WolfmanOz at the Movies #69

Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now

Based on the 1844 novel The Luck Of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray, Barry Lyndon (released in 1975) recounts the exploits and later unravelling of an 18th-century Irish rogue and social climber who marries a beautiful rich widow to assume her late husband’s aristocratic position.

Now regulars here would gather I am huge fan of Stanley Kubrick – IMO he’s one of the very few genuine artistic geniuses of cinema, but I will be the first to admit that Barry Lyndon is not for everyone given its deliberate slow-pacing but for those prepared to immerse themselves into the film and it’s setting it’s an unforgettably rewarding experience.

In terms of story this is on the surface at least, the simplest thing Kubrick ever made. However in terms of its’ technical aspect, it was one of his most challenging. The plot is basically about how greed, arrogance and ignorance can easily become the ruin of a man. The story itself is superbly told, but mostly quite straight forward. The humour keeps us interested in the story, as does its undeniable visual beauty. It is not a stretch to say that this must be among the most beautiful looking films ever made. Every scene is filmed in all natural light, whether it be by sun or fire, and the landscapes and architecture handpicked by Kubrick himself are amazing. As in all Kubrick films, so much attention to small details equates to a great result in the end. Steven Spielberg called this film “possibly the most beautifully shot film in history.”.

In terms of the film’s technical achievement, it is a landmark movie. Even for all the story’s simplicity, there is a startling statement in the film that certainly can give the viewer real pause and thought. The finality of this world, the equality of all things in the end. It is certainly an interesting, powerful and very humbling down to earth observation. It is the kind of worldly observation that could perhaps lead some people to ruin, and yet lead others to strive for perfection. Perhaps that is part of Kubrick’s thinking here, a Kubrickian challenge if you will, as he certainly was always an artist that was challenging his viewers.

The beauty, the depth, and the mystery of this film are unsurpassable – what Kubrick was doing with light is just a miracle. Special lenses were designed to shoot interiors and exteriors in natural light; and no scene better encapsulates this where at the gambling table Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) and Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) stare at each other in the candlelight. The beauty of the cinematography, the music (Schubert’s Piano Trio 2nd movement), the costumes, the furtive looks of the characters and the humorous narration at the end which punctuates it makes it one of the most memorable scenes in cinema history and one of my all-time favourites.


Scene after scene is perfection and harmony. Costumes and sets were crafted in the era’s design, where the Age of Enlightenment with its gallantry, wars, and duels, was recreated in the film with the precision of the celebrated landscape and portrait masters of the period such as Thomas Gainsborough; Sir Joshua Reynolds; George Romney to name just a few. If nothing else, watching Barry Lyndon is an aesthetic delight in its purest form.

I feel sure (without having read Thackeray), that this was the proper way to adapt a long story from novel to screen. Each scene is either allowed as much time as it needs to make its point and its impact, or it’s cut altogether – you won’t catch Kubrick skating too quickly over his material for no better reason than to fit it all in. The third-person narration (consisting of witty, beautifully crafted sentences superbly spoken by Michael Hordern) almost performs a kind of dance with the images, gliding in just when we need it, taking a step back when we don’t (so rarely is a third-person narration used so well).

Barry Lyndon is the most compelling and compassionate realisation of the inevitable finality of everything in this world which was presented by the visionary director with elegant sensual melancholy. Stanley Kubrick known for his detached, seemingly remote and non-sentimental style chose to reach out to his viewer directly during the epilogue, “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personalities lived and quarreled, good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now”. I don’t recall any other movie that would illustrate the old wisdom, “everything will pass” in such sublime and deeply moving way.

For me Barry Lyndon is one of the great films of cinema – it’s in my top 20 favourite films of all-time; and it’s the first of 3 great films from 1975 I will be reviewing in the coming weeks.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . A Tale of the Christ.

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Anchor What
Anchor What
May 4, 2023 7:26 am

Thanks Wolfie. I have been meaning to catch up with this one for ages, having read good reports before, and your appraisal makes it essential!

May 4, 2023 8:27 am

Thanks Wolfman. I guessed it last week but if I’d said “seduction by candlelight” it would have given it away. Maybe “longing looks and fast film”. 🙂

Beautiful movie, hard to believe it’s almost fifty years old.

As for next week, I wish Pickles was here at the blog – we once live blogged a certain sequence much to the amusement of onlookers. Good times. Read the book, watch the (many) movies.

May 4, 2023 8:52 am

The famous “gambling’ scene was shot in “available light”, i.e. candles, lots of them. Push-processing of the already “high-speed” film provided the colour palette and granularity desired for the scene. Extremely “fast” short focal-length lenses helped, too, allowing a bit of leeway on depth of field..

“Somewhere in a box”, I might still have the issue of “American Cinematographer” that covered this production in detail. It may now even be “online” in their archives.

A lot of subsequent “costume epics” have attempted to cash in on the “look” without a lot of success.

“Point and shoot” and “fix it in post” might be the “modern way” to churn out rehashed / stolen ideas, but, as in all things, there is no substitute for quality.

Caveat: I think it was Red Army commander Marshall Zhukov who once quipped:

“Sometimes, quantity has a quality all of its own”.

Especially when you are talking about tanks and artillery.

And, in a cinematic vein, today is “Star Wars Day”:

May the Fourth be With You!

May 4, 2023 9:03 am

A fascinating scene, and a great textual lead-up to it, Wolfman.

Unfamiliar with the film, my focus in the initial minute or two was on the female character’s fingers. Whether intentional or not, there was a nervous energy about them. (In fact, I thought that whole clip was driven by minor movements, including the heaving of her chest on the patio, and his slow, deliberate approach to the kiss).

Separately, If I may throw something out there, as I’m sure many others have: “Like Water for Chocolate.”

May 4, 2023 9:17 am

Ryan O’Neal, a wooden actor who reached the apogee of his competence as a pretty boy in TV’s Peyton Place, did a Playboy interview not long after Barry Lyndon came out, gushing and raving about how his casting by Kubrick testified to his growth as an actor. It was such an honour to have an auteur recognise that he was a fine and genuine actor etc etc etc.

Well a bit later I read an interview with Kubrick, who said he chose O’Neal because, basically, he couldn’t act. Easy on the eyes, did as he was told, perfect for Barry Lyndon which is replete with static scenes, each in its way like a page from a beautiful storybook. Stand there, Ryan, don’t move, deliver your lines and piss off until you’re needed again.

I’ve often wondered what this flick owes to Kurasowa, the Seven Samurai in particular. Again, a movie of many gorgeous, static, storybook stagings in which the director flicks the pages from one scene to the next.

Critics hated Barry Lyndon when it first appeared. How blind they were.

May 4, 2023 9:40 am

That’s a co-incidental selection Wolfman. I was just last night delving into my “10001 movies must watch” book and reading the Barry Lyndon entry.

May 4, 2023 9:49 am

Yeah nah. While I can appreciate technical aspects like shooting in natural light, I doubt I could sit through what appears such to be such a boring film if that scene is anything to go by.

May 4, 2023 11:23 am

possibly the most beautifully shot film in history

Words guaranteed to elicit screams of anguish from anyone who’s had to
colour grade a 16mm distribution copy using a Rank Cintel flying spot scanner.

May 4, 2023 11:55 am

Roger Ebert gave it 3.5/4 stars. Once again he got it right when others couldn’t see it.

May 4, 2023 12:03 pm

And also with you, Bruce.

(channelling my inner Anglican) 😀

Louis Litt
May 4, 2023 3:27 pm

Thanks Wolfie – My Favourite Kubrick Film.
Long, lush, a simple tale. I wonder if this filum influenced Baz Lurhman whose stories are simle, his scences are simple but dramatic.
When this was released all I kept thinking was how things have not changed over the centeries. The wealthy lady marries a man who is no good, sleeps around, uses her wealth , embaresses her with the son loathing his step father more and more until revenge.
The media at the time laud Ryan O Niell.
THe generation gap between father and stepson.
Its all there repeatred over and over again.
A cracking show on a wet anc cold Saturday night that left me Wowed.
BTW the scense played her is very much ballet – the kiss – the beauty of two swans gliding on the lake.
Yes Ryan O neils accent does get in the way.

May 4, 2023 4:08 pm

Never seen it, but based on your recommendation, I’ll check it out.

Keep up the good work, Wolfie! 🙂

P.S. Just watched a 50s noir movie on youtube called The Long Haul, starring Victor Mature and Diana Dors.

Victor looked very mature, and Diana was improbably glamorous as she paraded through grimy workshops and truckstops in spangles, furs and white dresses. But it kept my attention, and fans of trucks will especially enjoy the last 20 minutes.

Oh, and any chance of a bit of Fellini at some stage?

Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
May 4, 2023 4:46 pm

I read an interview with Kubrick, who said he chose O’Neal because, basically, he couldn’t act.

Haha, hadn’t heard that before Areff, but very Kubrickian – like how he forgot to tell Slim Pickens that the movie he was shooting was a comedy. As a result Slim was perfect!

Sorry Wolfman I haven’t seen Barry Lyndon so I can’t productively comment on your article! Other than that Kubrick was amazing.

May 4, 2023 4:57 pm

I ignored this film because I didn’t like reading Thackeray.
Now I have to watch it.
Thank you

May 5, 2023 10:10 am

Re Fellini – I like all of it, and Satyricon is a favourite – not least because it combines Latin and lust, with stunning imagery.

There is a doco on him that has been floating around on SBS for the last few months, you’ve probably seen it.

Like many great artists, he was pretty flaky in his personal life, but no decent history of film-making will ever leave him out.

Never been that keen on Bergman. Bit too gloomy for me. What can we expect from people who live in semi-darkness, surrounded by ice and snow, for at least six months of the year? The Italian climate is much more supportive of at least a degree of liveliness and optimism.

May 6, 2023 3:32 pm

Barry Lyndon was/is indeed a magnificent movie. I believe the main reason it did not do well when first released is because the seventies ushered in the Era of boobs and bums, blaxploitation, swearing and extreme violence and of course disaster films. To wit, Towering Inferno, Earthquake et al. Society itself was becoming more agitated, massive anti-War, anti-nuclear protests etc.
Like now, people were being conditioned against beauty and its appreciation.

Steve of Kenmore
May 7, 2023 9:21 pm

I read somewhere tha Kubrick borrowed new expensive lenses from NASA to film wih only candlelight.

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