The Luck of Barry Lyndon

The Luck of Barry Lyndon
   The source material for STANLEY KUBRICK’s BARRY LYNDON is WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY’s picaresque novel of an 18th-century rogue. Originally titled The Luck of Barry Lyndon, A Romance of the Last Century, by George Savage Fitz-Boodle, it was Thackeray’s first novel, and it was written hurriedly, in installments, as a magazine serial for Fraser’s Magazine. Thackeray’s purpose was to create a tale about a Casanova of the Tom Jones variety, but to turn on him the cold light of irony and show him up for the scoundrel he really was. Barry Lyndon is a rarity, a book that turns against its hero, and Kubrick’s film takes the same stance toward Barry. In the novel, the hero is Redmond Barry, a rascal who, thinking he is relating a favorable picture of his life, is in fact giving himself away with his every sentence. However, although Barry gradually becomes more corrupt and dissipated as he gets older, he never completely loses the engaging qualities of his youth, such as his ability to snap back after facing whatever reversals fortune hurls in his way. He is constantly battling people who are every bit as wicked as he is. Therefore Barry continues to fascinate us in much the same way that a villain like Richard III does. Thackeray styles himself as not the author but the “editor” of Barry Lyndon’s “autobiography,” employing the pseudonym of George Savage Fitz-Boodle. In the role of editor, writes Walter Metz, Thackeray offers a bevy of critical comments “in the form of footnotes ridiculing Barry,” and a scathing critique of Barry’s memoirs after Barry’s death, once again “by the fictional George Savage Fitz-Boodle. ”
   As a youth in Ireland, Barry naively falls in love with Nora, a coquette who delights in making him suffer. She is really in love with Captain Quin, a young officer whom Barry foolishly challenges to a duel. Thinking he has killed Quin, Barry flees and eventually joins the British army, which is currently engaged, along with the Prussians, in prosecuting the Seven Years’War against the French and their allies. Barry’s descriptions of his lot as a common soldier are eloquent testimonies to a squalid way of life. “It is all very well,” says Barry in the book,“to dream of glorious war in a snug armchair at home, or to make it as an officer, surrounded by gentlemen, gorgeously dressed, and cheered by chances of promotion. But those chances do not shine on poor fellows [in the ranks]. ” Barry fares no better when he is pressganged into the Prussian army, which is composed, he observes,“of men hired or stolen like myself from almost every nation in Europe. ”
   After the war Barry is hired by the Prussians to spy on the Chevalier de Balibari, who is himself suspected of espionage. The chevalier turns out to be his long-lost uncle and a scoundrel in his own right. Together they roam across Europe, bilking unsuspecting aristocrats in the gambling salons. The handsome Barry gets involved with a succession of women, all the while on the lookout for a rich widow whom he can marry for her money and title. Of one such woman, whom he did not find physically attractive, Barry tells the reader with his sublimely unvarnished candor, “It was her estate I made love to; as for herself, it would be a reflection of my taste as a man of fashion to own that I liked her. ” Barry meets the elderly and ill Sir Charles Lyndon, who jokingly suggests that Barry is pursuing his friendship with a view to marrying Lady Lyndon when he has passed on. Sir Charles, needless to say, is absolutely right. Once the old knight is dead, however, Barry has to contend with several other suitors who have been waiting in the wings for the opportunity to marry this most eligible of widows. Older and more unscrupulous than when he wooed Nora Brady, Barry draws on a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks to press his advances on Lady Lyndon.
   Once Barry has succeeded in browbeating Lady Lyndon into marrying him and giving him access to her fortune and title, he decides that “we often buy money very much too dear. ” For Lady Lyndon turns out, on closer inspection, to be an unpleasant, vain young woman who is at once attracted physically to her undeniably good-looking husband and repelled by his coarse and irresponsible ways. Only her infatuation with him explains why she puts up with his weaknesses for as long as she does. At one point in the novel Barry notes, concerning his ill-treatment of his wife, that he only struck her when he was drunk—at least for the first three years of their marriage. As Barry turns more and more to other women, Lady Lyndon finally divorces him and leaves him to the tender mercies of his creditors. Ending his days in a debtors’ prison, Barry can only shrug,“I am one of those born to make, and not to keep, fortunes. ” He remains the same irrepressible individual he had been throughout his life right up to the end of his story. As soldier, gambler, wife-beater, con man and finally prisoner,Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is portrayed as an antihero at large in a raffish and generally reprehensible society.
   In writing Barry Lyndon, Thackeray was departing drastically from the romantic presentation of the adventurous heroes of the historical novels that had preceded his first venture into that genre. Since the novelist wanted to expose the underside of corruption beneath the elegant surface of that bygone era, Barry Lyndon is anything but an Errol Flynn–type of swashbuckling hero; rather, Barry is a seducer, cardsharp, bully, and fraud. Thus Thackeray, in the person of Fitz-Boodle, the editor of Barry’s autobiography, hints in a footnote to the text why Barry included so many duels in his memoirs: “Whenever he is at an awkward pass or does what the world does not consider respectable, a duel, in which he is victorious, is sure to ensue, from which he argues that he is a man of undoubted ‘honor. ’”
   Among the major changes that Kubrick made in adapting Thackeray’s novel to the screen were alterations in Barry’s character (he was made to seen more the victim rather than the initiator of unfortunate circumstances) and the abandonment of Barry’s narrative voice, replacing it with a more omniscient narrator (voiced by MICHAEL HORDERN). Kubrick managed in this film not only to translate a historical novel to the screen, but to bring a bygone era vividly to life on film. One might almost go so far as to say that, if the technical equipment to make a movie had been available in the 18th century, the films made then would look exactly like Barry Lyndon.
   ■ Dick, Bernard, Anatomy of Film, rev. ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), p. 31;
   ■ Duffy, Martha, and Richard Schickel, “Kubrick’s Grandest Gamble: Barry Lyndon,” in Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, ed. Gene Phillips (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), pp. 159–170;
   ■ Mainar, Luis, Narrative and Stylistic Patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick (Rochester, N. Y. : Camden House, 2000), pp. 163–196;
   ■ Metz,Walter, “Barry Lyndon,” in The Encyclopedia of Movies into Film, ed. John Tibbetts and James Welsh (New York: Facts On File, 1998), pp. 27–28;
   ■ Miller, Mark,“Kubrick’s Anti-Reading of The Luck of Barry Lyndon,” in Perspectives on Stanley Kubrick, ed. Mario Falsetto (New York: G. K. Hall, 1996), pp. 226–242;
   ■ Rosenberg, Harold, “Barry Lyndon,” New York Times, February 29, 1976, sec. 2, p. 17;
   ■ Thackeray,William Makepeace, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, ed. Martin Anisman (New York:New York University Press, 1970).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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