More than any other period piece, “Barry Lyndon” shows us what life looked and felt like in the past.
The film is set in Western Europe in the late 18th Century: just before the Industrial Revolution changed everything.
Writer/director Stanley Kubrick does not glorify or romanticize the era. This was a time of violence, pain, and non-stop war.
But it was also a time of extraordinary beauty and Kubrick never skimps on the beauty. He shows us a Europe that is uniformly green. Not green with forests, but with endless rolling hills, blanketed with farms and fields as far as the eye can see.
An unintended consequence of the internal combustion engine has been the huge increase in forested land. Cars replaced horses, which no longer needed millions of acres of fields on which to graze. Tractors and other farm machinery increased crop yields and allowed for larger farms, making it so less land was needed for family farms. Forests (like Hubbard Park) replaced fields in towns and villages across the civilized world.
In this bucolic pre-industrial world, Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) lived out his adventurous existence.
Barry was born in a farming village in British Ireland. What he lacked in money and status, he more than made up for in bravery and audaciousness.
I was afraid that this three-hour costume drama was going to be slow and hard to follow. But I was wrong to be concerned; I love “Barry Lyndon.”
Barry has so many adventures. He fights in the Seven Years War. He travels around Europe cheating at cards. And he finally fulfills his lifelong ambition by marrying a widowed aristocrat – Lady Lyndon.
The tragedy of “Barry Lyndon” is that Barry gets everything he wants but can’t handle it.
Kubrick explores the problem that people who were born with nothing don’t know how to handle money responsibly. Barry learns that obtaining riches is a much different skill than maintaining wealth.
Barry is also vexed with the challenge of dealing with his angry stepson: Lord Bullington. Barry never figures out how to get along with his wife’s jealous son.
And that brings me to the most impressive aspect of “Barry Lyndon:” its unforgettable exploration of dueling culture. In entertainment – even in a great play like “Hamilton” – dueling is presented as an honorable pastime for gentleman that led to a quick, dignified death.
Stanley Kubrick shows us the insanity of 18th Century dueling culture. He makes us feel the terror of the combatants. And he shows us that men often got viciously maimed in duels.
“Barry Lyndon” is an extraordinary achievement by cinema’s greatest director. You’ll never feel closer to the 18th Century than this. It was a time of fantastic beauty and unimaginable inhumanity.