Barry learns this lesson most ruinously when he contrives to earn a title for himself through bribery and flattery, believing that he can propel himself into a lordship and earn the respect and status he so desperately wants. Instead, he destroys his wife’s fortune for naught, setting up the devastating sequence of tragedies in the film’s final act. It’s telling that when Barry assembles a troop of soldiers to fight in the Americas, hoping to impress the English king, the blunt, somewhat sarcastic response is that he should gather more troops and go fight himself. To the end, Barry is seen as good enough to be a soldier but not to be a lord. Earlier in the film, the scenes of Barry at war, first with the English army and then with the Prussians, establish that these wars are motivated by upper-class concerns, rooted in the interests of lords and kings, but fought by the poor, by criminals and conscripts. The armies are assembled by force and trickery: some people are literally kidnapped from their homes and forced into duty, while others are offered some small amount of money to serve in the (slim) hope of escaping poverty. When Barry is recruited into the army, the recruiter says that they need new men to replace those who have retired with a pension, a laughable and transparent ruse. But Barry, always a fool, and with few enough prospects anyway, truly believes that the army will be his route out of poverty, his first step towards respectability and prestige.
One crucial battle of Barry’s brief but bloody military career is a skirmish over a section of road that the English army wants to cross. As the narrator says, this is not the kind of epic battle that the history books immortalize. It is a petty, insignificant exchange, a fight over a small strip of land of dubious importance, one with little ultimate impact except for the men who die during its course. Kubrick’s compositions emphasize the absurdity of this style of battle, as the English soldiers march solidly forward towards the enemy lines, not breaking ranks as the enemy fires on them, many men dropping to the ground with each barrage as the men next to them continue marching forward without even looking around them. Kubrick maintains a characteristic stoic distance that emphasizes just how meaningless any individual life is in the midst of this absurd, anti-human war machine. Men fall and die and their comrades simply step over them, eyes locked straight ahead on the enemy, marching towards death with the determination of men whose lives aren’t valued any higher than the cost of a bullet. Barry, through some outrageous luck and his own oversized ambition, eventually does transcend this low level, but in a deeper sense he never quite escapes this devaluation of his life and his worth. Even when he is being honored by the Prussian army, the officer who presents him with his award can’t resist delivering a speech about what an anomaly his bravery was, about how Barry remains low class trash in spite of his achievements. Actions don’t matter nearly as much as origins. That’s the dominant ideology of this society, and though Barry occasionally manages to circumvent its rigid boundaries, they will ultimately suffocate him.
JB: Considering all that we’ve said about Barry thus far, it’s probably past time for discussing the actor who plays him: Ryan O’Neal. It’s certainly an interesting casting choice, perhaps more so in retrospect than at the time, and that’s saying something. When Barry Lyndon was released in 1975, O’Neal had been a regular on TV’s Peyton Place, and he’d starred in one of the most successful modern romances in cinema history, 1970’s Love Story, so he was hardly anonymous, but I’m not sure there was anything about his early career that suggested that he was on the path to playing complex leading men—although perhaps I’m letting my awareness of O’Neal’s post-Barry Lyndon roles overly influence that analysis. In any case, I think it’s safe to say that O’Neal’s performance here is an outlier in his career, a rare opportunity to work with strong material and a talented director.
That said, despite the fact that Barry Lyndon is almost always thought of as a Kubrickian achievement, I think O’Neal’s performance is one of its great strengths. O’Neal is what you might call memorably forgettable here. By that I mean that it’s impossible to think of Barry Lyndon without thinking about O’Neal, because indeed O’Neal’s character is the focal point of nearly every scene in a lengthy film that even by title alone announces itself as a one-man character study, and yet O’Neal’s Barry doesn’t dominate our consciousness as a distinct character. He isn’t Charles Foster Kane, or Michael Corleone, or T.E. Lawrence, or Daniel Plainview; indeed, Barry often feels like the supporting player in his own film. Opposite Nora, Quin, Potzdorf, his stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) and so on, our attention is repeatedly drawn to those opposite him.
Barry is a blank. I’m not an actor, but I suspect that’s much harder to play than it seems. O’Neal isn’t totally without big acting moments—his brawl with his stepson and his tearful exchange with his dying son leap to mind—but for the most part his performance is quiet, reserved, inward, even when Barry is puffing out his chest with pride or arrogance. It’s an approach that serves the character well, underlining Barry’s lack of original character, right down to that light Irish accent that sounds as if Barry was never fully invested in his roots. O’Neal is, in essence, an actor playing an actor. And what’s remarkable is that while Barry is always in the midst of a performance, O’Neal never seems to be.
EH: O’Neal’s unshowy performance is indeed another example of this film’s admirable restraint. In terms of performances, O’Neal’s portrayal of Barry reminds me very much of Tom Cruise’s turn as the similarly blank, unsympathetic Dr. Bill in Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Barry and Bill are both intentionally flat protagonists whose emotional range is rather stunted, and who seem rather clueless and lost when faced with the realization that they are not, in fact, the centers of their respective universes. Like Bill, over the course of this film Barry must come to terms with a cruel world that foils all his plans and continually shatters his illusion of himself as a strong, clever schemer. Both Eyes Wide Shut and Barry Lyndon are Kubrick’s stabs at masculine pride, though the two films go about tearing down their male archetypes in very different fashions.
If Eyes Wide Shut is all about male identity as defined by sex, Barry Lyndon is about worldly masculine ambition, the desire for power and money. That’s because Bill has accomplished the ideal that Barry can only haplessly reach for: Bill is rich and successful, his life furnished with all the conventional signifiers of status and prestige. Bill doesn’t need to grasp for a higher status the way Barry does, but the fact that he’s still striving for something more, that he still feels unfulfilled, suggests that this is a neverending quest. Bill is a Barry-like figure who has attained what he thought he wanted and now channels his unquenchable desire into sexuality, desperately trying to feel fulfilled in the same way that Barry is continually setting new goals for himself in his one-step-forward-two-steps-back attempts to climb the social ladder. In contrast to Bill, who is engulfed by sexuality everywhere he turns, Barry, with the exception of his supposedly genuine feelings for Nora, seems ambivalent about sex. He pursues the lovely Lady Lyndon but as soon as he has her he wants very little to do with her. Sex is a means to an end for Barry; he defines himself not by his sexuality but by his ambition, by his desire for social and economic status. Bill, who has the social and economic success that Barry craves, instead feels inadequate in his sexuality. It’s as though these blank-faced, remote men are yawning voids who feel a profound absence in their lives and attempt to fill it with whatever they think is missing. If they achieve success in one area, it only makes them aware of what they lack elsewhere.
JB: It might be a bit misleading to suggest that Barry is ambivalent about sex, considering that once he’s married we see him cavorting with a few women not his wife. Barry uses sex as a means to an end with Lady Lyndon, sure, but he also seems to view wanton extramarital sex as a status symbol—although I agree it’s a desire for status, not for sex itself, that seems to give Barry his hard-on. Of course, broadly speaking, you’re correct that Barry is seeking to gain the same kind of status and prestige that Bill already has in Eyes Wide Shut. The biggest difference between those two lead characters is that while both of them operate as if they are the center of their universe, and while both of them are surprised whenever someone around them sees them as anything less than that, Barry knows exactly what he wants, while Bill spends the majority of Eyes Wide Shut more or less pretending to himself that he knows what he wants. (Bill, too, is actually driven by something other than sex itself: a need to reassure himself that he can have whatever he wants, thus living up to the status he has achieved.)