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Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon(1975)

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After startling audiences with the provocative near-future vision of A Clockwork Orange (1971), a critical and commercial hit worldwide but condemned in Britain for its portrait of a society out of control, Stanley Kubrick cast his eye back in time for his next picture. Unable to finance his dream project, an epic biography of Napoleon, he settled on the William Makepeace Thackeray novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, the story of an Irish scoundrel born in poverty who marries into high society and squanders a fortune reaching for a title in the 18th century. He's a deserter, a gambler, a cheat, and a philanderer who is outmaneuvered by the mercenary society he attempts to conquer and he narrates his story as if he were the hero of a grand, honorable quest, which Thackeray undercuts with his satirical prose. The elaborate tale, which he titled simply Barry Lyndon (1975) for the film, features battle scenes, seductions, duels, high society gambling dens, lavish manors and castles, and a vast cast of characters, and it allowed Kubrick to draw upon the enormous research he had done for Napoleon.

Kubrick hoped to shoot the entire film in England, preferably within driving distance of his London home, but he didn't like the look of most period pieces, which were largely recreated on soundstages, and insisted upon shooting it entirely on location, exteriors and interiors alike. That was a challenge for production designer Ken Adam, who previously created the memorable sets of Dr. Strangelove (1964) for the director (as well as a number of James Bond films), and his crew had to expand their search and scout locations throughout England and Ireland. Kubrick was determined to avoid electrical lights, shooting it entirely by sunlight and, for the interiors, candlelight, to evoke the quality of 18th century paintings. However, the high-speed film of the seventies was unable to accommodate such low light. His answer was to use a camera lens that had been developed for the NASA Apollo program by the German Zeiss Company. In the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures Warner Bros. chairman John Calley reports that Kubrick bought the old BNC Mitchell cameras used for rear projection shooting, which had long since been replaced with a new process, from the studio in the early seventies. A few months later Calley was told by the Warner camera department that those cameras were irreplaceable, among the finest ever built. That was only one reason that Kubrick wanted them; they were also the only motion picture cameras that would (with a little reengineering) be able to mount the enormous Zeiss 50mm lens. According to Ed Di Giulio, who rebuilt the mounting plate on the camera, the fastest lens available to filmmakers today still doesn't match it. With such minimal light available, cinematographer John Alcott (who had shot A Clockwork Orange) had to open the lens up all the way, resulting in a shallow depth of field that captured both the light and the flatness of 18th century paintings.

For the leading role of poor-born Irishman Redmond Barry, according to biographer Vincent Lobrutto, Kubrick initially approached Robert Redford. When Redford dropped out Kubrick turned to Ryan O'Neal, who was best known for screwball comedies but was, in 1972, one of the top box office draws in the world. O'Neal wears an eternal expression of yearning sincerity as the country boy whose destiny turns him into a master cad without losing that wide-eyed look of pained, guileless innocence. For the Countess of Lyndon, who gives the upstart his social standing and new name, he cast model turned actress Marisa Berenson, who had been in Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice (1971) and Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1972). There was no screen test, she recalled later, and she knew little of the project beyond the era, but she agreed immediately. His only request: "He asked me to stay out of the sun," she said, to preserve her pale, ivory-like skin.

Many of the supporting roles were filled by performers with whom he had previously worked, including Patrick Magee and Steven Berkoff from A Clockwork Orange and Leonard Rossiter from 2001. Hardy Kruger was cast at the last minute, taking over the role of the Prussian officer Potzdorf from Oskar Werner (who Kubrick dismissed after three weeks), from a screen test filmed by proxy in Germany. Newcomer Leon Vitali, cast as the Barry's resentful stepson as a young man, became a close friend and valued collaborator. He went on to be Kubrick's personal assistant on The Shining (1980) and casting director on Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

Stanley Kubrick's agreement with Warner Bros. gave him complete creative control over his films and Warner Bros. co-chairmen John Calley and Terry Semel valued Kubrick so much that they agreed to finance the film for $2.5 million with only a bare outline of the story. Their only condition was that he sign a top box-office star for the lead, which O'Neal satisfied. Shy about publicity, given the furor over A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick kept details of the project under wraps and even changed the names of the characters in his initial treatment so the source novel (which at the time was very obscure) would not be recognized. The production, which Kubrick reluctantly moved to Ireland, started shooting in September 1973 and quickly ran over budget, due to poor weather, constant rewriting, and Kubrick's own perfectionist tendencies, routinely taking as many as 50 takes per scene. Exhaustion set in with the cast and crew and Kubrick reluctantly agreed to a Christmas break only after it became clear that the locations would not be available over the holidays. There was another stoppage after threats were made against Kubrick's life and the production relocated to England for the rest of the shoot. The production ultimately shot for 300 days over two years, the budget ballooned to over $11 million by the time it was over, and the finished film ran over three hours.

Apart from a few sympathetic critics (Roger Ebert and Time magazine's Richard Schickel were champions), American reviews were not kind to the film and many contemporary reviewers found it dull and plodding and pretentious. And while it was well received commercially and critically in Europe, it was a financial disappointment in the U.S. Fellow filmmakers, however, were impressed. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won four Oscars in all: for cinematography, art direction, costume design, and adapted score. In subsequent years, the film has been reassessed as one of Kubrick's finest achievements and it even placed on the top 100 films of all time in the most recent "Sight and Sound" critics poll.

Stanley Kubrick , John Baxter. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1997.
Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, Vincent LoBrutto. Donald I. Fine Books, 1997.
Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, documentary directed by Jan Harlan. Warner Bros. Home Video, 2001.

By Sean Axmaker

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