In 1975, Stanley Kubrick released the historical drama film Barry Lyndon. The film tells the tale of Redmond Barry, an eighteenth century Irishman who marries a rich widow, assuming her late husband’s aristocratic position. Before he becomes a noble, Barry undergoes several adventures, such as operating a gambling scheme and serving as a spy for the Prussian police.
With a three-hour run time, Barry Lyndon is universally lauded for its visual beauty. Each scene can be compared to an 18th century painting. The film is also celebrated for its groundbreaking cinematography, most notably the use of natural lighting instead of artificial lights.
While both of these elements should be celebrated, the historical authenticity of Kubrick’s film is noteworthy as well. According to Herb A. Lightman (1976), Barry Lyndon is also “a documentary of how people lived in the Ireland and England of that period — their manner and morals, their values and amours, their personal duels and large-scale battles“.
This post will look at three historically authentic elements of Barry Lyndon, and discuss how they were achieved. But before we get into that, the story of Kubrick and his failed passion project needs to be told.
Kubrick and Napoleon
Stanley Kubrick is often labelled a perfectionist. The director often demanded several takes of a scene, some ranging into the hundreds. Kubrick also assumed control of several areas in his films’ production; for example, cinematography and editing. Kubrick heavily researched his film’s subject matter. He and his small devoted team poured countless hours into researching every aspect of his film’s topic. However, the story of Barry Lyndon begins with a film about Napoleon.
Fresh off the success of 2001, A Space Odyssey, Kubrick set his eyes on a large scale biographical film on the famous French Emperor. Over a two-year period, Kubrick researched every aspect of Napoleon’s life. Kubrick created a comprehensive timeline of events in Napoleon’s life. The information was then transposed into a catalog card system.
Kubrick’s research team was hard at work collecting Napoleonic artifacts from all corners of the globe; for example, soil samples were collected from battlefields in Austria and Waterloo. Teams also photographed Napoleonic battle sites, recording the quality of light at different times of the day. To cut down on the budget, Kubrick created paper costumes along with the period costume replicas. These costumes were designed from extensive research of paintings and other documents of the era.
As the research for the biopic continued, the budget grew as well. MGM, the studio backing the project, started to get cold feet. In 1970, the studio pulled out from the project. Kubrick’s passion project was over. However, the time and energy spent researching the Napoleonic era did not go to waste. Kubrick channeled much of this information into Barry Lyndon.
Kubrick based the costumes in Barry Lyndon on various eighteenth century paintings.Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds are two painters Kubrick studied the most. The goal of this, according to author Bill Krohn, was to “take the audience into the past”, to fully immerse them in the time period” (Adams, 2020). The paintings from the era showed Kubrick how “people looked, wore their clothes and confronted their world.” (Adams, 2020).
Kubrick believed that the best way to create historical costumes was to faithfully recreate them from historical sources. He also believed in getting actual period clothing to learn how they were made. “To get them to look right”, he said, “you really have to make them the same way”.
Meilena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderland were hired to design the costumes for Barry Lyndon. According to Canonero, Kubrick was not intend on creating the wardrobe of a traditional period film: “Stanley did not wan the fit to look one of those traditional movies were period clothes look like wardrobe”. The clothes of Barry Lyndon would be full of life, color, and authenticity.
Based on Kubrick’s wishes, the two designers sought to accurately recreate eighteenth century clothing. Both women based their designs on extensive historical research, studying various paintings and drawings from the era. They were even able to use authentic period clothing, which was acquired from auctions or borrowed from museums. Kubrick believed many period films used costumes that looked too new and perfect. He had Canonero and Söderland age and dye certain costumes to give the impression that the material was old and worn.
The costumes in Barry Lyndon not only add to the beauty of the film, they enhance the historical authenticity of the film as well. When watching the film, you truly feel as if you’re getting a glimpse into life during the eighteenth century. This is due in part to the wardrobe. Each article of clothing looks genuine; nothing looks like the production quickly slapped something together. Through the wardrobe design, Kubrick achieved his goal for Barry Lyndon: to fully immerse the audience into the film’s time period.
The Seven Years War was global conflict that occurred between 1756-1763. The main combatants were France and Great Britain, however Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Sweden were also involved. The central issue of The Seven Years War was a struggle for global dominance between France and Britain. The war reached from Europe to Africa; some historians name the conflict as the first world war. At the war’s conclusion, France and her allies were defeated by the Anglo-Prussian coalition. So why the history lesson? Because the opening half of Barry Lyndon partially takes place during the Seven Years War.
Barry in the Army
After a jealous Barry kills his cousin’s lover, he enlists in the British Army to avoid the authorities. Barry’s regiment is sent to Germany, where they fight French forces. After his friend and mentor dies in their first skirmish, Barry decides to desert. He impersonates a British officer and flees to neutral Holland. However, he is captured by Prussian forces after a Prussian officer sees through Barry’s disguise. Faced with being arrested, Barry volunteers for the Prussian army instead. Barry fights for the Prussian in several battles. He later receives a special commendation by Fredrick the Great for saving his commanders life.
Kubrick’s film gets the obvious historical facts corrects: the uniforms worn by each side, the combatants and which side they were on etc. What is more impressive is the film’s handling of specific details.
While Barry Lyndon does not depict any specific battle, the combat scenes give a unique insight into 18th century warfare. Drawing from his Napoleon research, Kubrick expertly choreographed the battle scenes. In one scene, the British Soldiers methodically advance in linear formation towards the French Forces. In response, the French shoot volley fire (a line of soldiers all firing simultaneously) at the British. All of these details are realistic to combat tactics of the Seven Years War. British forces would advance on their enemy in a linear formation, halt, then volley fire by line.
The Prussian Army
Kubrick’s treatment of the Prussian army is fairly realistic. In reality the Prussian army did largely consist of foreign volunteers or conscripts instead of native Prussians during the latter half of the Seven Years War. Therefore, Barry volunteering for the Prussians is true to history. The film’s narrator states that the Prussian Army held strict discipline compared to its allies. This is demonstrated when a Prussian solider is continually whipped by his comrades. This is also realistic. The punishment was called running the gauntlet: a soldier running or walking through two rows of men while being whipped by them.
Kubrick’s depiction of the Seven Years War sticks to the facts. The causes of the War, the belligerents, the battle tactics, and outcome of the war are all accurately portrayed. It’s a depiction that any history buff can enjoy.
Duelling plays a major role throughout Barry Lyndon. Barry’s father was killed in a duel, and Barry finds himself in several duels later on. In each scene, the rules, acts, and reasons for the duel match those of reality. Each duel Barry partakes in is to resolve a dispute between him and an enemy.
In the 18th century, duels were used to settle a disagreement between two men. A duel usually resulted from a perceived offense; the spurned individual would demand “satisfaction” from the offender. In every duel Barry partakes in, either he commited an offense or was insulted by someone. Duels were primarily fought with swords, but pistols were also used. Barry Lyndon shows both styles. Overall, the two combatants were expect to act in a polite manner when duelling. A Royal Code of Honour was even created to enforce this. Barry and his enemy act in civilized way, even though they are about to wound or kill one another. The duel was ruled over when one of the combatants were killed or wounded, first blood was drawn (it could be a minor scratch), or the challenger felt satisfied that the offense was resolved.
While most duels incorporated a weapon, alternative ways of settling a dispute were also sought. In most cases, the duellers preferred settling disputes in non-violent ways, like talking things over. This workaround happens in Barry Lyndon.I n the first duel scene, Captain Quinn will consider their dispute settled if Barry apologizes and goes to Dublin. Unfortunately, Barry does not apologize.
The film’s final duel scene follows several of the rules set for 18th century duels. In the scene, Barry faces his vengeful stepson Lord Bullingdon. To decide who fires first, a coin is tossed. Bullingdon goes first after correctly calling heads. The film does correctly show the use of coins to determine first fire. Once Lord Bullingdon wins the toss, he is told to take his position. Barry’s position is set 10 steps away from Bullingdon’s. According to duelling rules, both combants were to be separated by at least 10 yards.
As Bullingdon cocks his pistol, he accidentally fires. He has wasted his shot. Barry is given his opportunity to fire, but he spares Bullindon’s life by shooting into the ground. Since none have been wounded or killed, Bullingdon is asked if he has received satisfaction. He says he has not. Bullingdon is given a second chance; he shoots and wounds Barry in the leg.
This situation is fairly accurate to reality. If each combatants fired their shot and none were hit, the duel was over if the challenger was satisfied. However, the duel continued if the challenger was unsatisfied. Barry firing his pistol into the ground was also a common occurrence in 18th century duels. A combatant could intentionally miss in order to fulfill the duel’s condition without loss of life or honour. It was an out to settle the dispute in a more civilized manner. Lastly, if the challenger remained unsatisfied, the duel could continue until either man was killed or wounded. Although, firing more than three shots was uncommon; it was considered barbaric to shoot that much. In the film, the duel end once Barry is shot in the leg.
Here’s a link to he final duel scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6VhEkslEJI.
The duels in Barry Lyndon are staged in an overly dramatic way, as is the case with other period films. The scenes are designed to follow the rules of 18th century duelling. For the most part, the film impressively sticks to those rules. In doing so, Kubrick creates scenes that feel historically authentic and real.
A Snapshot of History
Barry Lyndon is arguably the most visually stunning film ever made. Each shot is an 18th century painting come to life. The film’s cinematography is universally celebrated, overshadowing its historical authenticity. However, Barry Lyndon should be equally celebrated for its treatment of history as well.
Using the information researched for the failed Napoleon biopic, Kubrick created a film offering a snapshot of 18th century life. The wardrobe faithfully replicated 18th century clothing. All the elements of the Seven Years War is accurately depicted. And the rules of duelling are strictly followed. These three components combine to produce a film that transports viewers back in time, truly immersing them within the world. This is one of Kubrick’s greatest achievements.