All hail Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon,’ a masterclass in bringing a unique filmmaker’s vision to life

Stanley Kubrick filming Barry Lyndon. Still photographer: Keith Hamshere
Stanley Kubrick filming Barry Lyndon. Still photographer: Keith Hamshere

What is now considered one of Stanley Kubrick’s most accomplished films, as well as an example of innovative, audacious filmmaking at its best, was almost given birth to by accident. After Kubrick’s dream of making Napoleon crumbled into pieces, he used this studious research and shifted his ambitions and talent into William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon. The story of an unscrupulous Irish scoundrel who marries into high society and advances in the aristocratic society of 18th century England proved an ideal ground for the master to exhibit his storytelling powers. With the significant help of his director of photography John Alcott, Kubrick created a cinematic world that could be most easily described as a moving 18th century painting. Giving its best to avoid using electric sources of artificial light, relying on the illuminating power of candles and natural lighting, investing enormous effort into costume design, Barry Lyndon looks genuine through and through. Moreover, it leaves the impression of actually being comprised of works of art taken down from the walls of some filthily rich British nobleman.

The colors, shading and atmosphere aren’t the only things Barry Lyndon has in common with two-dimensional works of art—the film also appropriates a certain quality of unresponsiveness. It’s somehow distanced from the viewers, it masterfully puts them into the position of an observer in an art gallery, not someone who actively interacts with the screen. Barry Lyndon is detached, cold and to a degree unburdened with the pressure of entertaining an audience. Kubrick, who not only directed but also adapted Thackeray’s satiric novel to produce a sharp, narration-driven script, created a technically breath-taking, arrogantly and recklessly fearless, monumental film over three hours long. The first reactions to it, unfortunately for Kubrick’s peace of mind, perhaps failed to be as enthusiastic as the piece deserved, but decades that followed certainly did Barry justice. All hail Barry Lyndon, an exceptional piece of filmmaking, a masterclass in bringing a unique filmmaker’s vision to life, a work of art only a few others have the quality to measure up to.

I’m not sure if I can say that I have a favourite Kubrick picture, but somehow I keep coming back to Barry Lyndon. I think that’s because it’s such a profoundly emotional experience. The emotion is conveyed through the movement of the camera, the slowness of the pace, the way the characters move in relation to their surroundings. People didn’t get it when it came out. Many still don’t. Basically, in one exquisitely beautiful image after another, you’re watching the progress of a man as he moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness—and it’s all a matter of simple, elemental survival. It’s a terrifying film because all the candlelit beauty is nothing but a veil over the worst cruelty. But it’s real cruelty, the kind you see every day in polite society. —Martin Scorsese

 
What we have here is an extremely rare document of exceptional historical value; a monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay for Barry Lyndon [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

As you all know, most of the screenplays on C&B are among the most elusive and unattainable unicorns out there, just like Barry Lyndon‘s script. It takes us a lot of blood, sweat and tears to find and digitize them so as to make them available to the general filmloving public. We’de be forever grateful if you could help us, however modestly, to buy the necessary equipment so we could continue our work. Thank you.

“This film is a masterpiece in every insignificant detail. Kubrick isn’t taking pictures in order to make movies, he’s making movies in order to take pictures. Barry Lyndon indicates that Kubrick is thinking through his camera, and that’s not really how good movies get made—though it’s what gives them their dynamism, if a director puts the images together vivifyingly. for an emotional impact. I wish Stanley Kubrick would come home to this country to make movies again, working fast on modern subjects—maybe even doing something tacky, for the hell of it. There was more film art in his early The Killing than there is in Barry Lyndon, and you didn’t feel older when you came out of it. Orwell also said of Thackeray that his characteristic flavor is ‘the flavor of burlesque, of a world where no one is good and nothing is serious.’ For Kubrick, everything has become serious. The way he’s been working, in self-willed isolation, with each film consuming years of anxiety, there’s no ground between masterpiece and failure. And the pressure shows. There must be some reason that, in a film dealing with a licentious man in a licentious time, the only carnality—indeed, the only strong emotion—is in Barry’s brutally caning his stepson. When a director gets to the point where the one emotion he shows is morally and physically ugly, maybe he ought to knock off on the big, inviolable endeavors.” —Kubrick’s Gilded Age, by Pauline Kael

I wrote the screenplay for Barry Lyndon alone. The first draft took three or four months but, as with all my films, the subsequent writing process never really stopped. What you have written and is yet unfilmed is inevitably affected by what has been filmed. New problems of content or dramatic weight reveal themselves. Rehearsing a scene can also cause script changes. However carefully you think about a scene, and however clearly you believe you have visualized it, it’s never the same when you finally see it played. Sometimes a totally new idea comes up out of the blue, during a rehearsal, or even during actual shooting, which is simply too good to ignore. This can necessitate the new scene being worked out with the actors right then and there. As long as the actors know the objectives of the scene, and understand their characters, this is less difficult and much quicker to do than you might imagine. —Stanley Kubrick

 
Below: Kubrick during a break in filming on one of the battlefield scenes on location in Ireland, with actor Ryan O’Neal. Kubrick’s teenage daughter Vivian is next to the director. Jan Harlan: “Stanley loved Barry Lyndon. He loved this upstart from nowhere, a conman, and he felt very strongly that Barry was representative of our society. What you see here is the normal sort of track they would lay down to move the camera—there was no Steadicam in those days. You had to be careful to point the camera in the right direction, otherwise you would film the track itself.” Still photographer: Keith Hamshere; SK Film Archives LLC, Warner Bros. and University of the Arts London. Courtesy of The Guardian.

VISUALISATION DRAWING

Jan Harlan: “Storyboard is not the right word for what this is; Stanley did not construct his sequences in that kind of detail, but he certainly prepared himself well. Barry Lyndon has all these battle scenes, with lots of action, and Stanley would say: ‘How are we going to do this? I want some action.’ The art department would then come up with a visualisation of how to do a scene. Stanley wouldn’t have done this drawing himself; he was not a great pencil illustrator.” Photograph: SK Film Archives LLC, Warner Bros. and University of the Arts London. Courtesy of The Guardian.

KUBRICK WITH THE CAST AND CREW DURING SHOOTING

The archive holds two boxes of production stills from the filming of Barry Lyndon. Still photographer: Keith Hamshere; SK Film Archives LLC; Warner Bros. and University of the Arts London. Courtesy of The Guardian & Hollywood in Éirinn.

MEMO OF ‘KEY WORRIES’

Jan Harlan: “Stanley didn’t like travelling. At the time he lived in Elstree, and he was hoping to do the whole thing in the studio down the road with a front projection system he had used in the ape scenes on 2001. That’s why the memo starts off with the front projection screens. But he had to abandon the idea after (production designer) Ken Adam convinced him it wouldn’t look right.” Photograph: SK Film Archives LLC; Warner Bros. and University of the Arts London. Courtesy of The Guardian.

STANLEY KUBRICK MAKING ‘BARRY LYNDON’

Exclusive behind-the-scenes images showing Stanley Kubrick in production on his lavish 18th-century period masterpiece Barry Lyndon. Still photographer: Keith Hamshere. Credit: With thanks to the SK Film Archives LLC, Warner Bros. and University of the Arts London. Courtesy of British Film Institute.

Kubrick and O’Neal chatting during filming of the communal dinner scene in Barry’s Irish hometown. It’s at this table that Barry comes to blows with his love rival John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), a British army captain—the conflict that sets our hero’s adventures in motion.

Kubrick setting up a shot with Ryan O’Neal.

Kubrick surveys the scene from atop the camera platform, as his crew and extras mingle below.

The director prepares a shot. His cinematographer on the film was John Alcott, who won the Oscar for best cinematography on what is often referred to as one of the most beautiful films ever made. Alcott also collaborated with Kubrick on A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980).

Filming the bare-knuckle brawl at the army encampment, in which Barry is pitted into combat with a troublemaker called Toole. Toole is played by actor and wrestler Pat Roach, who would later turn up as various strongmen in the first three Indiana Jones films, Clash of the Titans (1981) and Never Say Never Again (1983).

Kubrick with actor Patrick Magee as the Chevalier de Balibari. Barry is employed by the Prussians to befriend the Chevalier, whom they suspect is a spy, and to report on his activities.

Kubrick shares a joke with O’Neal and Berenson.

Surveilling the scene from on high. Notice the floral garden chair with the words ‘Stanley Kubrick’ emblazoned on the back—a picnic-ready alternative to the traditional director’s chair.

PHOTOGRAPHING STANLEY KUBRICK’S ‘BARRY LYNDON’
American Cinematographer

March 1976 edition of American Cinematographer Magazine with two Kubrick-related articles, each covering the photographing of the film Barry Lyndon. One article focuses generally on the cinematography by John Alcott, while the other focuses more closely on the specialized lenses utilized for the film. Subscribing to American Cinematographer is highly recommended.

Previously unseen photos of Stanley Kubrick editing Barry Lyndon in the converted garage of his home in Abbots Mead, December 1974. Many thanks to Vivian Kubrick for sharing these amazing photos.

 
Documentary excerpt detailing the production of Kubrick’s masterpiece. Interviewees reminisce on how Kubrick acquired the Mitchell BNC cameras and used them, in conjunction with NASA Zeiss lenses, to film Barry Lyndon using natural light.

 

CASTLES, CANDLES AND KUBRICK

In the summer of 1973, director Stanley Kubrick arrived in Ireland to make his period masterpiece Barry Lyndon. On an overcast night the following January, the director fled Ireland on a ferry from Dun Laoghaire. Within 48 hours the entire production also abandoned their stations. Produced by Pavel Barter, Castles, Candles and Kubrick tells, for the first time, the story behind the making of Barry Lyndon in Ireland, featuring interviews with cast and crew from the film.

HOLLYWOOD IN ÉIRINN

Subtitled Irish language documentary on Kubrick shooting Barry Lyndon in Ireland. When a major movie production machine rumbles into town, anything can happen and frequently does. An invigorating injection of magic, money and mayhem arrives along with it, all contributing to a wild sense of excitement and anticipation. Denis Conway travels to four such locations, small villages and towns, in search of the memories of residents who witnessed the high and low jinks during the making of four major Hollywood blockbusters: The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Barry Lyndon, Moby Dick and Song for A Raggy Boy. Contributors include film actors Aidan Quinn, Iain Glenn, Jan Harlan and Pádraig Delaney. Produced by Seabed Productions.

KUBRICK RECALLED BY LEGENDARY SET DESIGNER SIR KEN ADAM

“In 1972 he approached me about designing Barry Lyndon but I think he decided I was too expensive and he employed someone else. Three weeks later I was in the south of France doing a film and the phone went. “It was Stanley sounding like a little New York boy: he said the designer hadn’t worked out and he needed me. He schmoozed me into doing the film and I was never happy about it.” Barry Lyndon was an ambitious historical epic to be shot on location. But there was a problem: Kubrick wanted to find locations while barely leaving his family home in Elstree, north of London. “So we set up in his garage a little war room, with Ordnance Survey maps on the walls and pins everywhere. We had an army of young photographers to go looking at buildings and possible locations and every evening we looked at what they’d done. “He would be enthusiastic about a particular bed or whatever in a slightly voyeuristic way. “But we’d have big arguments because I would say: ‘No that’s Victorian but the film is set in Georgian times.’ Well Stanley was so competitive that he bought almost every book available on Georgian architecture so he could argue with me. But none of this was getting the movie made because the buildings and peaceful locations he wanted just don’t exist anymore near London.

“It was nerve-destroying. But after five months I got Stanley to switch production to the Republic of Ireland—which I thought was my masterstroke.” As Sir Ken recalls it, once in Ireland Kubrick changed totally. “He saw himself as General Rommel, who he admired greatly. He equipped all of us with Volkswagens so we became a complete mobile unit driving around Ireland finding locations. “I spent weeks being chased through fields by bloody bulls. I was going crazy but this was Stanley’s character—with all his fears and anxieties he was relentless.” When Letizia, Sir Ken’s Italian-born wife, came out to Ireland she was shocked at his state of mind. She persuaded him to return to England and see a doctor for the sake of his health. “So now I was in hospital in England with a breakdown. Stanley rang the hospital every day to see how I was doing and if I was still alive. The day I left he phoned me at home. “He said: ‘Ken you were right: we’re going to change the way we’re making the film and you’ll love it. I’m sending a second unit to Potsdam in Germany to pick up extra material and I want you to direct it.” Sir Ken laughs. “Well I found that idea such a huge shock I had to go straight back to the clinic and check in again.”

After Barry Lyndon, Sir Ken decided this time, whatever his admiration for Kubrick, the two would never work together again. It was a vow he adhered to with one brief and slightly bizarre exception. In 1977, designing the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, Sir Ken had built a vast set at Pinewood studios. It included a supertanker which was proving hard to light.” So I called Stanley up and asked him down to Pinewood to give me ideas. At first he said I was out of my mind but eventually he agreed to come on a Sunday when only security were around. “He spent three or four hours with me telling me how he would light the stage. And of course the whole thing being in secret appealed to Stanley’s sense of drama. But I knew we would never work together again. And Stanley didn’t ask—he’d been so scared when he saw what happened to me half way through Barry Lyndon.” —Kubrick recalled by influential set designer Sir Ken Adam

 

KUBRICK’S GRANDEST GAMBLE

TIME magazine on Barry Lyndon and its director: “In a December 1975 cover story, TIME Magazine examines Barry Lyndon and the many paradoxes of Stanley Kubrick, covering the filmmaker’s Herculean task in bringing the 18th century novel by William Makepeace Thackeray to the screen and the near impossibility of selling a three hour art film spectacle to the masses. Read the full PDF.” —New Beverly Cinema

 

SIX KINDS OF LIGHT: JOHN ALCOTT

John Alcott, the great cinematographer who worked with Stanley Kubrick for some time, speaks at length about Kubrick and his additional work on 2001: A Space Odyssey, for which he took over as lighting cameraman from Geoffrey Unsworth in mid-shoot, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, the film for which he won his Oscar, andThe Shining. Kubrick promoted Alcott to lighting cameraman in 1968 while working on 2001: A Space Odyssey and from there the two created an inseparable collaboration, in which they worked together on more than one occasion. In 1971, Kubrick then elevated Alcott to director of photography on A Clockwork Orange. Alcott studied lighting and how the light fell in the rooms of a set. He would do this so that when he shot his work it would look like natural lighting, not stage lighting. It was this extra work and research that made his films look so visually beautiful. Along with his Academy award for Barry Lyndon, the film is considered to be one of the greatest and most beautiful movies made in terms of its visuals. Not one, but three films worked on by Alcott were ranked between 1950–1997 in the top 20 of ‘Best Shot,’ voted by the American Society of Cinematographers. Yet another great accomplishment made possible by John Alcott.

Six Kinds Of Light (Masters Of Cinematography), a look at the work of six cinematographers—including Gordon Willis; Vilmos Zsigmond; Sven Nykvist, and, of course, John Alcott—was shown on PBS as part of their Film On Film series in 1986. A huge thanks to the original uploader, J Willoughby.

 
An interview with Kubrick from a conversation he had with French film critic Michel Ciment, in which he specifically discusses Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. Additional text excerpt from a Ciment/Kubrick interview available here.

 
During a break in filming Pat Heavin approached O’Neal for a photograph. “I was a member of the Waterford Camera Club at the time. I was conscious that no press were allowed on set so I kept it very low key. I asked Ryan O’Neal if I could take his picture. He was extremely friendly to me.” Then he spotted the famously irascible Kubrick, who hated being photographed, taking a break. “I said ‘To hell with it. I’ll go for broke.’ I asked if I could take his picture and with a bit of encouragement from Ryan O’Neal, Stanley smiled and I had my picture.” Kubrick is seen smiling in the photograph, something he rarely did and certainly not for the press. Heavin says he respected the circumstances in which he was allowed to take the photographs and has never released them publicly before now. —When Ryan O’Neal and Stanley Kubrick made a film in Waterford

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Still photographer: Keith Hamshere. Kubrick on the set of Barry Lyndon, Waterford in 1973 by Pat Heavin. Photographs: SK Film Archives LLC, Warner Bros. and University of the Arts London. Courtesy of British Film Institute.

 
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  • Freojim

    Great article and links. Thanks for posting.

  • richievee

    What’s the story behind that photo of Ryan O’Neal wearing a mask to breathe from an oxygen tank?

  • Fantastic post!

  • Pelle Beckman

    Great post!

  • Alexis

    Bonjour !

    Thank you for this amazing article. Barry Lyndon is one of my favorite movies, and I inquired a lot about it, but I never found that kind of great images ! It’s well-stocked and well-written, with varied testimonies. I’m verry happy to finally possess the screenplay, it will be read with delectation.

    I learned many new things, thanks to you. It’s always a pleasure to read your posts, please carry on! That’s why I donated without difficulty.

    All the best to you,
    Alexis Couroussé, Nantes, France.

    • Thank you for your wonderful compliments. It’s comments like yours that really keep us going.

  • transpo1

    Amazing resource- as one who has studied Barry Lyndon for some time, it’s fantastic to have this all in one place.