Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) has long posed complications for auteur critics. It would be hard to claim that the director lacked a unique personal vision, but it was a fragmentary and misanthropic one. Andrew Sarris, for example, wrote in 1963: “He may wind up as the director of the best coming attractions in the industry, but time is running out on his projected evolution into a major artist…Lolita is his most irritating failure to date. With such splendid material, he emphasized the problem without the passion, the badness without the beauty, the agony without the ecstacy.” By 1968, after the critical and popular success of Dr. Strangelove and 2001, Sarris remained somewhat hostile, but he offered an apology of sorts after another viewing of the latter. With Barry Lyndon, he came around enough to appreciate the director’s depth of feeling: “every frame is a fresco of sadness.”
Most of Kubrick’s films are either rooted in past violence and warfare (Fear and Desire, Spartacus, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket) or an apocalyptic, or at least worrisome, future (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, the latter prepared by Kubrick and realized by Steven Spielberg after Kubrick’s death). Others offered considerable menace of their own (The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut). What was singular about Barry Lyndon, and what Sarris appreciated, I think, was its pastoral, melancholy beauty, its retreat into a simpler past—still intermittently cruel and violent, but with a human scale and of this planet. (It is apparently Martin Scorsese’s favorite Kubrick film, and one can find visual and thematic parallels in Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.) As my Jesuit friend Gene D. Phillips points out, the film still echoes a major Kubrick theme: “through human error the best-laid plans often go awry.” The emphasis here is on the human, not mad militarists acting for governments, nor out-of-control machines. Barry’s problems are mostly of his own making.
Indeed, there is much “sadness,” to use Sarris’s label, but along the way, there is much austere beauty, possibly only for this brief period in civilization’s evolution. As the distinguished British critic Penelope Houston has pointed out, “Kubrick does not think much of the human race,” and Barry is not much of a hero, but in the hands of Ryan O’Neal, he garners a certain level of sympathy, surpassing Kirk Douglas in his histrionic Kubrick performances (Spartacus, Paths of Glory), the blandness of Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket) and Tom Cruise (Eyes Wide Shut), and surely Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) and Jack Nicholson (The Shining). As for James Mason (Lolita) and Peter Sellers (Strangelove), one’s reaction must inevitably be conditioned by your level of patience for their peculiar pathologies.
With Barry Lyndon, Kubrick was constrained somewhat by the leisurely pacing of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel (The Luck of Barry Lyndon), and the film’s spectacle of full-color warfare probably owes something to the splendor of the landscapes of John Ford’s (who had just died) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (to be shown September 21 in our exhibition The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy). There are many parallels between the Seven Years War and WWI, with the former’s surprisingly high death rates, given the primitive technology of the time, and, ultimately, it was as pointless and inconclusive, given the imminence of the American Revolution. Kubrick’s portrait of the period, abetted by zooms and his trademark tracking shots, seems authentic. It’s all about hegemony, money, and class, mocked by the narrator’s final judgment: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”
The glory of the film seems to me mostly around the edges—it won Oscars for cinematography (John Alcott), design (Ken Adam), and musical adaptation (Leonard Rosenman). Thus, it could be argued that Barry Lyndon is somehow a betrayal of the auteur theory, especially since it is so atypically a Kubrick film in so many ways. That isn’t quite fair. The choices made were all made by Kubrick, and his attraction to possibly the first antihero of a major English novel—Spartacus, a project not originated by Kubrick, aside—is unsurprising. Although Thackeray’s book leans toward the humorous, Kubrick’s film is full of the biting but ultimately tragic satire typical of the director’s worldview.