Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble

 

That’s what the headline read on the cover of Time Magazine, and they were right. It was December 1975. The nation was ready and waiting to celebrate the Bicentennial. As usual with one of his films, there wasn’t much advance information about Barry Lyndon. All we knew was, it was about a gambler; it was set in the late 1700s. In time, it would be regarded as an elegant, one-of-a-kind glimpse into a distant era that gave birth to the modern world.

The Christmastime weather was especially beautiful that year. I was 23, a movie fan and a fan of Stanley Kubrick in particular. I climbed aboard my motorcycle and headed for the Ziegfeld Theater. The movie got good reviews, some very positive, and it made money for its studio, Warner Bros. But not a whole lot compared to his previous two, 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, and there hangs a tale.  It acquired the not-entirely-deserved reputation of being “Stanley’s flop” and that’s what people remember, if they’ve heard of it at all.

Since it was first revealed that Stanley Kubrick’s next film would be based on a book by William Makepeace Thackeray, it’s generally believed that Kubrick first did the obvious thing—that is, thought about adapting the far better known Vanity Fair. But he saw potential in Thackeray’s all but forgotten 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon. It’s told in the first person, and that narrator is unreliable, a braggart and a con man.

But the movie, though it had its moments of dry humor, would have a totally different tone than the Thackeray novel. In some ways it was surprisingly conventional. It was the first Kubrick film since Spartacus to be publicized and marketed as what was then called a “star vehicle”, featuring Ryan O’Neal, then the heart-throb of Love Story, at the time a huge and recent hit, and Marisa Berenson, the female co-star of Cabaret, (it was Liza who got the Oscar), a socialite and model.

The truth of Barry Lyndon is: it’s a getting and spending world. The getting was even harder in the past, and the spending meaner, in the British sense: Harder, stingier.

If death and taxes are, as cynics suggest, the only certainties in life, then Barry Lyndon must be one of the most realistic movies ever made, because it is unflinchingly all about money and mortality. As much as Kubrick changed it, it’s still Thackeray’s world.

This is how it came about: Stanley Kubrick’s most cherished unrealized project was Napoleon, an epic so vast that MGM pulled out of the deal. As usual, he’d already bought and read hundreds of books about the subject and the times he lived in, so on the rebound Kubrick found a very different story set in roughly the same era.

From the time Barry Lyndon was announced, the project attracted a lot of speculation and curiosity. The rise and fall of an 18th century Irish social climber seemed an unlikely choice of subject matter and time period for a director whose fame and aura of hipness were based on his three recent hits, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange.

For all their differences, Stanley Kubrick’s best-known hits are all, to some degree, set in a technologically oriented near-future, deriving iconic power with their cold, striking images, and their reserved attitudes towards humanity.

By contrast, Barry Lyndon is an uncharacteristically sympathetic portrait of mortality and loss. It has a warm background of children and babies, dogs and geese and doves, cattle and horses, tranquil ponds and fountains. I’ve read that cultural Irishness, like being a Southerner in the US, tends to include an unflinching acceptance of life’s tragic aspects. There’s some truth to that, I’ll personally attest, and it extends to the understanding that Kubrick might have silently had with a fellow outsider brashly pushing his way upwards through society, to levels where “he didn’t belong.”

I don’t know of a major Kubrick film before this one that had no screenwriting collaborators, and for all its virtues, and they are many, Lyndon’s limits are somewhat defined by Kubrick’s writing, not to the risky, slightly reckless casting of his leads. Ryan O’Neal does some remarkable things in the film and deserves more credit for them than he’s gotten over the decades, but the character as written of Barry Lyndon, the man, is not as compelling as needed.

Kubrick did prove to be a surprisingly good, sparing user of narration and he was at least decent at writing dialog, but a superlative dramatist supplying dialog to a superb actor would have made more of the opportunity.

Ryan O’Neal is a good looking, hard-working, not terribly deep actor earnestly doing his best. Robert Redford often played similar roles: handsome, catnip to the ladies, brave, physically gifted men, who are also somehow less than what they seem. One critic, generously trying to be fair, referred to O’Neal as the human figure that architects add to models of proposed buildings to give them a sense of human scale.

While the film was in production, it was widely anticipated to be a “swashbuckler”, in retrospect similar to Tom Jones crossed with the 1973 The Three Musketeers. It wouldn’t turn out that way, but the look of the ad campaign makes me wonder if Warner Bros understood what kind of movie Kubrick was going to deliver.

Even the way that the film’s main titles are drawn reflects that. Unlike the cold objectivity of the titles of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, the typeface on the main title, as well as Kubrick’s credit, Ryan O’Neal’s, and Marisa Berenson’s, is a Seventies swirl, with custom lettering that looks only a little like the late 18th century, but vaguely suggests a Tom Jones-like romantic style. (The end credits are in a plain white-on-black style that suggests funerals and finality, appropriately enough.)

Stanley Kubrick, like Alfred Hitchcock, liked to set new challenges with each film. 2001 was an elaborate re-invention of special visual effects that was shot nearly entirely on studio sound stages. A Clockwork Orange was also a futuristic film, but it was shot almost entirely on then-present day London locations, carefully chosen to be the most exotic (by 1970 standards) but credible ones that Kubrick’s staff could find. Barry Lyndon, set 200 years ago, would also be filmed entirely on location, well before this became the norm with films and shows like Downton Abbey and Brideshead Revisited. Kubrick raised the standards. He also set himself the challenge of cinematography in candlelight, giving night interior scenes a unique and authentic look.

YouTube stories about Barry Lyndon include production designer Ken Adam talking about the rambling, almost improvised way the crew drove around Ireland, filming a few pages at a time. Murray Melvin recounted the “delights” of doing 57 takes of a scene. Ryan O’Neal and Leon Vitali also talked about what Stanley was like on the set.

Jan Schlubach was art director of the scenes in Germany, even across the border in communist East Germany, which also had some 18th century locations. I knew Jan well. He told me a few Kubrick stories. Everyone seemed to tell the same basic tale of a very kindly, soft-voiced man of infinite patience who could drive you stark raving mad with his ruthless, pitiless quest for utter perfection.

So what went wrong? From one point of view, nothing; Barry Lyndon’s reputation has only risen over the years, especially in contrast to the shoddiness of many modern films. Contrary to the “flop” legend, the film didn’t lose money. It actually made a small profit. Today, when big films routinely lose a horrifying $100 to $300 million, it seems ludicrous to remember Barry Lyndon as a failure.

But let’s be real: this was Kubrick we’re talking about, and Hollywood expectations were sky-high. 1975 was the year of Jaws, the first picture to gross $100 million, and if an unknown kid like Spielberg could do it, why couldn’t Stanley?

Some people blame Ryan O’Neal, but he didn’t write his own part and generally did okay. The movie took big narrative risks with the audience, beginning scenes with deliberate spoilers, like one of Barry teaching fencing to his adored young son Brian while the narrator intones, “It is impossible to adequately convey Barry’s hopes for the boy. But Barry was destined to finish his life childless, poor, and alone.”  This was in keeping with the melodramatic standards of Victorian storytelling, (it’s an 1844 novel, after all) but it looks strange, even disconcerting to modern audiences.

The picture is undeniably slow-paced. No one would say, wow, that three hours just flies by. However, for those of us with a streak of appreciation for classical beauty, those familiar scenes, many of them visually stunning, are welcome reminders of just how beautiful big-scale films could look, long before CGI came along.

2023: a personal postscript.

The skinny, intense kid in the leather jacket who saw the movie in 1975 was long gone. Or was I? Sure, some things had changed. I was 71 now, let’s say in the early winter of my years. I now resembled those stout, grasping members of the 18th century bourgeoisie who’d managed to reach old age.

My daughter and her husband-to-be picked me up and we all went to see Barry Lyndon at the NuArt in west Los Angeles. In 1975, I could hardly have imagined seeing this film 48 years in the future, now as a retired Los Angeles film curator, riding home with our grown daughter (a teacher!) and her boyfriend (An engineer! From Texas!)

I haven’t been back to this repertory theater since its big renovation. Everything technical has been upgraded. Once upon a time, I knew the NuArt really well. I used to rent the place for festivals at Filmex, AFI, and the ACF. Now, my days of doing shows there is a long time back, 25-40 years. It’s still a place for dating couples of a certain intellectual and/or artistic type, as it’s been since the 1950s. They now sell wine. We bought a bottle for the three of us. It’s overpriced, of course—some things about movie theaters won’t change—but it was fun, especially for a sumptuous, champagne-and-caviar picture like Barry Lyndon. The young folks really liked seeing it, especially on the big screen. So did I.

Riding home later, we chatted about the movie. A discussion about it and history has two focuses (foci?), the period depicted on film, roughly 1755 to 1789, and the period of our lives when it was new and still in theaters (a much longer period in those days before cassettes and cable), roughly December 1975 through late 1976.

That year I took 3D pictures outdoors with the Stereo Realist camera. Even when those pictures were new, I used to run them on the 3D slide projector in rough sync with the film’s soundtrack of The Chieftains playing “Women of Ireland”.

When I see those pictures now, they represent an admittedly glorified Lyndon-ian version of a half century ago, the springtime of our youth. A time in life that I’d guess most people idealize. In our case, it was the beauties of the old village we grew up in, and the excitement of the city we moved to. It could have been anywhere in an industrializing world, but it was America, early in the golden spring of its Bicentennial year.

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    • #1
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Gary McVey: It’s told in the first person, and that narrator is unreliable, a braggart and a con man.

    That’s what makes it good.

    • #2
  3. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    I’ve only seen this once, as part of a summer movie series when I was 10 or 11.  Probably too young to appreciate it, but I remember it being pretty, but boring.  (This was in comparison to the other movies on the slate: Gone With the Wind; Patton; The African Queen; The Great Waldo Pepper, and others of that sort.)

    Good job, Gary.

    • #3
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: It’s told in the first person, and that narrator is unreliable, a braggart and a con man.

    That’s what makes it good.

    It’s funny how that worked: the book sounds like the account of someone like (actor Roger C. Carmel’s) Harry Mudd, from Star Trek TOS. The film stuck to the basic incidents of Thackeray’s novel. The main character of Kubrick’s film is a bit of a BS artist and an Irish scamp, though not the Celtic Sgt. Bilko I would have liked to have seen, in an alternative version.

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I’ve only seen this once, as part of a summer movie series when I was 10 or 11. Probably too young to appreciate it, but I remember it being pretty, but boring. (This was in comparison to the other movies on the slate: Gone With the Wind; Patton; The African Queen; The Great Waldo Pepper, and others of that sort.)

    Good job, Gary.

    Thanks, Judge! 

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    This was the first of Kubrick’s movies that I was able to see in the theater, being too young for 2001: A Space Odyssey and way too young for A Clockwork Orange. What I most remember is how wonderful the visuals were. It looked like I imagined the 18th Century would look.

    • #6
  7. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. Coolidge
    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.
    @BartholomewXerxesOgilvieJr

    I’ve never seen Barry Lyndon, although I read about it way back in my college days and was fascinated by the technical aspects of the cinematography. In particular, I was amazed by the concept of filming without artificial movie lighting, even when the only on-set lighting was by candle. I remember reading about the special lenses Kubrick used, with their super-wide apertures (which also meant that the depth of focus was very shallow). I was curious to see how this looked, but I never had a chance.

    Nowadays that aspect of the film seems less amazing, because modern HD video cameras can shoot in very low light. (I remember an anecdote from Better Call Saul about how they were shooting a night scene, but the shot was being ruined by some unwanted light that was coming from somewhere. Eventually they figured out that it was from the red indicator LED on the front of the camera. A candle would probably have blown out the shot completely!)

    I suppose I’m still mildly curious, but I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Kubrick’s work, and I’m not sure I have the patience for a slow-paced three-hour film….

    • #7
  8. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    I’ve never seen it. Will add it to the list.

    • #8
  9. The Scarecrow Thatcher
    The Scarecrow
    @TheScarecrow

    Percival (View Comment):

    This was the first of Kubrick’s movies that I was able to see in the theater, being too young for 2001: A Space Odyssey and way too young for A Clockwork Orange. What I most remember is how wonderful the visuals were. It looked like I imagined the 18th Century would look.

    Exactly. 
    People say it’s boring, I didn’t find it so. I was so strangely drawn in by it, I couldn’t look away. It felt more like you were watching actual people doing the actual stuff they do, a camera magically sent back in time.

    • #9
  10. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    I too have never seen it and will make an effort to see it.

    It’s great to hear that the Nuart has been renovated.  I would have worried that it would have closed, suffering the fate of many independent theaters.  Do the still show Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight on Saturdays?  With all the silly tossing of cards, etc., Of course.

    Thanks for a great post Gary!

    • #10
  11. Gossamer Cat Coolidge
    Gossamer Cat
    @GossamerCat

    It’s a movie I’ve been meaning to see for 48 years.  Perhaps now that we have large screen high resolution TVs, it would be worth watching it on the small screen.  I’ll report back after the holidays!

    Great post.

    • #11
  12. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    I love your posts about the entertainment industry Gary – I always learn so much.

    Please don’t stop!

    • #12
  13. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    I love your posts about the entertainment industry Gary – I always learn so much.

    Please don’t stop!

    Heck, why would I stop? On Ricochet, we’ve got the smartest readership I could ever ask for! Thanks, Dr. B.

    • #13
  14. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    The Scarecrow (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    This was the first of Kubrick’s movies that I was able to see in the theater, being too young for 2001: A Space Odyssey and way too young for A Clockwork Orange. What I most remember is how wonderful the visuals were. It looked like I imagined the 18th Century would look.

    Exactly.
    People say it’s boring, I didn’t find it so. I was so strangely drawn in by it, I couldn’t look away. It felt more like you were watching actual people doing the actual stuff they do, a camera magically sent back in time.

    That’s the appeal of Barry Lyndon. To an unusual degree, Kubrick gave it the look and feel of a vanished world. 

    I always found it interesting that this pre-technological era occurs right before the transformations of railways, steamships, photography and the electric telegraph. All those things had arrived by the time the book was written in 1844, making it the story of a recent, very different past. 

    • #14
  15. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I’ve never seen it. Will add it to the list.

    I think you’ll like it. Ryan O’Neal’s Irish accent isn’t flawless, but he certainly looks the part. 

    • #15
  16. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I’ve never seen it. Will add it to the list.

    I think you’ll like it. Ryan O’Neal’s Irish accent isn’t flawless, but he certainly looks the part.

    I don’t ever remember it being shown on TV here. 

    • #16
  17. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    It is available for free on YouTube.

     

     

    • #17
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Thanks, Clavius! That poster image was actually the second one used in the ad campaign. The original one, the one that’s still on the soundtrack album, was a Seventies-style illustration of various moments in the film: a line of marching soldiers, a duel, a mother and infant, and Barry with his son. It was warm, but not dramatic. The second one, of an armed man whose 18th century boot carelessly tramples a rose, is much more evocative of the movie. Everyone agrees: it sure looks like a Saul Bass design. But it’s not. 

    • #18
  19. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I’ve never seen it. Will add it to the list.

    I think you’ll like it. Ryan O’Neal’s Irish accent isn’t flawless, but he certainly looks the part.

    I don’t ever remember it being shown on TV here.

    Much of the film was made in Ireland, and much more of it would have been, but this was 1973-’74. Not a happy time. Anonymous callers claiming affiliation with the IRA threatened Kubrick and his family, so he brought the production back to England. 

    • #19
  20. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    I’ve seen the movie and your description of the movie is quite apt Gary. Despite the slow pace and star Ryan O’Neal (who I’ve never been able to stand) I liked the movie in large part because of its seemingly realistic depiction of that time and place. If you’re a movie fan, it is certainly worth seeing once.

    • #20
  21. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    I’ve never seen it. Will add it to the list.

    I think you’ll like it. Ryan O’Neal’s Irish accent isn’t flawless, but he certainly looks the part.

    I don’t ever remember it being shown on TV here.

    I don’t recall seeing it on TV in the States, either.

    • #21
  22. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Percival (View Comment):
    I don’t recall seeing it on TV in the States, either.

    Three-hour movie. How much would have to be cut for running time and commercials? Maybe Kubrick also did not want it chopped up. That said, I have seen some of it somewhere in the distant past. It may have been cable.

    • #22
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):
    I don’t recall seeing it on TV in the States, either.

    Three-hour movie. How much would have to be cut for running time and commercials? Maybe Kubrick also did not want it chopped up. That said, I have seen some of it somewhere in the distant past. It may have been cable.

    HBO ran it regularly. You’re right about the running time, and Kubrick’s likely veto power over major cuts for broadcasting. 

    You’d think that PBS would have gone for it, but they wouldn’t have been able to afford it, IMHO. Also, let’s be honest, it has to be one of the whitest movies around (sometimes with that 1700s white makeup, literally) both in terms of casting and in terms of areas of interest.

    It had, as we used to say, no Times Square appeal. Urban youths did not line up to see Barry Lyndon

    • #23
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Urban youths did not line up to see Barry Lyndon

    They should have. It had the things they seem to be interested in.

    • #24
  25. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    Thanks, Gary. One of my favorite movies. The candlelit scenes are stunning.

    • #25
  26. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr. (View Comment):

    I’ve never seen Barry Lyndon, although I read about it way back in my college days and was fascinated by the technical aspects of the cinematography. In particular, I was amazed by the concept of filming without artificial movie lighting, even when the only on-set lighting was by candle. I remember reading about the special lenses Kubrick used, with their super-wide apertures (which also meant that the depth of focus was very shallow). I was curious to see how this looked, but I never had a chance.

    Nowadays that aspect of the film seems less amazing, because modern HD video cameras can shoot in very low light. (I remember an anecdote from Better Call Saul about how they were shooting a night scene, but the shot was being ruined by some unwanted light that was coming from somewhere. Eventually they figured out that it was from the red indicator LED on the front of the camera. A candle would probably have blown out the shot completely!)

    I suppose I’m still mildly curious, but I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Kubrick’s work, and I’m not sure I have the patience for a slow-paced three-hour film….

    Try it, you’ll like it. 

    • #26
  27. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Thanks, Gary. One of my favorite movies. The candlelit scenes are stunning.

    Thanks, Basil. Glad you agree. And good to see you around; I haven’t seen a post from you in a while.

    That “candlelight lens” was a Zeiss f/0.95 hat was legendarily a NASA leftover “for the Moon project”. I suspect it was ordered by Goddard or JPL for unmanned, not for Apollo, but in those days everything got attributed to Project Apollo. The lens had an odd, telescopic shape that wouldn’t have worked with the German Arriflex cameras Kubrick loved. (The Arri’s spinning mirrored shutter, the very thing that made reflex viewing possible, would have clipped the back of the lens.) So Kubrick had an American standard 35mm camera, a Mitchell, converted to work specifically with that one lens.

    EDIT: Zeiss says the lens was f/0.7 “naked”, in laboratory conditions before being equipped to mount in a camera. That should be the official value of the lens, but it dropped to 0.95 once it was ready for actual in-camera use.

    • #27
  28. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Urban youths did not line up to see Barry Lyndon.

    They should have. It had the things they seem to be interested in.

    Guys getting shot, nice clothes, a fancy crib, an envied ride, beautiful ladies with lots of money; why, it was practically Superfly. 

    Except Superfly starred Ron O’Neal. 

    • #28
  29. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Thanks, Gary. One of my favorite movies. The candlelit scenes are stunning.

    Thanks, Basil. Glad you agree. And good to see you around; I haven’t seen a post from you in a while.

    That “candlelight lens” was a Zeiss f/0.95 hat was legendarily a NASA leftover “for the Moon project”. I suspect it was ordered by Goddard or JPL for unmanned, not for Apollo, but in those days everything got attributed to Project Apollo. The lens had an odd, telescopic shape that wouldn’t have worked with the German Arriflex cameras Kubrick loved. (The Arri’s spinning mirrored shutter, the very thing that made reflex viewing possible, would have clipped the back of the lens.) So Kubrick had an American standard 35mm camera, a Mitchell, converted to work specifically with that one lens.

    Wow, how do you know these amazing details?

    • #29
  30. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Basil Fawlty (View Comment):

    Thanks, Gary. One of my favorite movies. The candlelit scenes are stunning.

    Thanks, Basil. Glad you agree. And good to see you around; I haven’t seen a post from you in a while.

    That “candlelight lens” was a Zeiss f/0.95 hat was legendarily a NASA leftover “for the Moon project”. I suspect it was ordered by Goddard or JPL for unmanned, not for Apollo, but in those days everything got attributed to Project Apollo. The lens had an odd, telescopic shape that wouldn’t have worked with the German Arriflex cameras Kubrick loved. (The Arri’s spinning mirrored shutter, the very thing that made reflex viewing possible, would have clipped the back of the lens.) So Kubrick had an American standard 35mm camera, a Mitchell, converted to work specifically with that one lens.

    Wow, how do you know these amazing details?

    (Gary makes pretentious regal gesture) In my day, a film festival director had to know every aspect of his craft.

    • #30
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