Barry Lyndon, released in 1975, is Stanley Kubrick’s follow-up to his highly controversial film adaptation of the novel A Clockwork Orange released three years previously. That film was, in turn, his follow-up to the mammoth event that was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick had hoped to travel from the future back into the past following the success of his science fiction epic. Plans for a film about Napoleon equally epic in scope to 2001 fell through, however, following the box office disaster of the film Waterloo in the process. With plans for his long-cherished desire to bring the life of Napoleon to the screen placed on hold, Kubrick directed A Clockwork Orange with a desire still burning to make a film set in that era.
The result was Barry Lyndon, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray which takes during the reign of England’s King George III. The timeline is not quite coincident with the rise and fall of Napoleon, but it is close enough to satisfy Kubrick’s urges. The storyline, on the other hand, is quite different. Barry Lyndon is the ironic tale of the title character’s rise and fall in society and his accumulation and loss of wealth, respect and a wife.
The film is often pointed to as the one post-Paths of Glory film in the Kubrick canon that most people have never seen. Although generally well-received by critics and the winner of four Academy Awards in the decorative arts categories to go along with nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay and Direction for Kubrick, Barry Lyndon suffers from a reputation stamped upon it almost immediately upon release: it moves too slow and nothing much happens when it things do happen.
Barry Lyndon is arguably Kubrick’s most literate movie, despite innovative use of lighting and sound to provide a visual punctuation to its reliance on more literary techniques to mark its distinctiveness. Nevertheless, what seemed laborious and unnecessarily time-consuming in 1975 could quite possibly seem like a Ken Burns documentary using still pictures to modern audiences. Kubrick never did get to realize his dream of making that movie about Napoleon and, indeed, would only make three more movies before his death in 1999.