Since the completion of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick has repeatedly suggested that his films are inapplicable to verbal formulations. "I tried to create a visual experience," he said of 2001 in 1968, "one that bypasses verbalizing pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content...

by Mark Crispin Miller

“There’ll be no screenplay of Barry Lyndon published, because there is nothing of literary interest to read.”1

Since the completion of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick has repeatedly suggested that his films are inapplicable to verbal formulations. “I tried to create a visual experience,” he said of 2001 in 1968, “one that bypasses verbalizing pigeonholing and directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophical content…. I intended the film to be an intensely subjective experience, that reaches the viewer, just a music does.”2 Commenting on A Clockwork Orange in 1971, Kubrick referred to “something in the human personality which resents things that are clear, and, conversely, something which is attracted to puzzles, enigmas and allegories.”3 “The most important parts of a film.” he said in a discussion of Barry Lyndon in 1975, “are the mysterious parts—beyond the reach of reason and language.”4

No one would question the relevance of such statements to most of Kubrick’s work since Dr. Strangelove” (1964). 2001 at first resembles a conventional science fiction thriller, but abandons its “plot” midway through the action. The mystery of the monolith is never solved in the traditional manner, there is no climactic discovery, no conclusive explanation. Instead the viewer is left to ponder images and sequences that connote the futility of logic and the primacy of some higher intelligence. As the film deals with the limitations of human perception, it leaves the realm of familiar convention and aspired to subliminal effect. A Clockwork Orange is similarly innovative. It baffles our sympathies, merging victim with aggressor, imposing beauty and comedy on savagery; it seems founded on the logic of dreams. Its images connote, among other things, the futility of enforcing a socially acceptable response to violence; and, as with 2001 are anti-conventional. They elude ascription of genre and formulations of statement. Barry Lyndon seems at first entirely conventional, a picturesque tale uncomplicated by inexpressible elements. Furthermore, it is based on a Victorian novel, Thackeray’s The Luck Of Barry Lyndon, from which Kubrick has adapted a narrative voice-over far more intrusive than any he has ever used before.5 Given Kubrick’s stated emphasis on the non verbal, it seems odd that he should choose to make a film that depends so much on words. If we are to understand how the meanings of Barry Lyndon lie “Beyond the reach of reason and language,” We must compare the film to Thackeray’s novel. And consider the cinematic effect of Kubrick’s changes. Like 2001 and A Clockwork Orange , Barry Lyndon deals with the inadequacy of language; and like those earlier films, it makes simple judgments impossible.

I. Changes in Plot

Kubrick’s story is simpler than Thackeray’s. Part I of the film deals with the protagonist’s “rise.” Young Redmond Barry must flee his Irish home after shooting Captain John Quin in a duel over the affections of Nora Brady, Redmond’s cousin. On his way to Dublin he is robbed by highwaymen. Suddenly impoverished he joins the British army, which needs recruits for its engagements in the Seven Years War. He is sent to fight the French, but after Captain Grogan, his friend and protector, is killed in battle, Redmond deserts, posing as an officer. On his way to neutral Holland he spends some time with Lischen, a German girl who’s husband is away at war. After leaving her, Redmond meets the Prussian Captain Potzdorf, who discovers his ruse and forces him to join the Prussian army. Eventually, Redmond wins the confidence of his superiors, who use him to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari, an old Irish gambler, posing as a Frenchman.

Redmond confesses the plot to the Chevalier, but pretends to help the Prussians by working as the chevalier’s servant. The Prussian authorities finally move to expel the Chevalier from the country; but Redmond, disguised as his employer (who leaves on his own), is expelled instead. The two outcasts roam Europe as professional gamblers, working every fashionable court and spa. At one such place, Redmond meets and woos Lady Harriet Lyndon, whose aged husband Sir Charles Lyndon has a fatal seizure at the card table.

Part II presents the protagonist’s “fall.” Redmond marries Lady Lyndon and becomes Barry Lyndon by the king’s permission. He and his mother move to Castle Hackton, the Lyndon estate. Lady Lyndon bears her husband a son, Bryan, whom Barry loves passionately; there is no love, however, between Barry and Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon’s some by her first marriage. Acting on his own mother’s advice, Barry cultivates the friendship of certain prominent men in the hopes of obtaining a peerage. He spend much of his wife’s fortune to this end. At a Musicale Bullingdon enters the room with Bryan and publicly condemns his stepfather. Barry flies into a rage and beats his stepson before the audience of horrified aristocrats, who thenceforth avoid him. Bullingdon leaves home. Bryan dies after falling from a horse, which bereavement drives his parents into helpless depression. Bullingdon returns, challenges Barry to a duel and wounds him in the leg. Barry loses the leg, and is forced to leave England on pain of imprisonment for debt.

Thackeray’s novel is more densely constructed, filled with episodic adventures which Kubrick omitted, for they are much too long and involved to provide material for any cinematic endeavor other than farce. Thackeray’s Barry is not robbed by highwaymen but by the victim of such a robbery: he escorts a Mrs. Fitzsimons to safety after she had been robbed on the road, takes up residence at the house, and gradually loses all his money to the woman and her husband. Captain and Mrs. Fitzsimons make no appearance in the film. While serving with the British army in Germany Thackeray’s Barry is knocked unconscious in a petty quarrel, then finds himself in Lischen’s house, recuperating beside a wounded officer. With Lischen’s help, he convinces the household that the wounded man is Barry Himself, delirious with fever; he steals the officer’s uniform and leaves unimpeded. In the film, Barry finds an officer’s uniform and papers unattended, as if by accident, a quickly steals them; Lischen, whom he meets thereafter has nothing to do with the theft.

Kubrick also omits the nasty episode of Barry’s attempt to win the Countess Ida from the Chevalier de Magny (a stratagem that leads tortuously to gruesome reprisals), and the complicated plot whereby Barry steals the affections of Lady Lyndon from her lover, Lord George Poynings. Barry’s downfall in the novel is the result of further elaborate machinations, and Kubrick also does away with these.

Complicated stratagems in films then to supersede the characters as objects of attention. If the hero devotes himself to clever subterfuge, the viewer will try to figure out, follow its steps, determine its consequences. In films such as Rififi, The Great Escape, The Day Of The Jackal and Kubrick’s own The Killing, characterization becomes less important than the details of careful dissimulation; the subtleties of personality emerge before and after the precise event. In the best of such films, the characters become most interesting when the stratagem has failed. In films such as, The List of Adrian Messenger and The Sting, the stratagem is all.

By deleting Thackeray’s most involved episodes, Kubrick places the film’s emphasis on the protagonists inner life; we attend to Barry’s feelings and responses, not his actions. Kubrick’s changes in Thackeray’s story emphasize Barry’s passivity: the film’s hero seems incapable of the self-seeking ingenuity that inspires the career of Thackeray’s Barry. This passivity makes the protagonist seem enigmatic, for if he is not an independent agent, then we cannot expect him to express his desires through the usual manifestations of the will. He may do what he is told and expected to do but his reasons for acting dependently may be very complex.

Kubrick’s omission of the novel’s farcical episodes has another effect on the film: the tone of Barry Lyndon is subdued, quiet, melancholy, whereas the novel’s adventures radiate a boisterous crudeness.

II. “A sort of woeful tender impression”

The film’s melancholy is indistinguishable from its loveliness: “every frame is a fresco of sadness,” writes Andrew Sarris.6 Society in Barry Lyndon projects a sense of solitude and bereavement. Characters are isolated from one another in their decorative groups and self-conscious poses. Houses are not homes, but funeral mansions whose vast spaces seem to discourage human contact. Civilization itself is a tragic necessity, blocking the hearts disruptive impulses with a sad apparatus of restraint.

Redmond Barry is always at odds with this staid world; his assault on Bullingdon at the Musicale is the disastrous consummation of a lifetime of subtler disruptions. However, he is not happier than the society which he invades. His life is a history of loss. He is dispossessed at the outset when his father is killed in a duel, which is the first thing we see. Fatherless in the dynastic society of the late 18th Century, he seeks permanence, stability, a firm grounding, but none of his efforts can effect his integration into the world of men and women, families and estates. He loses Nora, Grogan, Bryan, Lady Lyndon. Absence seems inevitable in his career; death is his pervasive adversary.

Thackeray’s hero is also dogged by woe, but there is none of the film’s stately melancholy in the novel; there is more of Rowlandson than of Gainsborough in the spirit of the book. As Kubrick’s Barry is not a conventional rogue, neither are Kubrick’s other characters the picturesque caricatures described by Thackeray’s narrator. For instance, in the novel Mrs. Barry is a grasping Harridan whose uncouthness embarrasses her son, despite his dependence on her.

To say truth, I was rather afraid, now that I lived in a very different sphere to that in which she was accustomed to move, lest she should come to pay me a visit, and astonish my English friends by her bragging and her brogue, her rouge and her old hoops and fur bellows of the time of George II., in which she had figured advantageously in her youth, and which she still fondly thought to be at the height of fashion. So I wrote to her, putting off her visit, begging her to visit when the left wing of the castle was finished, or the stables built and so forth.7

Kubrick’s Barry never betrays and ambivalence towards his mother, who is present at his wedding and at every fine social function thereafter. Although she does appear out of place among the English aristocrats, the incongruity is subtle. And Mrs. Barry is an adaptable creature in the film: she loses “her brogue” with the passage of time, and only takes to applying “her rogue” after coming to live among the painted English.

The image of Lady Lyndon is similarly softened in the film. Thackeray’s narrator describes a pretentious prig:

She was a goddaughter of old Mary Wortley Montague, and, like that famous old woman of the last century, made considerable pretensions to be a blue-stocking, and bel esprit. Lady Lyndon wrote poems in English and Italian, which still may be read by the curious in the pages of the magazines of the day. She entertained a correspondence with several of the European savans, upon history, science, the ancient languages, and especially theology. Her pleasure was to dispute controversial points with abbes and bishops, and her flatterers said she rivaled Madame Dacier in learning. Every adventurer, who had a discovery in chemistry, a new antique bust, or a plan for discovering the philosopher’s stone, was sure to find a patroness in her. (243)

There is nothing so ridiculous about Kubrick’s Lady Lyndon, a reserve and mournful character who keeps her misery barely hidden beneath an air of exhausted elegance, in the novel, she gratifies Barry’s cruelty with tearful entreaties for kindness; in the film, she is as enigmatic as her husband, and as fully misunderstood.

Kubrick also expunges the melodramatic bravura of Barry’s account. Redmond Barry’s uncle declares a toast to the engagement of Quin and Nora:

At the third toast, it was always the custom for the ladies to withdraw; but my uncle stopped them this time , in spite of the remonstrances of Nora, who said “O, pa! Do let us go!” and said, “No, Mrs. Brady and ladies, if you please; this is a sort of toast that is drunk a great deal too seldom in my family, and you’ll please to receive it with all the honors. Here’s CAPTAIN AND MRS. JOHN QUIN, and long life to them, kiss her, Jack, you rogue; for ‘faith you’ve got a treasure!”

“His already?” I screeched out, springing up.

“Hold your tongue, you fool—hold you tongue!” said big Ulick [Redmond’s cousin], who sat by me; but I wouldn’t hear.

“He has already,” I screamed, “been slapped in the face this morning, Captain John Quin; he’s already been called coward, Captain John Quin; and this is the way I’ll drink his health, ‘Here’ your health Captain John Quin;'” and I flung a glass of claret into his face. I don’t know how he looked after it, for the next morning I myself was under the table, tripped up by Ulick, who hit me a violent cuff on the head as I went down; and I had hardly leisure to hear the general screaming and scurrying that was taking place above me, being so fully occupied with kicks, and thumps, and curses, with which Ulick was belaboring me. “You fool!” roared he—”you great blundering marplot—you silly beggardly brat ( a thump at each), hold your tongue!” (84-85)

There is none of the rough-and-tumble Cruikshank frenzy in Kubrick’s version of the scene. Redmond comes to the table and which the family sits dining; characteristically, he is late, out of place. Quin and Nora sit across the table. Redmond studies uneasily her cousin’s discomfiture, his rival’s smugness. Quin speaks quietly to Nora, them to her father, who stands up and announces the engagement. Redmond stares in disbelief as Quin bends to kiss Nora for the benefit of all the seated spectators (among who Kubrick places us, by shooting the entire sequence from the point-of-view of others seated at the table). Mrs. Brady proposes a toast; all, except Redmond, rise to drink the couple’s health; all sit. Mr. Brady scolds Redmond for failing to join in. Redmond pauses, stands, holds up his glass; “Here’s my toast to you, Captain John Quin,” he says quietly, and tosses his glass in his rival’s face.

The women leave in consternation; Quin backs away from the table, fussing angrily with his wet face and cut forehead. “The Captain’s nose was bleeding,” says Thackeray’s Barry, “as mine was – his was cut across the bridge, and his beauty spoiled forever” (85). In the film, Quin suffers nothing more than a tiny cut over one eye; and there is no mad brawl after the incident. Redmond announces calmly that “Mr. Quin may have satisfaction any time he pleases, by calling on Redmond Barry, Esquire, of Barryville,” and makes his exit.

Kubrick seems to have sifted from the novel those details which the narrator, mendacious and ashamed of unmanly feeling, has added to his story years after the event. In recounting his departure form Lischen’s house, Thackeray’s Barry is more interested in the details of deception than in the effect of cutting short whatever intimacy he and the girl might have discovered:

(I shall pass over my adieus with my kind hostess, which were very tearful indeed), and then making up my mind to be the great action, walked upstairs to Fakenham’s room attired in his full regimentals, and with his hat cocked over my left eye. (128)

Kubrick’s treatment of the departure from Lischen’s house suggests that there has been a great intimacy between Redmond and the girl. Redmond had introduced himself as “Jonathan Fakenham, but on the morning of his departure, Lischen’s farewell nullifies this dissimulation: Auf Wiedersehen, Redmond.” In the film, there is no busy plotting to distract the hero or viewer from the separation, which is allowed reverberation of tenderness.

In the novel, moments of loss are painful not for their pathos, but for their ugliness. We consider sad incidents through a satirist’s eyes:

When my kind friend Fagan was shot, a brother captain, and his very good friend, turned to Lieutenant Rawson and said, “Fagan’s down; Rawson, there’s your company.” It was all the epitaph my brave patron got. :I should have left you a hundred guineas, Redmond,” were his last words to me, “but for a cursed run of ill luck last night at faro.” And he gave me a faint squeeze of the hand: then, as the word was given in advance, I left him. When we came back to our old ground, which we presently did, he was lying there still; but he was dead. Some of our people had already torn off his epaulets, and no doubt, had rifled his purse. such knaves and ruffians do men in war become! (13)

When Redmond’s “kind friend” Grogan is shot down in the film, his corpse is not ravaged, nor does his last words refer only to money. Redmond carries his wounded friend from the battlefield and sets him down in a nearby copse. “I’ve only a hundred guineas left for you, my lad. I lost the rest at cards last night,” Laughs the dying man with difficulty. Then: Kiss me, my boy! For we’ll never meet again.” Redmond leans down and kisses Grogan on the lips, then lies across the dead man’s chest, sobbing as if his heart would break.

Kubrick eliminates the sordid aspects of Thackeray’s story and restores the emotional undercurrent to moments of death and departure. He has thoroughly restrained the action, deliberately avoiding the light-hearted shenanigans of the Osborne/Richardson Tom Jones (1963), a change that has offended some of the film’s critics, including Pauline Kael:

If you were to cut the jokes and cheerfulness out of the film “Tom Jones” and run it in slow motion, you’d have something very close to “Barry Lyndon.” Kubrick has taken a quick-witted story, full of vaudeville turns (Thackeray wrote it as a serial, under the name of George Fitz-Boodle), and he’s controlled it so meticulously that he’s drained the blood out of it. The movie isn’t quite the fall of a flamboyant rakehell, because Kubrick doesn’t believe in funning around. We never actually see Barry have a frisky, high time, even when he is still a love-smitten chump, trying to act the gallant and fighting a foolish duel, Kubrick doesn’t want us to take a shine to him.8

Asking for “vaudeville turns” in Barry Lyndon is like asking for a pie fight in Hamlet . But Kael’s complaint reveals more than a misunderstanding of Kubrick’s intentions; it reveals a misconception of Thackeray’s novel, which dies not evince much “funning around.”

Despite its frequent bluster Barry Lyndon’s narrative is, finally, unhappy and unamusing. Whatever pleasure we might take in his anecdotes of bullying and deceit is diminished by our awareness of his final stage: his questionable triumphs are all in the past; he speaks as one who had lost all he describes; he ends up, by his own admission, a “poor, lonely and broken hearted man” (383). But the sadness pervading Thackeray’s novel derives from something subtler than our objective knowledge of the protagonist’s finish.

Barry Lyndon is a stage Irishman, given to the exaggeration that :is a practice not unusual with his nation” (52), as the novel’s “editor” points out in a footnote. This stock character we assume is comic; but this assumption, according to Thackeray, is wrong. Thackeray wrote the following analysis of the Irish in a few weeks after beginning Barry Lyndon in 1844:

A characteristic of the Irish writers and people, which has not been at all appreciated by the English, is, I think, that of extreme melancholy. All Irish stories are sad, all humorous Irish songs are sad: there is never a burst of laughter excited by them but, as I fancy, tears are near at hand: and from “Castle Rackrent” downwards, every Hibernian tale that I have read is sure to leave a sort of woeful tender impression . . . . You may walk all Ireland through, and hardly see a cheerful [landscape]; and whereas at five miles from the spot where this is published or read in England, you may be sure to light upon some prospect of English nature smiling in plenty, rich in comfort, and delightfully cheerful, however simple and homely, the finest and richest landscape in Ireland already appeared to me to be sad, and the people corresponded with the place. But we in England have adopted our idea of the Irishman, and, like the pig-imitator’s audience in the fable (which simple is not to be construed into an opinion of the writer’s part that the Irish resemble pigs, but simply that the Saxon is dull of comprehension), we will have the sham Irishman in preference to the real one, and will laugh at the poor wag, whatever his mood may be.”9

Here the vision of director and novelist converge. Thackeray’s Irishman bears the traits of a sock figure, but his story is more woeful than amusing, closer in tone to Kubrick’s film than a careless reader may realize. Only once dies Kubrick’s hero speak of himself with the braggadocio characteristic of Thackeray’s narrator, and this in a context that commonly encourages such fantasy. Barry tells his young son a bedtime story about an attack he supposedly led on a French fortress. The account is improbable and naively grisly, like most fairy tales, and recalls the Irish bluster that Thackeray considered melancholy: “And you should have seen the look on the Frenchman’s faces when nineteen rampaging he-devils, pell-mell, cut-and-thrust, jumped over the wall!” Later, Barry sits on his son’s deathbed: Bryan asks him to “tell the story about the fort”; and Barry begins the same tall tale, but its swaggering tone belongs to a happier context in which that tone was not taken seriously. Now its exaggeration seems out-of-place; it is a purely verbal magnification of Barry’s worth, and so meaningless now that his only creation, his living son, lies dying. Barry breaks off in the middle and gives way to his grief. Perhaps Kubrick was thinking of Thackeray’s remarks on the melancholy Irish when he decided to reintroduce the story into the film’s saddest moment.

More importantly then this, however, is the tension between the style of Barry’s story and the style of the film itself. The tale calls up no memorable image because its events are amplified beyond apprehensible proportions. Whereas our impression of the context in which he tells the story is strong, nearly overwhelming. The same is true of Bryan’s deathbed utterances. The child’s last words are patently sentimental. Taking each of his parents by the hand, he asks them to “promise not to quarrel, but to love each other, so that we may meet again in heaven, where Bullingdon says quarrelsome people never go.” This recalls the death of little Paul Dombey. If it were a literary scene , comprised only of the dying boy’s words, it might not seem very sad to a modern reader. But Kubrick never shows us the child’s face as he is speaking. Instead, he shows us the parents’ reaction, the boy’s pale hand on the coverlet, images of grief more eloquent and affecting than any statement. And what is sad about the repetition of the bedtime story, aside from its overt allusion to happier time, is Barry’s inability to tell it.

Kubrick cuts from Barry’s grief-stricken face to Bryan’s funeral procession. Dozens of mourners follow the funeral carriage, a sheep-drawn toy coach in which Bryan had ridden on his birthday. Reverend Runt leads the procession, reciting John 11:25 in a loud, clear voice. It is a noble intonation of the text, but his actual words have no meaning. His voice has the stirring effect of a subsidiary musical instrument beneath the full strains of Handel’s dolorous serabande. This piece also dominates the film’s opening and closing credits, and now compliments the tragic spectacle of the orderly bereaved. The shot of the funeral comprises a beautiful image of misery, “a fresco of sadness,” sad because beautiful: its effect depends on the visual-aural entirety of the cinematic event.

Kubrick’s changes in tone suggest a crucial attitude towards cinematic style. Our immediate response to film style precedes the perceptive act of decoding the statements of montage, and precedes the act of choice afforded us by the successful use of mise-en-scène. Certainly, Kubrick edits and composes the form from his images and sequences as many meanings as possible; but his great technical skill allows him to determine the quality of each cinematic moment, to imbue every frame with a certain “mood” of “flavor.” “Style” is what determines the quality of the moment: it is what we respond to first of all.

Writing on the problems of directing his version of Nabakov’s Lolita, Kubrick made this statement in 1961: “Style is what an artist uses to fascinate the beholder in order to convey to him his feelings and emotions and thoughts. These are what have to be dramatized, not the style.”10 Once these things have been dramatized, they will be conveyed to the viewer, again through style. Here it is important to point out the simple difference between cinematic and literary style: cinematic style is non-verbal. The sadness of Bryan’s death derives from Kubrick’s use of visual and aural elements, not from the child’s deathbed remarks. The cinematic relationship between speech and image is one of antagonism. Words become distractions from the full suggestiveness of film style, and from the ambiguous plenitude of images which that style delivers.

This brings us to Kubrick’s most important change in Thackeray’s novel, the transformation of a first-person autobiographical account to a non synchronous third-person commentary.

III. The Unreliable Narrator

The narrator imposes on the action a retributive formula lending a superficial “rise and fall” schema to the film’s two-part structure. This formula dictates that pride goeth before a fall, implying that the hero’s misfortunes are all his own fault. The narrator sees his hero as a conventional picaresque upstart: he speaks for a genre, and therefore misses whatever subtleties rest uneasily with his conventional interpretation.

For instance he sees Barry’s search for deep fulfillment as a picareque search for wealth and prestige, although there is no visual evidence that Barry ever covets any such worldly item. The narrator obscures Barry’s mysteriousness with predictable ascriptions. When young Redmond watches Quin’s regiment parading before the peoples of Barryville, the narrator assures us that the boy’s “heart burned with military ardor,” but nothing in Redmond’s demeanor supports this claim. Redmond watches the soldiers unresponsively. He is expressionless because at this early moment he has not yet learned that the people around him want an exiting display. It is not until he stands up and challenges Quin that he reveals and histrionic self-consciousness. He is unimpressed by the stilted manners of Quin’s troops. Later when Redmond rides towards Holland in Fakenham’s uniform, the narrator says that the youth “resolved never again to fall from the rank of a gentleman.” Again, nothing in the image supports the claim; and immediately after the narrative assertion, Redmond encounters Lischen, for whom he relinquishes the fiction of social prominence in favor of the kind of intimacy he always seeks.

The narrator resembles the pitiless spectators of Barry’s career, who react with self-protective disapproval of the privileged. When a Prussian colonel calls Redmond “idle, dissolute, and unprincipled” and tells him that “for all your talents and bravery, I’m sure you will come to no good,” he speaks for a society that distrusts the outsider on principle. the narrator’s opinion of Redmond is no fairer, although it is always more elegantly phrased. He tells us that Redmond very soon became “very far advanced in the science of every kind of misconduct” among the Prussian soldiers, but we never see any evidence of such corruption. Kubrick allows the action to discredit the literary framework of narrative opinion which is nothing more than a structuralization of slander.

Kubrick implies that we modern viewers are potentially just as unfair as the eighteenth-century spectators within the film. This implication inheres in the use of the narrator, who speaks for the audience within the film, and to the audience in front of the film, bridging the gap between the most superficial viewers in each. For instance, if we rely on the narrator, we will understand no more about Redmond’s marriage than his enemies do: like them, we will assume that it is based entirely on materialistic drives. The narrator’s treatment of this marriage is a good example of the authoritative libel that passes for insight.

When Redmond Barry first sees Lady Lyndon, he is seated opposite the Chevalier at a small table overlooking a parterre at Spa. He and the Chevalier are richly dressed; they take tea silently, as if unhappily. A group approaches for the far end of the segmented terrace: Lady Lyndon, Sir Charles Lyndon, their son Bullingdon, the tutor Reverend Runt, and an attendant who pushes Sir Charles’ wheelchair. Sir Charles is an old, bent, powdered invalid, faintly ludicrous as he handles the steering mechanism of his little vehicle. In his wig and make-up, with his bulbous nose and puffy cheeks, he resembles a dropsical old woman. Runt’s face is white as snow, his sharp nose as a pen, his hat and suit all somber black: this prim and bloodless figure also appears desexualized. And Bullingdon is a small child, austere and dignified beside his seated father. Lady Lyndon is young and beautiful. Although lacking in vitality, she seems unlike her sexless company; her sumptuous dress glows at the lightest end of the spectrum that darkens to brown in Sir Charles’ coat, to indigo in Bullingdon’s suit, ending in Runts funereal clerical attire.

Redmond stares at them in fascination. There seems to be no suitable match for Lady Lyndon in this group; Redmond might become the missing mate. but Redmond’s attraction to women is based on more than sexual desire. It also involves Sir Charles, the sedentary old man at Lady Lyndon’s side.

Throughout the film, sedentary old man confront Redmond with the fact of his own fatherlessness; he stands before them, trying in various ways to win their acceptance. He stands before his uncle, whose own sons sit nearby, and challenges Captain Quin. (this is a doubly ambiguous gesture, because Quin is yet another older man sitting before the solitary boy.) Later, Redmond stands before Herr von Potzdorf, the Prussian Minister of Police, whose nephew Captain Potzdorf, occupies the filial place next to the old man. Redmond pretends great loyalty to the Prussian government hoping the win the approval of the man who deprived him of his freedom. He stands before the Chevalier, posing as a Hungarian servant. Unlike Mr. Brady and Herr von Potzdorf, the Chevalier sits alone, unaccompanied by any filial figures; and, also unlike the other men, the Chevalier looks at the young man standing before him and accepts him, whereupon Redmond tearfully confesses the entire plat, joining the old man on whom he has been sent to spy. The narrator prefaced this startling act with some facile and contradictory explanations, failing to perceive the real cause of Redmond’s emotional unpredictable act; for Redmond, the fatherless outcast, finds his father in the sedentary outlaw.

Now he sees another such figure, but no longer feels impelled to present himself as a son, for his “father” sits beside him. The time has come for Redmond Barry to become Barry Lyndon: self begotten, a father in his own right. The Chevalier has ceased to be necessary; he will stand at Barry’s wedding, then disappear. And now the old man in the chair is not to be embraced, but cast aside. Redmond longed to be a filial figure, at the side of such a man; now Barry wants to be in that man’s place: “He wants to fill my shoes !” shouts Sir Charles to his companions at the card table when, a few scenes later, Redmond stands before him, goading the invalid with a pose of innocence.

Redmond’s attraction to Lady Lyndon, however is not merely a consequence of oedipal aggression. There is sympathy between this Irish outcast and the object of his love. They seem bound together by silence. Intimacy and performance are at odds throughout Barry Lyndon. Quin and Nora perform for each other, delivering conventional remarks that take the place of affection. Redmond always finds it necessary to wear a mask in order to win acceptance, and yet no real intimacy is possible as long as the mask fulfills its mediating function. What little we see of Redmond’s courtship suggests an attraction based on the freedom to enjoy a quiet interaction, a relationship absolved from the obligation of disguise.

Nevertheless there are insurmountable differences between these representatives of opposed nations and social classes; primal needs and vague temperamental affinities will not necessarily ensure mutual esteem. Immediately after their wedding, Redmond and his wife ride to Castle Hackton in a coach. Redmond placidly draws on a fine pipe, filling the carriage with smoke. Lady Lyndon blinks, tries to wave the smoke away, then asks her husbands to stop for a while. He persists, and she asks again. He draws deeply, blows smoke in her face, laughs gently, kisses her, and then keeps smoking.

Although considerably less offensive than the event described by Thackeray’s narrator,11 this is an upsetting moment. And the effect is compounded by Bullingdon, who, sitting with Runt is a separate coach, disparages his new father: “He seems to me to be little more than a common opportunist. I don’t believe he loves my mother at all. And it hurts me very much to see her make such a fool of herself.” Kubrick cuts to a close up of the couple’s new born baby, then zooms back to reveal the mother and father grouped lovingly around the child. Their closeness suggests that Bryan’s birth has introduced a new intimacy into their relationship. But Kubrick them complicates this conclusion by cutting to a whore-house where Barry sits embracing two prostitutes, kissing each of them hungrily. Kubrick continues to zoom back from this action having cut from the family to bordello in mid-zoom: the continuous movement suggests that Barry’s domestic happiness and passionate infidelity are expressions of the same urge.

Barry craves the whole world for a family; his warmth denies the meaning of propriety, and so he seeks immediate closeness everywhere. Because he desires intimacy rather than pleasure, his encounters with women generate a familial aura. At supper with Lischen and her child, he discovers a momentary family; and a furtive tryst with one of his wife’s maids seems more domestic than lewd: he holds the girl in a close, protective embrace as Bryan’s baby carriage stands behind him.

Lady Lyndon sits in a tub, grieving over his rejection. Barry stands before her; “I’m sorry,” is all he says, a tender unadorned admission. She takes his hand as if in forgiveness; he bends to her, thus conquering the distance between them. They kiss. The moment recalls and redeems the first scene with Nora, when that cold cousin, dissatisfied with Redmond’s un-excited display, bent to kiss him after calling him a liar.12 Lady Lyndon’s acceptance of her erring husband is complete: she loves him as a mother loves her son, an equation given subtle pictorial support by her apparel. The cap she wears in her bath recalls the bonnet Mrs. Barry wore the day she kissed young Redmond goodbye.13

This marriage is a complex union, charge with intimacy, fraught with oedipal meanings, complicated by incompatibility. It is ambiguous. The narrator reduces it to a picaresque adventure. When Redmond first sees Lady Lyndon, the narrator implies that Redmond’s motives are purely materialistic. Over the images of the Lyndon family promenade and Redmond’s fascinated gaze, the narrator recites a list of Lady Lyndon’s titles and holdings, and alludes to Sir Charles’ poor health, suggesting that the woman’s pedigree and imminent widowhood are all that Redmond cared for. These insinuations are grossly misleading. Redmond cannot know, when he first sees this woman, the facts which the narrator recounts. And surely the hero, a professional gambler who has visited all the courts in Europe, has observed a great number of wealthy women more easily obtainable than Lady Lyndon.

Similarly, after the smoking incident, the narrator makes a claim that only corroborates our unpleasant first impression: Lady Lyndon would soon mean no more to her husband “than the elegant carpets and fixtures which would form the pleasant background of his existence.” At the time, this seems a safe prediction, but it assumes that no change can occur with the passage of time, and that Barry’s playful insolence reflects nothing more than contempt. The narrator’s claim agrees with Bullingdon’s interpretation of his stepfather’s motives, but it is irrelevant to the development of the marriage as it is presented on the screen. The narrator says nothing of Barry’s apology because it is an intimate expression of complex feeling, inapplicable to the narrator’s cynical reading. The viewer who fails to watch carefully, with an open mind, will understand no more than Bullingdon does. For the bitter son never outgrows his early antagonism. His first impression of a “common opportunist: becomes a disastrous idee fixe that stunts and sours his maturity. One day he refuses to give Barry a kiss. In reply to his mother’s order that his kiss his father, he says coolly: “My father was Sir Charles Lyndon.” Barry whips the boy , and promises further punishment of any further intractableness. But the boy remains intractable all his life. Kubrick cuts from the chastisement to a close-up of the adult Bullingdon, sitting at his mother’s feet, holding her hand, watching a magic show arranged for Bryan’s birthday. Bullingdon was a grave and handsome child, as a grown up he is gawky and sallow, wearing a constant expression of truculent anxiety. On one level he is his step-father’s nagging double, troubling Barry’s life as an emanation of fatherlessness. Seen another way, he is a superficial viewer, resolute in the certainty of his cruel interpretation of events. It is to the likes of him that the narrator directs his confident appraisals.

IV. Report and Event

Kubrick’s changes in Thackeray’s plot enhance the protagonist’s enigmatic quality by making him a passive figure, one whose actions do not illuminate his inner life. Redmond Barry leads a sad existence in a sad world: Kubrick’s style conveys this melancholy in a way that “fascinates the beholder.” whereas the narrator only encourages the beholder to form opinions. The style and narrative framework are at variance.

The tension between report and event dramatizes the difference between the literary and cinematic modes. Cinemas is the only art form that exists in space and time simultaneously; unlike the novel it is dynamic, it cannot be stopped. In reading, we can slow down, speed up, flip ahead, pause to reflect. But cinemas is ongoing. The viewer’s reflective pauses interrupt his experience of what is happening before him. Whenever the narrator intrudes to interpret or predict, he mimics the reader’s reflexive pauses; once we recognize the inappropriateness of the narrator;s responses, we can begin to stop bringing to bear on the film experience a literary habit of mind.

Words and images have an uneasy relationship. When the narrator’s authoritative voice cuts across the action, we stop watching insofar as we think about his remarks. The brief retirement within that succeeds the contemplation of language makes the fullest perception of film impossible. As we mull over the narrator’s description of Lady Lyndon;s pedigree, we forget to see what she looks like when Redmond first observes her.

This antagonism also works the other way. The cinematic event devaluates the importance of words. Many viewers, engrossed in the action, pay little attention to the commentary. And the more deeply engrossed the viewer becomes, the less vulnerable he becomes to the narrator’s suasion. The narrator is discredited in two ways: temporally and contextually. When the narrator predicts Barry’s indifference to his wife he is proven wrong by the sequence of events. The passage of time renders the verbal report meaningless. When the narrator explains Redmond’s breakdown before the Chevalier as the result of homesickness, the Chevalier being another Irishman, he is proven wrong by the image itself, considered in the context of “Ireland” as we remember it form the early part of the film. The Chevalier looks and sounds like no one from Redmond’s Irish experience he is outlandish arrayed (the Irish were simple and monochromatically dressed), and he speaks German with a French rather than Irish accent. The film’s nuances temporally and contextually invalidate the crude fiction which the narrator uses to simplify every issue.

This fiction is an imposition of a conventional literary formula on the sensory plenitude of film. Kubrick exposes the paucity of the narrator’s phrases by playing their inexhaustible referent against them. The viewer must make a choice between the large affective experience and the thin ironies of the disembodied voice. By exploiting the tension between event and report, Kubrick reveals the great possibilities of his art.

There is more than an aesthetic preference implicit in Kubrick’s exaltation of cinema. Kubrick’s vindication of cinematic plenitude entails a philosophical position on the effectiveness of language as a means of discovering truth. Kubrick’s characters always fail to understand what they discuss: the scientist’s bland observations never come to terms with enigma at the heart of 2001 ; for all his cultivated self analysis, Humbert Humbert is powerless to curtail or satisfy his passion for Lolita’ General Broulard in Paths of Glory and Alex in A Clockwork Orange speak voluminously about their actions without ever comprehending them; and the urbane narrator in Barry Lyndon reveals nothing but his own ignorance. These blind, voluble creatures unwittingly challenge the assumption that accurate language can ever be possible. They impose on baffling reality the simplistic formulas of the own discourse; they resemble the limited viewers whom Kubrick endeavors to educate. Kubrick uses the fullness of cinema to tease the viewer out of explication with “puzzles, enigmas , and allegories” that defeat the brief certitudes of speech.


1. Stanley Kubrick, quoted by John Hofsees in “How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Barry Lyndon,” The New York Times (Jan 5, 1976).

2. Quoted in Norman Kagan’s The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (New York, 1972), p. 145.

3. Quoted in Alexander Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs (New York, 1971), p. 45

4. Quoted by Hofsee in The New York Times.

5. Kubrick uses different kinds of voice-over narratives in four earlier features: The Killing, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and A Clockwork Orange.

6. Review of Barry Lyndon in the Village Voice (Dec. 29, 1975)

7. William Makepiece Thackeray, The luck of Barry Lyndon, ed. Martin J, Anisman (NewYork, 1970), p. 308. Subsequent page references will be included in the text.

8. “Kubrick’s Gilded Age,” The New Yorker (Dec. 29, 1975). 50.

9. “A Box Of Novels,” written in February, 1844, for Frasers, and reprinted in Thackeray’s Works, 24 vols. (London, 1886), XXIII, 46-50. For a similar analysis of the Irish, see the Irish Sketch book:

A delightful old gentleman who sang the song here mentioned could not help talking of the Temperance movement with a sort of regret, and said that all the fun had gone out of Ireland since Father Mathew banished the whiskey from it. Indeed any stranger going about his amongst the people can perceive that they are now anything but gay. I have seen a great number of crowds and meetings of people in all parts of Ireland, and found them all gloomy. There is nothing like the merry-making one reads of in the Irish novels.

Reprinted in Thackeray’s Works, ed. Lady Richie, 26 vols. (London, 1911) XXIII, 70.

10. Quoted in Kagan, p. 80.

11. “The first days of marriage are commonly very trying; and I have known couples, who lived together like turtle-doves for the rest of their lives, peck each other’s eyes out almost during the honeymoon. I did not escape the common lot; in our journey westward my Lady Lyndon chose to quarrel with me because I pulled out a pipe of tobacco (the habit of smoking which I had acquired in Germany when a soldier in BŸlow’s, and could never give it over), and smoked it in the carriage; and also her ladyship chose to take umbrage both at Ilminster and Andover, because in the evenings when we lay there I chose to invite the landlords of the Bell and the Lion to crack a bottle with me. Lady Lyndon was a haughty woman, and I hate pride, and I promise you that in both instances I overcame this vice in her. On the third day or our journey I had her to light my pipe-match with her own hands, and made her deliver it to me with tears in her eyes; and at the Swan Inn at Exeter I has so completely subdued her, that she asked me humbly whether I would not wish the landlady as well as the host to step up dinner with us” (302)

12. Having hidden a ribbon in her bodice, Nora commands Redmond to find it. He separates her clasped hands, sees the ribbon is not there, and gives up. She guides his hands to the ribbon: “Why are you trembling?” she asks. “At the pleasure of finding the ribbon,” he answers, pulling the prize from her dress. “You’re a liar,” she says, and then Kisses him. Later, Potzdorf parodies this scene. Having determined that Redmond is an impostor, Potzdorf stands up from the table where he dines with Redmond at a German officer’s club. Redmond is dazed at the realization that he is being arrested, and protests the he is a British officer. “You are a liar!” Shouts Potzdorf, towering over him.

13. There is a similar oedipal detail in the scene between Redmond and Lischen, who also wears a bonnet. Having found that her husband is away at war and that she is lonely, Redmond, sitting beside Lischen at the dinner table, bends and Kisses her hand. This gesture and the placement of the two recalls Redmond’s last moment with his mother: he sat to her right at a small table, and bent to kiss her hand after assuring her that he could safely be in Dublin. Lischen too has just expressed concern for his safety: “And it must be very danger for you to be in the war.”


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