrick

Based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray

Starring Ryan O'Neal, Marisa Berenson and Patrick Magee

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

When we first meet Redmond Barry, he is an innocent, naive, gentle, principled and earnest young man for whom idealistic love is all-consuming.

The object of his affections is his considerably more worldly cousin, Nora, who teases and tempts Barry while also pursuing a relationship with a socially well-placed English soldier and landowner, John Quin, with whom she aims to secure her own future, prosperity and position, as well as those of her immediate family.

Outrage at the perceived theft by Quin of the object of Barry's affections manifests itself in righteous indignation and a challenge to a duel. Barry's virtuous and high-minded world crashes around him when he is informed he has killed Quin and he must flee, both because of Quin's death and because of his family's anger and disappointment at losing the income Quin would have brought to them.

Barry sets off for Dublin but is robbed by a famous highwayman and is compelled to join the army and serve in the Seven Years' War.

Up to this point, Barry more or less accepts his lot. There are numerous references to destiny and Barry appears to meekly accept the hand fate plays him, though there can be no doubting his courage or the strength of his convictions. He acted on principle when he challenged Quin and he provoked and challenged a fellow soldier in his regiment to ensure he would not fall victim to bullying, but nonetheless, he appears to accept that the general direction of his life is decided by chance or events outwith his control.

That is, until he meets and loses in battle an old family friend, Captain Grogan, who informs Barry that the outcome of the duel (the origin of his present situation) was not as he thought. The ammunition used was not real and Quin had survived and married Nora. Indeed, the entire affair had been pre-arranged because Quin was afraid of Barry and Nora's family did not want to lose Quin's income.

This revelation, combined with his miserable and terrifying experiences of battle, pain, hardship and his narrow escapes from death, persuade him that he should no longer be a tacit victim of fate and circumstance, but an active participant in the game of life, taking action to exercise whatever control he can over his own fate and destiny, and refusing to quietly accede to the influence and authority of others.

He will abandon his previous idealistic and romantic principles and view of morality in favour of self-serving pragmatism.

Deciding the army is no longer for him, he turns a chance encounter to his own ends as he steals an officer's uniform and papers before deserting and heading for freedom.

Next, we see to what extent his outlook has changed when he meets an attractive German girl on his travels. He uses his assumed identity and mission, but also a conscious change in manner and skill in judging the character of others to flatter and beguile the young woman. He uses his natural but calculated charm to engender compassion and sympathy, in complete contrast to the attitude he displayed at the start of the film. He is now playing a part with intelligence and skill and is willing to use others for his own ends.

Having said that, the young woman in question may not be a complete innocent being taken advantage of. She may also be playing a part, or at least have some awareness of what is going on but is willing to play along as having Barry in her life, if only briefly, serves her purpose as well.

Bolstered by this success, Barry is overconfident and lies excessively to Captain Potzdorf of the Prussian army, whose path he crosses on his route to freedom, until he is caught out by fact and must pay the price of his arrogance. He is forced to enlist in the Prussian army and thus, once again due to chance or fate, appears to lose control of his life.

However, Barry realises that control can be gained through the intelligent and knowing exercise of influence and manipulation and, recognising Potzdorf's weakness for military heroism, flattery and position, he ingratiates his way into Potzdorf's confidence, initially using his courage to save his life in battle and then currying favour through a variety of other services, and thus gains freedom from the army, though he remains in Potzdorf's employ. Barry accepts the cards given to him by fate but now plays them with skill and forethought, and with his own purpose in mind.

Barry is given a mission to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari, a professional gambler who is, in turn, suspected of being a spy and Barry is to confirm this. However, on meeting the Chevalier, Barry is struck by a need to be honest with him, though even this honesty is used as a ruse to gain favour and will eventually serve as a means of extricating him from Potzdorf's clutches and launching him in a new direction.

This compulsion to tell the truth, apart from satisfying his own purposes, is due, perhaps, to the fact that the Chevalier is a fellow Irishman who has adopted a false identity, lives by his wits and chance and is even working as a spy. He recognises no authority, law or morality and may thus be considered a kindred spirit by Barry. Indeed, they will form an alliance and work together to dupe and scam members of high society, maintaining the theme and metaphor of chance and manipulation of fate by playing cards with the wealthy and famous, but cheating quite elaborately to guarantee a positive outcome for themselves. Occasionally, they depend on Barry's courage and skill with weaponry to ensure payment of a debt.

For Barry, people are now little more than targets for schemes to cheat or defraud them, or a means of self-advancement. The change in his character is quite marked. Due to a combination of personal disillusion, circumstance and the influence of others, Barry has become a con man who believes in nothing but his own survival and prosperity, and who now seeks the security of a permanent source of income and wealth. He spots the beautiful, wealthy and married Lady Lyndon and sets out to use his skills, charm and judgement to seduce her.

The ease and speed of her seduction may suggest that her marriage to the aged and decrepit Sir Charles Lyndon was not all it might have been, despite the birth of their young son, Lord Bullingdon. Perhaps, as in the case of the young German woman he previously befriended and seduced, Barry recognised signs of dissatisfaction and played on these. Though mutually beneficial, both socially and financially, Lady Lyndon's dull, lifeless and passionless marriage to Sir Charles was unlikely to survive a challenge from a charming, passionate and daring younger man. Once again, using his skills of judgement of character and situation, Barry gently provokes the elderly and infirm Sir Charles into having a seizure, freeing Lady Lyndon to marry Barry a year later.

Sadly for Lady Lyndon, having served her purpose as a means of attaining wealth and position, Barry quickly loses personal interest in her, though they have a son, Bryan.

Barry was devoted to the pursuit of wealth and position, and developed skills, judgement and heartlessness to help him attain them but not to maintain them. He does not have the character or temperament to appreciate and augment his good fortune, merely to indulge in and squander it. He highlights his underlying character and flaws through a series of infidelities, poor business decisions and the build-up of huge debts, all calmly accepted by Lady Lyndon. Perhaps she feels she must meekly accept her fate, or perhaps she feels she is receiving her just desserts for introducing Barry into her household.

The notion of Karma, or even retribution, is developed in the second half of the film, as is the existential contention that our actions impact and influence the lives of others, leading to consequences for all concerned. As he grows up and becomes a young man, Lord Bullingdon achieves and maintains a clarity of vision and understanding with regard to his stepfather's character, motives and actions, and his willingness to criticise Barry leads to conflict, threat and physical abuse, eventually leading to open assault and Barry's social, financial and physical undoing.

In terms of emotional retribution, Barry suffers his greatest pain as his young son Bryan dies indirectly as a result of his actions and indulgence, and this loss traumatises Lady Lyndon and drives her to isolation and depression, increasing pressure on Lord Bullingdon who will eventually act to expel Barry from their lives, in a most dramatic and ironic way.

The duel between Bullingdon and Barry recalls that near the beginning of the film, but roles are reversed as here it is Bullingdon who acts out of honour and idealism and a desire to protect his mother, while Barry is now the pretender who has stolen the prize and offended principle. Just as Quin manipulated events in that duel, Barry now tries to control events to some extent, perhaps showing a vestige of humanity, but fails. Chance, fate or Karma see to it that Barry loses the duel and Bullingdon takes control of his mother's estate.

It is interesting to note that Lady Lyndon shows what may be interpreted as just a hint of regret at the way things have turned out, suggesting this outcome had not been inevitable, but was due to choices made by Barry.

And so, Barry loses everything that he fought to gain, and all as a karmic result of the very actions he took to gain it. Although he reacted to circumstance and disillusion and many of the actions he took in the course of his evolution were amusing or without serious consequence, in the end he rejected principle, compassion and morality in favour of coldly using others to advance his own cause, often at their expense, and without thought of accountability or responsibility toward others.

I saw this film some 45 years after its release and was very pleasantly surprised by it. Stanley Kubrick's script allows us to chart and sympathise with Barry's rise and fall while beautifully depicting the society and times in which he lived. His evolution from principled, earnest innocent to disillusioned player to self-centred cad without conscience who eventually gets his comeuppance is captured brilliantly and is engaging, amusing and tragic.

Ryan O'Neal is aptly charming and engaging while the supporting cast fully flesh out their respective roles, lending the production intrigue, humour, intensity and intelligence, and it is a production I thoroughly recommend.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

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