As for the final duel, Kubrick milks it for all the tension he can: showing the guns being carefully loaded, observing the pre-duel coin-toss, watching the men take their places 10 paces apart, letting the referee’s instructions echo through the cavernous space, all while menacing strings and kettle drums of the score groan and pound in a steady rhythm. But there’s absurdity here, too, in the constantly cooing pigeons, in the accidental discharge of Lord Bullingdon’s gun and in the way Barry bravely and nobly faces his death only to be shot in the leg, leading to a lot of undignified moaning. You mentioned earlier the “all are equal now” epilogue, and sure enough there are clues throughout Barry Lyndon that this era, like this main character, wasn’t nearly as special, noble or otherwise impressive as the people within it seemed to believe.
EH: The duels are indeed one of the primary vehicles for Kubrick’s satire of the “noble” class and their silly, artificial rules for living. As you say, the film opens with a duel, which immediately establishes the absurdity of staking one’s life over minor slights of “honor,” so that a life is erased in mere seconds. This absurdity calls into question the whole concept of honor as it’s understood by the society depicted in this film—duels as presented by Kubrick are not so much showcases for honor and nobility but evidence of fragile egos forced by convention to respond to even the slightest of imagined insults. Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript, released 10 years earlier, similarly skewers the aristocratic class for its eagerness to waste lives in petty duels: the main character remembers that his father once fought 10 duels in a single day in order to avoid an argument, a hilarious formulation that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Barry Lyndon.
The interesting thing about Kubrick’s approach to duels is that, as absurd and wasteful as he makes them seem, he doesn’t eliminate the genuine tension and emotion of these showdowns, at least in the two duels in which Barry takes part. When Barry faces Captain Quin, Kubrick emphasizes the fear and hesitance of the duelists, who quiver and tremble, barely disguising their terror at facing death. The romanticized ideal of dueling—stoic nobleman bravely staking their lives to maintain their honor—is quite different from the way Kubrick presents dueling, as this pointless face-off between shaky-handed men who stare at one another in abject horror. Quin’s wide-eyed expression is both poignant and comical—but tips more towards the latter in light of the eventual revelation that he knew the duel was a farce all along, so in hindsight we realize he was scared not of death but of being shot with a blank.
In Barry’s second duel, Kubrick draws out the preparation for the showdown with such portentousness that the tension becomes nearly unbearable. The martial strings drone in the background, blending with the cooing of the birds and the papery rustle of wings as pigeons flutter around the barn. The scene is solemn, even ritualistic, with thin slit windows and crosses carved into the stone walls behind the duelists, letting in slivers of bluish light that make the scene seem holy and eerie, a place of worship rather than a place of idiotic death and maiming. The long shots of the barn with the two men setting up to shoot each other are especially breathtaking, finding a weird kind of beauty in this slow, mechanical ritual. The aesthetic gloss of this scene, however, only makes it all the more startling when the duel itself quickly descends into comedy. The arcane rules for this particular duel, where the men take turns shooting each other, with chance determining who shoots first, make it especially silly, and then Lord Bullingdon’s accidental firing of his gun into the ground—and his terrified, little-boy-in-trouble expression afterwards—only exacerbate the lunatic surrealism of this practice.
JB: By the time Barry enters into that final duel, he’s seemingly lost everything. We’ve seen him shunned from his old social circle. We’ve watched his son die. And then, in the duel with his stepson, Barry is shot by Lord Bullingdon even after he spares his stepson by intentionally firing into the ground. Barry’s sacrificed shot seems less a matter of etiquette (you wasted a shot, so I will) and more like an olive branch, an admission of guilt, an act of atonement. Barry knows that he has treated his stepson poorly, so he understands Lord Bullingdon’s rage, much like Captain Quin must have understood Barry’s rage all those years ago. There’s a sense when Barry fires his shot into the ground that he hopes Lord Bullingdon will shoot him dead and end his misery, but when Lord Bullingdon announces that he has not received “satisfaction” there’s a subtle expression of surprise that flashes across Barry’s face, as if the last thing he imagined is that Lord Bullingdon would continue with the duel after Barry spared him.
Of course, Barry’s ultimate fate in the duel is the worst thing he can imagine. He isn’t spared. He isn’t killed. He’s maimed, blasted in the leg. In the next scene, the doctor examines Barry’s leg and says he’ll have to amputate. “Lose the leg? What for?” Barry asks. “The simple answer to that is ’to save your life,’” the doctor replies. This, it turns out, is the low point for Barry. Suddenly it registers for him that there’s no coming back from this duel, the way he’d reinvented himself all those years ago. He’ll forever be crippled, and he’ll forever have a physical reminder of his sins. And as Barry comes to this realization, weeping in bed, a church bell tolls in the background.
The next scene finds Lord Bullingdon heading to the Lyndon estate by carriage, hatching a plan by which to get Barry’s mother out of the house before he steps foot through the door. While Lord Bullingdon schemes, the same priest who married Barry and Lady Lyndon can’t suppress a smile, realizing in that moment that Barry has been cast out by a man who shows signs of being as conniving as he was. Kubrick seems to be reminding us that when one selfish asshole steps out of the spotlight, another one comes along to take his place.
EH: That sense of progression is important because Barry Lyndon is, in the end, as much about society as a whole as it is about the one man who gives the film its title. All of this maneuvering for wealth and prestige doesn’t actually make anyone happy, neither the victors nor the losers like Barry. In the last scene of the film, Lady Lyndon and her son somberly shuffle through piles of paper for Lady Lyndon to sign, the endless bills and paperwork associated with their life of privilege and success. This scene intentionally mirrors the earlier one in which Lady Lyndon and Barry joylessly went through these same paper rituals: there’s no pleasure, no contentment, in the management of the massive wealth for which these people fight so tirelessly.
Instead, there’s only loss and sadness. Kubrick alternates closeups of Lady Lyndon and her son in the final moments of the film, focusing on the moment when she has to sign for the annuity paid to Barry to keep him away from the family. Lady Lyndon seems lost in thought, and her red-rimmed eyes, used to crying, well up a bit. But there’s also the very slightest of smiles dancing briefly at the corners of her mouth, as though she’s remembering whatever small happy moments the couple might have had together, or the son they’d so loved. Those fleeting moments of pleasure are ultimately lost in the struggle to live, not for the moment, not for the sake of enjoying life, but for accumulating reputation and wealth for posterity. Barry Lyndon demonstrates the folly of such an attitude, and it does so by completely embodying it in Barry, an empty vessel filled almost entirely with base urges and stupidity. Kubrick harshly satirizes this man and the grabby approach to life he represents, but more remarkably he also makes us feel for Barry, lamenting the waste of time and life that disappear into the vacuum of Barry’s ambition. That’s why the final moments of the film are so devastating, so sad, embodying in the exchange of glances between Lady Lyndon and her son a lifetime’s worth of bad decisions and lost opportunities.
JB: It really does feel like a lifetime. The coupling of the narration and the deliberate pace give Barry Lyndon a decidedly novel-esque feel, as if we’re paging through Barry’s life in Thackeray’s original. Like so much of Kubrick’s work, the atmosphere of the whole is more telling than any specific gesture, line or scene. Barry Lyndon is an experience more than a plot, wrapping us up in its colorful panoramas and moody candlelit closeups to create a precise sense of time and space. If it’s best remembered for the way it looks, perhaps that’s fitting, given that it’s about a man who at his height only appears remarkable. But clearly there is more to Barry Lyndon than lush visuals. It’s a film with character about a man who lacks it.
Nevertheless, the praise for the film’s visual splendor is hardly misplaced. Kubrick gives us a bland character in a movie dominated by visuals that are anything but. To quote Scorsese again, Barry Lyndon really is “one exquisitely beautiful image after another,” and it’s the consistency of those breathtaking compositions that gives this deliberately methodical film its undeniable momentum. It’s not a film one is drawn to so much as a film one can’t break away from. For all of Barry Lyndon’s cool detachment, the obvious care of Kubrick’s filmmaking gives it a strange warmth.