Barry Lyndon: Kubrick's Rejection of Human Progress

Barry Lyndon is a period drama film and one of the less discussed films by Stanley Kubrick

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Barry Lyndon was released to cinemas in 1975 but you couldn't tell because the visuals look so good. This is the aspect most negative and positive reviews of the film seem to agree on so I'll not focus on it. The long story short of it is that Kubrick was able to capture the light from candles and natural lighting rather than using artificial lighting.

The movie did not do well with American audiences or American critics. I asked about this from Zarathustra's Serpent and he expained that "It's unpopular with Americans because the hero is not an individualist who's in control of his life, like in Hollywood movies. The film critics... rejected Kubrick because he undermined the notion of progress."

The film is based on a novel by William Thackeray, which itself was written to undermine the declining aristocratic order of the 19th century in favour of the rising Victorian bourgeoise ruling class. The novel, set in the 18th century, rejected aristocracy by telling the story of Barry Lyndon, an Irish scoundrel who became a member of the English aristocracy through lying, cheating and deceiving a widow of an aristocrat into marriage. This showed that anyone could be considered an aristocrat regardless of their rotten character.

This anti-aristocratic feeling is present in the film itself. In the film Barry joins the British army to try and claw himself back into respectability and then later is drafted into the Prussian army - but he finds that the soldiers doing the fighting are not aristocrats but forcefully conscripted pesants and foreigners who have been brutalised in a seemingly meaningless aristocratic war.

The film is not limited to the novel's anti-aristocratic message, it has more to say. Although there are a few notable changes to the plot, it is a pretty straighforward adaptation that stays true to the spirit of the novel. However, according to Zarathustra's Serpent, it would be a mistake to look at the film in isolation since Barry Lyndon re-iterates the message implicit in other Kubrick films like 2001:A Space Odyseey and A Clockwork Orange.

Kubrick's Message in Barry Lyndon According to Zarathustra's Serpent

According to Zarathustra, the modern era, which preceded the current post-modern era, tried to use civilisation to refine man by removing the animal in him to the point where he is more robot than human. This can be seen in 2001: A Space Odyseey where in some ways the Artificial Intelligence HAL9000 acts more human and emotional than the humans.

The character of Barry Lyndon, especially after his marriage into aristocracy, is portrayed to be the more human, more animal counterpart to the aristocrats with wigs and powdered faces who had reached the peak of human refinement and manners. This refinement is shown to be a powder-thin mask hiding their twisted ferocity.

There is friction between Barry and the aristocrats. The child that he bears with his wife is shown to be a compromise between the two sides and for a while they are a happy couple, this turns out to be a failure since the boy dies. And so that historical compromise between the animal instinct and human refinement also ended up in failure.

Kubrick himself does not offer a solution, he merely presents the case that human progress has been an illusion, that by attempting to revoke the bad in mankind, civilisation has also neutered him, rendered him inhuman.

Barry was never in control of what happened to him though he might have thought that he got ahead with his own cleverness. This is also the hubris which Kubrick saw in mankind. It was either chance or another higher power (i.e. other people) which made choices for him. This is why American audiences did not like him. Instead of a hero who fights against fate and wins or loses, Barry is just a victim and perpertrator of fate.

The narrator also tells you constantly that Barry is going to fail before it happens so there is no one to root for.

The Ending

The film starts as it ends, with a duel. It is the best scene in the film but what is important is that it reveals the warmth in Barry's blood had not gone out yet. This half-way measure would cost him everything because to remain in the refined world of the 18th century aristocracy, he had to be a fully cold-blooded creature.

He got what he deserved and yet there is the faint suggestion that if he didn't have any scruples at all then he could have gotten away with it. If he had not loved his son enough to fall into despair then it would not have destroyed him. If he had made his step-son fear him then the step-son might not have rebelled.

The Rating: 6

6 out of 10
On this one I am with American audiences, I couldn't care less about the narrative of progress being undermined but Barry as a protagonist was just boring, unremarkeable and unlikeable. Everyone was dislikeable. It felt a bit like reading The Great Gatsby again. Maybe it's just that I don't like period dramas unless it's about a war or a battle like Lawrence of Arabia and Zulu. It's not about the hero being victorious or being in control, Lawrence's life was not in his own hands either and yet he's much more likeable and remarkeable a character.