Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick (1975, UK/USA) is considered the greatest Kubrick film but also a forgotten masterwork. Barry Lyndon was a film that was admired but not loved by the audience at its initial release, mostly because “it’s so authentic that the audience couldn’t relate to it”, as Yahoo! Contributor Jason Cangialosi said.
Jason Cangialosi also mentioned in his article that Barry Lyndon is one of the most historically accurate films of all time and that it transcends even the best History Channel programming.
Barry Lyndon is a film set in 18th century Europe, featuring a young lad’s (Barry’s) struggle to climb the social ladder. First of all, the actors and actresses, one of the foundations of narrative film, were well casted. Accents were well executed and the behavioural patterns were authentic to minute details. For example, the dapping of lips with a napkin after a meal showed how much the aristocrats care about table manners. Next, the costume design accurately captured the essence of 18th century fashion, from the powdered wigs down to the type of powder used for makeup. Last but not least, the sets were intricately designed to match the layout, tradition, and culture of the 18th century. From the candlelights, to the props, to the gunfire rings, and to the classical music Kubrick employed, everything rang of authenticity.
Other than the fact that it is historically accurate to the core, Barry Lyndon is significant to the film industry as the world saw one of the lowest f-stop (f/0.7) used in the history of film. At the time, no camera existed to effectively capture candlelight, the natural lighting in the 18th century. Kubrick took the liberty to take the lenses that NASA invented for use on Moon explorations and adapted them for the movie camera, making a ground-breaking step for cinematography.
Kubrick had two main cultural themes in Barry Lyndon. First of all, he wanted to project his anti-war beliefs by using emotions and universal themes. The first anti-war message was revealed in the scene where Barry’s friend, Captain Grogan, was shot in a battle and Barry carried him on his shoulder to safety. There was also a similar scene when he deserted the British army and was forced to join the Prussian army. Other than showing that war is meaningless violence with no glory or of heightened sense of purpose. Kubrick also made a play on emotions with Captain Grogan’s last words: “Kiss me, my boy, for we’ll never meet again.” In the scene where Barry sought shelter in a local woman’s hut, the second message was revealed when the woman told Barry that his husband left to fight in the war a long time ago.
Next, the main theme of Kubrick’s film was the meaningless classification of society – the aristocrats and the peasants. At the start of the film, Barry went against the social norm and challenged an Englishman of higher class to a gun duel, and rejected the offer of money to settle the matter. However, as the story progressed, Barry started admiring these aristocrats and yearned to be one. He eventually became one but he had turned into an arrogant noble and abused his power by having affairs with several ladies and even the maids of the house. Towards the end of the film, Barry started plunging down from his status when he got into a fight with his stepson. He eventually lost everything, including his own son to a horse riding accident. At the end of the film, the epilogue came on screen with this message: “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.” Kubrick wanted to show that through the desperate climb for status, people sacrifice but in the end, all the sacrifices were for naught.
John Alcott, Kubrick’s cinematographer, was praised to the sky with his breath-taking candlelit scenes. The glow and flicker of the candles set an authentic tone early in the film, but aside from that, the warm tone brought out the essence of passion, family, and love. The candles also managed to bring out every seductive and scandalous glance of the pale skin and powdered-faced aristocrats.
Aside from the critically acclaimed candlelit scenes, what cannot be refuted were the breath-taking locations/settings of the film. Well-scouted locations with beautiful scenery, nice cinematic effect generated from the natural lighting of the locations, and locations still standing from the 18th century quickly won over the audience. Kubrick also employed numerous wide shots that fully utilised the cinematography created by the beautiful locations. The film was shot on location as Kubrick did not want to use studios, which will make the flamboyant costumes appear dull and displayed.
Kubrick’s mastery of storytelling is also noteworthy. In one of the scenes, dark clouds in the sky subtly implied that Barry was going to get into trouble soon. And in the next scene, one of the captains of the Prussian army saw through his lies and he was forced to join the Prussian army. Kubrick also effectively used blocking of actors to convey the relationship of characters. The decision to use a narrator was brilliant as it added layers to the slow pace of the film. The narrator breaks the melancholy of the scenes when they get too draggy while giving previews as to what is happening next, adding suspense to the story. The “previews” that the narrator gives does not tell the audience what will be happening explicitly. Kubrick carefully drops hint and the unexpected elements of the film will surprise and touch the hearts of the audience.
About the author:
Lester is an aspiring writer who has a knack for writing stories with strong visuals, and is exploring the different writing platforms.
Cangialosi, J. 2011. Historical Accuracy in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’. [online] Available at: http://movies.yahoo.com/news/historical-accuracy-stanley-kubricks-barry-lyndon-20110111-173600-546.html [Accessed: 19 Jun 2013].
En.wikipedia.org. 1975. Barry Lyndon – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barry_Lyndon [Accessed: 19 Jun 2013].