Kubrick: Barry Lyndon part 1

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As Barry Lyndon begins, the protagonist’s father is shot dead in a duel. We haven’t met the protagonist, we know nothing about him, we don’t know anything. The duel takes place in a long shot, so we don’t even get a good look at the guy who dies. The death of Redmond Barry’s father treated as a kind of abstract narrative joke: Kubrick introduces a character, then seconds later dispatches him to his fate. And yet, I’m convinced that this brief scene contains the kernel of Barry’s motivations and the themes of the entire movie. Barry Lyndon is a drama of class mobility and how the borders of class warfare are defended with lethal force. Barry’s father was to have been a lawyer, which would have elevated Barry into a specific class; his death robs Barry of his status and sets him on a path toward bettering his class by any means necessary. He feels fate has robbed him of his rightful place in society, and he sets forth to regain his social equilibrium. There are many ways to advance,he finds, but fate has a way of striking back.

The first proper scene in the narrative has the young Barry playing cards with his cousin Nora. How does Barry feel about Nora? We’re not sure — he tends to mask his emotions behind a placid face and genteel speech. It’s pretty easy to tell how Nora feels about him, however: she’s hot as hell for him and wants his hands on her. She plays hide-and-seek with an intimate ribbon, tucking it between her breasts and demanding he find it. Barry grows paralytic in the face of her wanton desire. What is his problem? Is he merely young and inexperienced, and therefore terrified at her display of sexuality? Does he sense danger in her advances? The kindly omniscient narrator wittily mentions "young love gushing forth," but Barry ain’t gushing anywhere — he’s barely able to speak. We see that Nora wants him, and we will later learn that Nora has, perhaps, wanted many men, but does Barry want Nora? Is she leading him down the garden path, or is he playing coy, the better to draw her out? I’m tempted to think that Barry, here, is quite young and green, and simply unaccustomed to the ways of love.

Next thing we know, the local army corps is giving a show of arms and the village has gathered to watch. Barry, and everyone else, is impressed with the unit, because they all have nice uniforms and carry firearms — they are both classy and formidable. We learn that army regiments are funded, in this time, by local gentry, by this or that lord, so we see that class not only comes with power, it comes with lethal force. The army, in Barry’s eyes, seems to represent an almost unattainable level of class.

The army has turned Nora’s head — she becomes enamored of one Captain Quinn, a smirking martinet, an Englishman who seems pleased as punch to knock off a pretty Irish maiden. We see that, to Nora, Barry is good for an afternoon of petting, but that she’s anxious to trade up to the real deal when the opportunity presents itself.

Nora tries to let Barry down easy, but she doesn’t realize how deep his class resentment is. "You haven’t a guinea in the world," she says to him, and he counters with his skill as a fighter. In Barry’s mind, that’s how men should be judged, as fighters, not by their class status. How good is Barry as a fighter? Well we don’t know yet — he could be as poor a fighter as he is a lover, a young man from a small village full of himself.

We see that Nora is quite serious about Quinn: she withstands his flowery poesy as he woos her at an event at some manor or other, and answers in kind: she has "but one blossom" of love in her life, and it is for him. Which, we’ve already seen, is not really true: she’s playing Quinn to get him to propose to her. Why is she so hot on Quinn? It’s not just that he offers Nora class advancement, it’s that he can get the family out of debt. Nora is playing the "advancement by any means" card well before Barry catches on to the idea.

We also see, in this scene (shown above), the painterly aspect of Kubrick’s directorial strategy: in Barry Lyndon, he often starts out on an intimate scene of domestic turmoil, then slowly zooms out until the warring humans become tiny figures in a staggeringly beautiful landscape. Or vice versa. Kubrick, in these shots, connects the narrative of his story with the art of its time period. It’s as though he’s taking an image like this one —

— and then telling you the stories of those tiny figures lost in that beautiful landscape. It’s as though he feels you can’t really understand how the characters in the movie feel without expressing their struggles in terms that they would, themselves, understand. To look at the above still as a painting, one would not imagine that the people in the image were about to have a life-altering confrontation about a broken vow of love — the emotions are muted by the beauty of the background. Kubrick, I think, wants to both show you the lives of these people in all their vividness, but also to place them in the context of their times. And, just as fate eventually catches up to Barry, he reminds us, over and over, that fate has caught up to everyone in his narrative, and will eventually catch up to us: one day, we’ll be be tiny figures in a vast landscape, too.

Barry’s not having it — wet behind the ears, he still feels that things like "honor" matter in this life. He confronts her in front of Quinn and takes out the ribbon she gave him, back when he had no idea what to do with her. In the language of this society, he might as well have called her a whore, and Quinn takes offense, and Nora’s brothers have to calm him down.

And apparently they do, because the next thing we know, Nora’s father (or someone) announces her engagement to Quinn at a family dinner. Everyone is quite excited about the news — the Barry’s are moving up in the world, Nora is marrying an Englishman! — but Barry can’t take the insult. As well he might! The clan’s excitement at the news of Nora’s engagement is based almost entirely on the assumption that the English are, somehow, better than the Irish, and that English army officers are better than your average Englishman. And where does the presumption of English primacy come from? Well, from their vast, well-funded army, currently spreading colonialism throughout Europe and beyond at the end of a bayonet — class, again, backed up by violence. But more on that later.

Barry complains of his status to Captain Grogan, one of Quinn’s fellow officers, and even though Grogan is an officer, he’s also Irish, and he likes the cut of Barry’s gib, even if he knows that his suit is moot: Quinn will marry Nora no matter what happens and Barry will be cast aside.

Barry and Quinn set to a duel. Quinn tries to buy Barry off. He’s a coward; even though he’s an army officer, he’s probably never killed a man in his life, or even pointed a gun at one. All he requires from Barry is an apology, the one thing Barry is unwilling to give. Quinn is terrified by Barry’s hot-headed resolve; he’s got something to lose, Barry does not. Barry wins the duel and Quinn is (it seems) killed.

So great, Barry’s won, that’s good, right? As it turns out, no, it isn’t. Killing an English officer is going to land Barry in hot water with the police, so he’s forced to take it on the lam with 20 guineas in his pocket, a gift from Captain Grogan. So Barry’s pursuit of his honor hasn’t gotten what he wants — Nora’s hand — nor would it ever, probably. Nora, it seems, is not the problem, class resentment is.

And so Barry is launched out of his village for the first time in his life, born again, a new man, with 20 guineas to boot. With all the world before him, he quickly forgets about Nora and his duel and his mother and everything else. He’s practically an American now, able to re-invent himself in any way he sees fit. He doesn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations, he can write his own ticket.

Cocky and careless, he’s promptly robbed on the highway by one Captain Feeney. Captain Feeney, a genteel highwayman, gives the narrative its first bald statement of theme: class, backed up by violence. They say that you can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word, and so Feeney robs Barry with the kindest of words and multiple guns. Barry tries to appeal to Feeney’s Irishness, saying that he, himself is a criminal, fleeing the murder of an English officer, but Feeney is a businessman and answers only to the profit motive: nationality and class resentmentare meaningless to him, all he’s looking for is money. Barry will go through a phase like this later on in his story.

Now completely stripped of identity and class, with nothing but the clothes on his back, a babe in the big, mean world, Barry casts about for what to do next. Opportunity presents itself in the form of the army, which will form the next step of Barry’s development into a gentleman.


11 Responses to “Kubrick: Barry Lyndon part 1”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent start . . .

    to a discussion on this, my favorite movie ever.

    1. I think it was Ebert comrade Jim Emerson who mentioned that Barry is not in that wide shot of the duel at the beginning, and it could be argued that this is his “seeing” of his dad and his death?
    2. I love the CLOCKWORK connections (Grogan is the Chaplain who was arguing about Alex’s free will, now arguing about how useless Barry’s struggling against social norms is).

    Keep ’em coming!


  2. You know, some years ago I received an email from a friend of mine.
    It said, “I recently watched Barry Lyndon, which I recall you saying on more than one occasion was your favourite film. All I can conclude is that you are emotionless and dead inside.”

    I think he still liked it, but… you know. Hmm.

  3. ajldiaz says:

    Excellent analysis as usual Mr Alcott, but I have to comment on a historical point again (I’m the annoying history buff who pointed out that Dutch Schultz was Jewish in the post on The Cotton Club a few months back). The English were not “spreading colonialism throughout Europe” in the 18th century, nor does Kubrick’s film imply that they were.

    The British Empire’s traditional policy in Europe was the “balance of powers”, which consisted in backing whichever nation it was expedient to back in order to keep all European powers in a stalemate of sorts. Classic “divide and rule” tactics, except the British were not interested in ruling Europe. The goal was to prevent any European state from jeopardising Britain’s imperial interests in other continents.

    The one European (albeit non-Continental) colony that the British Empire did hold in the 18th century was, of course, Ireland, but I take it that wasn’t what you meant with your comment. In any case, none of this detracts from your argument that Barry Lyndon deals with class status backed by lethal force.