Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie Review: Barry Lyndon

Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1975.

"How did they make a movie of Lolita?"

Kubrick might have adapted Lolita's tagline for his 1975 film, perhaps something like, "Why make a movie about Barry Lyndon?" The director could not say then, in 1975, what drew him to Thackery's upstart ("It's like trying to say why you fell in love with your wife–it's meaningless." [1]) and I cannot say now. Indeed out of the film's great menagerie Barry is one of the less appealing characters, drawing less attention than the buffoon Captain Quin, the portly and avuncular Grogan, the genteel Chevalier, the cynical Sir Charles Lyndon, or even the highwayman with his baleful glare. Barry, on the other hand. . . he's just there. Kubrick surely was on to something, though, when he said, "People like Barry are successful because  they are not obvious–they don't announce themselves." [1] Verily, and how often are events simply happening when Barry is coming through as opposed to Barry seeking any one goal in particular?

Take the first issue, that of his cousin's engagement to Captain Quin. Having never announced his feelings for her and having turned down her scrumptious, and unqualified, challenge to find exactly where she hid her ribbon, she accepts the proposal of Captain Quin.  Incensed, Barry (still Redmond Barry of Barryton) challenges Quin to a duel. Victorious, he sets out for Dublin to hide out for a time and avoid the authorities. Why did he undertake the risk in the first place? After all, he did not even hint at, let alone announce, let alone attempt to court Nora, and he risks a duel, endangering two lives and the money the marriage would bring to his teetering family. We learn later the duel was set up, sans bullets, by his family to get rid of Barry since Quin was too scared to marry Nora while Barry was there. So it is that Barry's vapid valiance ended up setting him on his way from home.

Consider the next happenstances, such as Barry getting robbed on the road to Dublin, necessitating him joining the army to improve his rank and funds. In the army he happens to meet old friend Captain Grogan, who happens to get killed when his regiment tries to clear a road otherwise meaningless except for the need of the main army to pass near. Shortly later, having survived the engagement but jolted by Grogan's death, Barry happens upon two soldiers who have left their horses and gear to bathe and overhears one discussing his orders to deliver letters. Seizing the opportunity, Barry steals the soldier's orders, identity, and horse, and deserts. Thus for nor reason in particular, 55-minutes in to the film, we find Redmond Barry of Barryville taking up with a beautiful woman somewhere in central Europe.

After being caught in a series of preposterous lies while traveling through Prussian-occupied Europe Barry is forced to enlist again, this time for the Prussians. While defending a fort, a tale he will later wildly embellish in telling his son, he rescues his captain and during the commendation ceremony we get a truly frank description of Barry from a higher-up:
Corporal Barry, you're a gallant soldier and have evidently come of good stock, but you're idle, dissolute, and unprincipled. You've done a great deal of harm to the men. And for all your talents and bravery I am sure you will come to no good.
This is quite accurate. Indeed Barry is gallant, having challenged Quin to a duel, having boxed a British serviceman who insulted him, pulled an injured Captain Grogan off the field, and having rescued Captain Potzdorf at the fort. Let us consider Barry's reply before analyzing the situation:
I hope the Colonel is mistaken. I have fallen into bad company, but I've only done as other soldiers do. I've never had a friend or protector before. . . to show that I was worthy of better things. The Colonel may say I'm ruined, and send me to the Devil. But, I would go to the Devil to serve the Regiment.

His first recourse is to relativism. The second statement is interesting insofar as it denies both the goodwill and guidance of his uncle and Captain Grogan and implies if he had such a protector, he would prosper. Yet when Potzdorf steps into the role, Barry betrays reward him with betrayal.  What of Barry's feats, then? They add up to practically nothing: Quin marries Nora, Grogan dies anyway, and he betrays Potzdorf. Without any underlying principles Barry's "feats" are just one thing after another. There is no "why" of them. Actually the assessment is more damning when we recall we were told the Prussian army at the time was made up "of men from the lowest levels of humanity" and according to the colonel, Barry was a bad influence on them!

Richard Schickel makes the critical observation about Barry's great flaw:
In the novel, Thackeray used a torrent of words to demonstrate Barry's lack of self-knowledge. . . Daringly, Kubrick uses silence to make the same point. . . So it is mainly by the look of Ran O'Neal's eyes–a sharp glint when he spies the main chance, a gaze of hurt befuddlement when things go awry–that we understand Barry's motives. And since she cannot see his own face, we can be certain he is not aware of these self-betrayals.  According to Kubrick, Barry's silence also implies that "he is not very bright" he is an overreacher who "gets in over his head in situations he doesn't fully understand." [1]
Even Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon's son not yet a teenager, pegs Barry and the situation to a tee: "He seems to me little more than a common opportunist. I don't think he loves my mother at all. And it hurts me very much to see her make such a fool of herself." In the absence of any concept of what he wants for himself or what he wants to be, he just sees and reacts. Though he does not love Nora, or does not understand that he does, he despises Quin for proposing to her. He simply "grew tired" of the military life and thought nothing of deserting the British army. Potzdorf outlived his usefulness and Barry went to follow someone else. He sought to mimic the distingué of the chevalier. He saw Lady Lyndon and decided to marry her and part company with the chevalier. Then Barry grew tired of her company and lived apart from her. His mother said he needed a title for security so he sought one.

Indeed Barry's one significant attribute, his love of his son, is somewhat of an aberration. It occurs not upon the boy's birth and in fact he continues to ignore his son, Bryan, and his wife, living separately from and cheating on her while Bryan is an infant. Quite spontaneously he walks over to his wife one afternoon, apologizes, and becomes a doting father. Yet this seemingly laudable attribute has a curious lack of weight as it is just another happenstance. We think no more highly of Barry now that love of his son proceeds alongside his rank opportunism. We can simply say it is "not bad" just like not shooting Lord Bullingdon in the duel. After all, why does he refuse to shoot? Because of something vaguely to do with his wife or the death of his son? There is no way of knowing, it's just another one of those things along Barry's way.

The only constants for Barry are his character and his thinking, i.e. his dashing and his dimness. His son's death, the ensuing misery of his wife, and the duel do not provide for any recognition for Barry, i.e. any recognition of his mistakes, faults, or situation. When the narrator makes the last comments about Barry and his tale, Barry is described not just as "beaten" but "baffled." Whence comes, then, the pleasure of watching Barry Lyndon? Is there some curiosity satisfied by watching this fool, by taking in this curious observation, beautifully told? Why does Lady Lyndon, when signing her bills and going to sign Barry's annuity, become excited and short of breath? Is it with thoughts of Barry himself, or just the flood of emotions from recalling tumultuous times?

The concept of telling an epic tale about a non-heroic character is telling itself. Against a backdrop of clashing empires, scorched battlefields, sumptuous villas, and curious characters. . . there's Barry just wandering through, insignificant yet curious. 

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.


[1] Phillips, Gene D. (ed.) Stanley Kubrick Interviews. (Conversations with Filmmakers series. Essay and interview by Richard Schickel. 1975. pp. 162-163.) 2001. University Press of Mississippi.

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