Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick - Ryan O'Neal - Gay Hamilton - Leonard Rossiter - Nora Brady - Captain John Quin

Barry Lyndon
1975, directed by Stanley Kubrick

The life of Barry Lyndon is a litany of dishonor. He challenges a man to a duel over a woman he has no claim on, who doesn’t even want him, and he leaves the duel believing he’s slain the man. After that he runs away and joins the British army only because he’s lost his money. Fighting in the Seven Years War he tarries behind the front line and deserts, stealing a fellow soldier’s horse, uniform, identity, and dispatches. He sleeps with the wife of a German soldier who’s off fighting. He lies to the Prussian captain who takes him in, and later, given a second chance and sent to uncover a spy, he betrays that same captain. He travels around Europe with the Chevalier cheating in gambling houses and private card games. He courts a married woman, drives her elderly husband to a heart attack, and marries her for her position and wealth. He begins mistreating her on their wedding day, he’s openly unfaithful to her, and he’s unjustly cruel to his stepson. Even to his own son, whom he loves, his last words are a lie – a fabricated story about storming a fortress.

From this point of view the movie bears strong resemblance to a morality tale. It’s divided into two chapters whose labels clarify the arc of Barry Lyndon’s adventures – his rise and his fall. He’s harshly punished for his sins, losing his son, his status, his wealth, and his left leg. Looking at the story as a moral fable, however, diminishes it. It’s too easy to set up a character for punishment, and anecdotes about wicked people meeting their comeuppance make poor arguments – just because it happens to one doesn’t mean it will happen to another. On top of that, taking satisfaction in someone’s bad karma is nothing but a passive form of revenge. If the movie is any good, there must be more to it.

Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick - duel - guns

In fact there’s a third part to Barry Lyndon that’s easy to overlook – an epilogue that needs no illustration, a simple title card at the end that tells us: “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”. These few words, of course, cannot be expected to carry the full weight of some ulterior purpose guiding the movie, but together with the date shown a few seconds earlier on Lady Lyndon’s cheque, they point to a larger pattern whose purpose goes beyond a didactic moral lesson.

The year on the cheque is 1789, famously the start of the French Revolution but also the year the U.S. constitution went into effect, as well as the start of George Washington’s presidency. The key word in the epilogue is “equal” – which also happens to be a famous key word in the preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, expressing a core value of the new nation. Barry Lyndon is of course set wholly on the British Isles and Europe, with only one fleeting reference to the United States when King George encourages Barry to increase his contribution to the British war effort. Still there are several reasons to consider whether the movie might not in fact be about the United States.

Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick - Ryan O'Neal - soldier - uniform - close-up

First of all, lead actor Ryan O’Neal is an American actor, born in Los Angeles, and he underplays his character’s Irish accent to such an extent that Redmond Barry often sounds like an American among Old World society. Like the United States, Barry is a strong and often pugilistic fighter, and also a lower-class parvenu in a world where royals and aristocrats have inherited centuries of accumulated power. As an Irishman, and much like America, he holds a close relationship with England while remaining a bit of an outsider in English society. The movie overlaps the founding years of the United States, and frequent shots of redcoats evoke the American Revolution, at least in American eyes. It was released in December 1975, on the cusp of the U.S. bicentennial, and the title, by a strange coincidence, is composed of the first names of the two opponents in the 1964 U.S. presidential election, Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. The title comes from W.M. Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, but by choosing to adapt it when he did, and by pruning the title to those two uncannily serendipitous names, Kubrick gave us good reason to take the coincidence as more than a neutral accident.

Stanley Kubrick was American by birth and upbringing, but he left the United States in the 1960s to spend most of his remaining life in England. Other films of his, particularly The Shining and Full Metal Jacket, are critical of his native country, so it should not be far-fetched to imagine that Barry Lyndon too, in spite of its oblique approach to the subject, is also aimed at the United States. It was made at a time of particular dishonor for the country – President Nixon had recently resigned because of the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War had just ended ignominiously, and the nation had shown its ugly side with resistance to the civil rights movement, including the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. seven years earlier. The movie’s title points to another mark of dishonor, the assassination of President Kennedy, which shortly precedes the 1964 election.

Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick - Steven Berkoff - Lord Ludd

As the epilogue tells us, all the characters in Barry Lyndon are equal now, lying in their graves. The story portrays the grossly unequal world of 18th century Europe that the American settlers rebelled against. The epilogue speaks with an obvious irony, but to anyone who believes humans are created equal there’s a further irony in thinking we have to wait until we’re all dead to realize that equality. In other words, like the United States in 1975 (or at any other time), it would mean that society has betrayed its promise of equality and failed to live up to its own ideals.

If Barry Lyndon were merely an indictment of the United States, however, it would hardly work any better than a moral sermon. Its protagonist may be a paragon of dishonor and a personification of America, but neither of those would hold an audience for three hours. In fact Barry is a fairly likable character in spite of his shameful behavior. For every dishonor he commits, he also reveals an ennobling quality. When he pursues Nora Brady, Captain Grogan tells him “I never saw a lad more game in me life.” Newly enlisted in the army, he boldly fights and brings down a large bully. He tarries behind the front line only out of compassionate care for his friend Grogan; he’s tender with the lonely German woman; and he endears himself to Potzdorf through diligence and bravery. His bond with the Chevalier is sealed by affection for a fellow countryman; he wins Lady Lyndon’s love in spite of everything; and he’s a loving and devoted father to Bryan.

Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick - Leon Vitali - Lord Bullingdon - duel

Nor, for that matter, is Barry wholly dishonorable. His story is bracketed by two conspicuous displays of honor. When we first see him he declines twice to take advantage of Nora’s sexually provocative invitation to search her body for the hidden ribbon. (Incidentally he’s just lost to her at cards, meaning he presumably played honestly.) Toward the end, when his stepson Lord Bullingdon misfires in the duel, Barry generously fires his own shot into the ground, giving the aggrieved young man a second chance. These two acts of honor, however, are respectively too little and too late – too little because Nora seduces him on her third try, and too late because he’s irrevocably offended his stepson.

The movie’s argument about dishonor, therefore, is not merely that it’s a sin or that it invites punishment. Rather it describes dishonor as a waste of potential. Again and again, owing to his noble qualities, Barry finds opportunity to set his life right, but each time he squanders the chance by acting dishonorably. Although he cheats at life, rising through dishonor from a modest farm in Ireland to the life of a British soldier, a respected Prussian official, a traveling playboy, and an English aristocrat, his increasing station is a poor measure of the overflowing potential we can sense in him, which he might have realized at any stage if only he had been guided by a sense of honor. Unlike the anecdotal force of a morality tale, this point does not rest on our acceptance of the events in a story. The insight should ring true because it corresponds with life. It’s tempting to view honor as a kind of arbitrary code that can be broken to our advantage if we stand above it, but Barry Lyndon reframes honor not as a set of commandments but as a safeguard keeping us from wasting our lives.

Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick - Ryan O'Neal - Marie Kean - parasol - garden

Whereas a morality tale would likely have exaggerated the harshness of Barry’s downfall, Barry Lyndon descends into a sad vacuum, leaving him alone to wander Europe, the details of his fate unknown. The last shots return to Castle Hackton as Lady Lyndon, Lord Bullingdon, and their staff wordlessly settle the estate’s affairs. The world hasn’t ended, but all of Barry’s hopes, and any hopes we may have had for him, have been disappointed. If we view the film as a commentary on the dishonor of the United States, then the same air of disappointment attaches to the country and its own wasted potential.

Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick - landscape - bridge - pond

Barry Lyndon is renowned for its visual beauty. Many shots were modeled after 18th century paintings, and the Academy Award winning cinematography stands out even among other winners of that prize. Of course its look is distinctly European, but its beauty is a correlative for the natural beauty of the American nation whose history, like Redmond Barry’s, undermines the effect of that beauty. Five years later Stanley Kubrick would begin his next film with a long exposition of America’s natural splendor in preparation for a horror story that would link numerous allusions to the United States with a portrayal of extravagant wastefulness.


Midnight – Ups and downs of fortune; faith in life (in Midnight) vs. cheating (in Barry Lyndon)

Rebecca – American perspective on England/Europe with emphasis on inequality

Brief Encounter – Structured around dual events (express trains, duels) near beginning and end, which are foreshadowed at the very beginning by a third occurrence

The Shining – Allusions to the United States and its wasted potential; significant date at end