Stanley Kubrick is undoubtedly one of the greatest directors that cinema has ever produced. For many, his work stands outside the world of cinema, difficult to compare to other films, so distinct is his style and his singularity of vision. You don’t measure a Kubrick film up to other films, only to one another. They seem to exist within their own space. It would be almost impossible to find a contemporary filmmaker that hasn’t felt the influence of Kubrick and his work in some shape or form; such is his authority over the medium.
Kubrick himself had an unorthodox and perhaps unexpected introduction into the world of cinema. Too late for the classical Hollywood studio system and too early for the film school generation of the 1970s (Spielberg, Coppola, De Palma etc.), Kubrick first found success as a photographer in New York. He had been a poor student in high school, with bad grades and a bad attendance record, preferring instead to pursue his love of the image. In the late 1940s, he became an apprentice photographer for Look magazine. It was during his time at Look that Kubrick would make his first short film, kick-starting his migration from still photography into the world of film. Track records such as Kubrick’s are rare. The Shining (1980), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Paths of Glory (1957), Full Metal Jacket (1987), are but a few of Kubrick’s successes.
But for some it would be his lesser known and oft overlooked Barry Lyndon (1975) that has emerged as Kubrick’s true masterpiece. After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Kubrick had initially set his sights on a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic. Spending a number of years on exhaustive research, Kubrick was well into pre-production on the film when prominent producer Dino De Laurentiis’ Waterloo (1970) was released and failed dismally at the box office. Financiers on Kubrick’s Napoleon film panicked, concerned about the economic promise of another period war epic, and withdrew their support. Left with no film and wasted years, Kubrick had no choice but to turn his attention to another project. Briefly flirting with the idea of adapting William Makepeace Thackary’s celebrated novel Vanity Fair, Kubrick eventually found something perhaps more cinematically manageable in Thackary’s lesser known novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon. It was a project that could satisfy his urge to direct a period film as well as take advantage of the years of research Kubrick had undergone for the abandoned Napoleon film.
Barry Lyndon, divided into two distinct acts (What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon, and Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon), follows the rise and fall of Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), an 18th Century Irish adventurer, rogue and social climber. After taking part in a duel over the affections of his elder cousin, Barry departs his small Irish village determined, in any way he can, to make a name for himself as a wealthy nobleman. He enlists in the British army before deserting and being forced to fight for the Prussian army. He becomes the protégé and spy of Irish gambler Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), eventually inheriting his wealth and title through his marriage to Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson). His love of wealth and success is ultimately his undoing.