Kubrick: Barry Lyndon part 2

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So, as Act II begins, Barry has gone from being the not-particularly-distinguished son of a dead almost-lawyer to being the daring challenger to an English officer and gentleman to being a well-to-do fugitive to being an impoverished fugitive. With nowhere to turn and unable to get home, what can a penniless Irish lad do?

The answer, it happens is "join the army." The local brigade is recruiting, and offering new recruits 1 1/2 guineas a year, and a shilling a day for the rest of their lives (assuming they live). That doesn’t sound like much to Barry, who just lost 20 guineas, but what else is he going to do? The soldiers dress is fine red suits and carry weapons, while everyone else in the village is dressed in mud-colored rags — if Barry’s goal is upward mobility, the choice is obvious.

Three times in Act II the omniscient narrator takes us aside to alert us to the nature of the soldiery in the Seven Years War. Each of the asides is something like "You know, a soldier’s uniform looks nice, but these guys were all thieves, pickpockets or worse." The point being, great kings and noblemen pick fights with one another, but the tools of their warfare are not noble at all — quite the opposite. Again, the theme of "class enforced with violence."

While on bivouac, Barry is served water in a greasy beaker, and requests another. To even a ragamuffin like Barry, there are limits to what he should have to endure — he thinks he’s at least "classier" than drinking from a greasy beaker — but to the more experienced men in Barry’s troop, his request is akin to a lace-hankied fop entreating a servant to remove the dew from his snuff-box. One of the larger men picks a fight with him, and he manages to answer with some quick-witted jibes. So he’s not entirely a lummox, we see — he’s got a little spin on the ball.

Barry fights the much-larger guy, and cleans his clock — the other guy never lands a punch. And so we see there’s one area where he’s not full of himself: fighting. He really is a talented fighter, he wasn’t just bragging to cousin Nora back home.

Soon he runs into Captain Grogan, his second in the duel with Captain Quin. Grogan informs Barry — and us — that the duel was fixed, that Barry was going to lose Nora no matter what happened, that Quin and Nora went ahead and got married anyway. Barry’s sense of honor, it seems, was nothing but an embarrassment to his family, who wanted Quin’s money over any sense of Barry’s wants. Money trumps everything in Barry’s world, or so it seems.

Barry’s troop travels to Germany to take part in the Seven Years War. What was the Seven Years War? Who was fighting who and why? Barry doesn’t know, and, strangely enough, neither does the omniscient narrator. Men go to war, that’s how it is, and this is one of them, and Barry is stuck in it, and that’s all we need to know.

(Interestingly, the narration in the movie of Barry Lyndon is not taken from the novel. The novel, rather, is narrated by Barry himself, in a classic "unreliable narrator" gambit. Even more interestingly, the story of Barry Lyndon is based on actual events.)

Next, we get a stunning example of 18th-century warfare, a bayonet charge by Capt Grogan and his men against a French regiment somewhere in a German backwater. Grogan is shot and Barry carries him off the field. Grogan’s dying words to Barry are that he’s gambled away the money set aside for him — Barry is again penniless, and now friendless as well. (The sound of the bayonet charge reaching its screaming, chaotic conclusion in the background of the tender death scene is particularly effective.)

Having seen the pointlessness of war, Barry makes a wise decision: to get the hell out of the army as soon as possible. He sees an opportunity when he stumbles upon a pair of English officers pitching woo to one another while bathing in a river, and he absconds with one of the officer’s horses and identity papers. He’s getting smarter, and he’s beginning to sense that class, if it cannot be assumed, can at least be faked, with the right tools.

He rides to Prussian-occupied Germany and meets up with a lonely German woman. He’s gotten much better with the ladies, we see — he’s as polite and charming as his officer’s uniform suggest he should be (Lt Fakenham — "fakin’ ‘im" — nice), and she soaks up the attention, and they part as though they are the tenderest of lovers. Lest we think that the German woman has been left heartbroken, the narrator informs us that she’s done this a lot before Barry came along, and would do it a lot more before the war’s over. Both Barry and the German woman are pretending to have had a great romance, to spare the other’s feelings. Barry’s motive in bedding the woman is 1) to get laid, and 2) to get a kind of revenge on Nora, whose head was so easily turned by the popinjay Capt Quin. The pretense of love will turn more serious and dire in the second half of the movie.

Barry now runs into Captain Potzdorf, a Prussian officer leading a troop of men somewhere else. Potzdorf, who seems to be exactly what he is, instantly sees that Barry is not. And yet, instead of simply clapping him in irons, he gently draws Barry out, giving him more and more rope until he hangs himself. By his lights, Potzdorf is both an officer and a gentleman — he gives Barry a whole evening of his life, when he could have just as easily arrested him upon first meeting him.

So Barry is now in the Prussian army, which, we are told, is a big step down from the English army, and forthe fourth time we are told that the army is made up of the worst of European society. We are told, but not shown for some reason, that Barry has picked up some very ungentlemanly habits from hanging out with these thieves and cutthroats. This is Barry’s low point — he’s not a gentleman, he’s fallen further than ever, and he’ll most likely die penniless on a battlefield somewhere far from home.

But fate has other things in store for Barry! Even though he is, the narrator says, a ne’er-do-well and lost soul, he nevertheless saves Capt Potzdorf’s life during a siege battle in a burning building, and is rewarded for his valor. His commander chews him out at the same time as he awards him two Frederick D’ors (however much that is — we gather it’s a substantial sum, especially if he hung onto it until today). Barry, lying through his teeth, assures his grumpy senior officer that he is a good man and would "go to the devil" for the regiment. Which brings up the question: is Barry a good man? Or for that matter, an honorable man? He wants to be a "gentleman," but he seems driven by class resentment above anything else. He feels he’s been robbed, by the death of his father, that the upper classes have kept him down below his rightful place, and now he’ll do anything, pretty much to regain what he feels is his equilibrium. If it means rescuing an officer, that’s fine, and if it means betraying that same officer a few minutes later, he’ll do that too, as we will see in Act III.


9 Responses to “Kubrick: Barry Lyndon part 2”
  1. craigjclark says:

    This is one of those films that I saw during my initial infatuation with Kubrick, but it’s not one I’ve ever been inclined to revisit. To me, the best thing about it is Patrick Magee’s role as Barry’s scurrilous mentor. Quite frankly, I wish there had been a lot more of him.

    • Todd says:

      I had a hard time with Barry Lyndon for many years. Then, one day, while watching it the third time or so, something clicked and it was no longer boring or remote but just the opposite. The movie was the same, so it must have been me.

      • ogier30 says:

        I’m thinking from the lack of the usual response, many of us have trouble with Barry Lyndon. I hate to admit I’ve never seen it… but reading your take on the film is making me wonder why I haven’t sought it out.

        • craigjclark says:

          Well, films like Dr. Strangelove or 2001 or A Clockwork Orange each have a built-in appeal and are instantly recognizable cultural landmarks. Whereas people continue to quote Strangelove, and 2001 has spawned countless parodies, and Clockwork is still as controversial today as it was four decades ago, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make so much as a single reference to Barry Lyndon. It really is its own entity, which can make it hard to digest and discuss.

      • notthebuddha says:

        You’re not the first or the second person I’ve heard say that about this film, that makes me hopeful for the next time I get to see it.

  2. notthebuddha says:

    The coin link doesn’t show prices to non-members.

  3. curt_holman says:

    “I have not received satisfaction.”

    Hey, still hoping you’ll get back to ‘Barry Lyndon.’

  4. curt_holman says:


    Clearly you need to ask for this for Christmas: