The Toxic Masculinity of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’

Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence is nothing more than a subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick’s films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

The Criterion Collection’s lush 4k restoration of Barry Lyndon, arguably Kubrick’s most brilliant film, arrives at a unique time when toxic white masculinity has dominated news headlines with accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s rape-driven behavior, Louie C.K.’s sexual abuse of younger female comedians, Senator Roy Moore’s pedophilic encounters, and many, many more testimonies by those victimized bursting through the seams of civility daily to shatter the silence. Yet this is not a patriarchal culture out of control with a few men run amok. Instead, it is precisely standard operating procedure of a deeply misogynistic way of life bulwarked by the very impulses of domination and hierarchy that Kubrick documents in many of his films and draws to the forefront in Barry Lyndon.

Just as Weinstein did not act alone in his decades worth of abuse and rape that he delivered upon many women, but instead possessed a phalanx of lawyers, agents, directors, actors, assistants, and publicists who hid, facilitated, excused, rationalized, enabled, and reinforced his actions, the quixotic desires of power and glory that haunts Barry Lyndon and ultimately leads to his downfall are not uniquely his own but representative of his (and our) age.

Much has been written about the technical splendor of Barry Lyndon: the specially made cameras that could catch candlelit scenes without any additional artificial light and the meticulous attention paid to period detail in the sets and costuming, which led to the film winning best cinematography, best costume design, and best art directions awards in 1976. But not as much has been said about its editing that often links Irish upstart Redmond Barry’s (Ryan O’Neal) story with that of his time.

Throughout its first half Barry Lyndon repeatedly tethers Barry’s actions with world historical events. After having recently been robbed of all his belongings, Barry enlists in an English regiment that is, unfortunately, sent off to fight in the Seven Years War. During a moment of relaxation, Barry gets into an altercation with a burly fellow soldier named Toole (Pat Roach). The source of their disagreement is Toole’s tarnishing of Barry’s masculinity for not wanting to drink from a grease-strewn cup. Toole comments, “Covered in grease? Give the gentleman a towel and a basin of turtle soup.”

The sequence is largely framed in a steady long shot. The tension builds beneath the surface between the two men until Barry insults Toole where it counts: attacking his masculine pride by suggesting he’s afraid of his wife. The sequence then explodes into handheld framing where the two engage in what can loosely be termed a fight but is more of a dance of cat-and-mouse: Toole lunges at and consistently misses Barry, while Barry delivers well-placed blows until Toole collapses into submission.

Tellingly, the sequence is immediately followed by a steady long shot of the English regiment marching off to battle through green fields. As the camera slowly zooms back, the narrator notes with a certain detached irony: “Barry’s training continued at Dunleary Camp, and within a month he was transformed into a tall and proper young soldier. During this time, the regiment’s strength was steadily increased by the arrival of other troops in preparation for joining their gallant armies fighting in Germany.”

The ostentatious display of the orderly regiment marching off to war contrasts dramatically with the wild handheld framing and wanton desires of the earlier moment that express tensions within the regiment. These “gallant armies” are comprised not by people who believe in England’s cause, but forlorn individuals who find themselves caught in the eddies of war dictated by unfortunate circumstances and the need to survive by any means necessary. Furthermore, the contrast between the brawl and preparation for battle suggests an equivalency between the two. Is war, after all, no more than a brawl between nations with no more justification than resulting from exchanged insults and injured masculine pride?

Barry Lyndon, in the vein of Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), skewers the false valor that often accompanies war and the war film. It exposes the absurdity that underlies the very endeavor of war and suggests that the best line of attack is that of retreat. Throughout the first half of the film, we watch Barry flee battles and attempt to desert. This stands in marked contrast to the tales of wartime heroism he conjures later in the film as a bedtime story for his son about beheading a French regiment. In spite of knowing better from personal experience about the horrors of war, Barry’s fragile sense of masculinity nonetheless causes him to toxically romanticize war to the person he loves the most and would least like to see engaged in battle. Masculine posturing has become a ritual beyond reason, a virus transmitted from an older generation to a younger one that seeps through our stories and our very being.

But unlike the earlier aforementioned films, Barry Lyndon links the toxic masculinity that bolsters war as that which also courses through men’s violence visited upon each other in their personal lives. Tellingly, the film opens with an extreme long shot. Diminished human figures stand in the distance, dominated by the landscape of trees, a stone wall, and distant hills. We faintly hear a man state, “Gentlemen, cock your pistols.” The narrator blithely states: “Barry’s father had been bred like many other younger sons of a genteel family to the profession of the law. There is no doubt he would have made an eminent figure in his profession had he not been killed in a duel.” As the narrator speaks, we watch the figure on the left tumble down after the sound of gunshots. We have deduced the identity of Barry’s father.

Many film critics and historians have highlighted Kubrick’s use of distanced framing to create a sense of detachment between the viewer and his films’ characters. But no other Kubrick film begins so dramatically in quarantining us from its characters not only through the film’s framing, but also through its use of an omniscient narrator where ironic contempt seeps through almost all of his lines. If the third-person, omniscient narrator occupies a godlike position, it is a god who observes his creatures at arm’s length and with faint disdain.

Duels periodically punctuate the film, a motif and reminder of masculine absurdity on display as they are stripped of any gallantry and revealed as nothing more than empty gesture. Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali) demands “satisfaction”, a duel, with Barry by film’s end for Barry having bankrupted the family fortune and ruined Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), Bullingdon’s mother, whom the son obsesses over in typical Freudian fashion of a Kubrick film. After prematurely discharging his gun, thus counting as his first shot, Bullingdon vomits in fear as he awaits Barry’s deadly return. After nonetheless receiving respite from Barry who fires his pistol into the ground, Bullingdon nonetheless continues the charade of masculinity despite his body wisely suggesting otherwise.

His second shot connects with Barry. But rather than hitting him in the chest for a mortal wound, it instead plugs his leg, eventually causing it to be belatedly amputated. But Barry continues along his downward trajectory, exiled from the Lydon estate and England as a whole for the meagre sum of 500 guineas a year and evading debtors’ prison.

This final duel resonates with an earlier one a youthful Barry initiates against Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter), an uptight British soldier who immediately begins trembling when the duel commences. The reason behind the duel is as equally absurd as all the other violence in the film: Barry is in love with his cousin Nora (Gay Hamilton) and doesn’t appreciate Quin’s overtures of marriage to her. As a lovesick romantic, Barry remains blinded how the marriage is an economic affair pure and simple. Quin will pay off Nora’s uncle’s debts and provide 1,500 guineas annuity.

Set on his ways, Barry demands “satisfaction” and receives his dues as he mortally wounds Quin and has to flee Dublin as a result. That is until we later learn that the entire duel was staged and Barry only hit him with tow, harmless flax fibers. As one of his friends states, “Do you think the Bradys would let you kill 1,500 a year out of the family?” So even the most dramatic duel of the film is finally revealed as nothing more than subterfuge.

Overall, the film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing. Although the film tracks the course of Barry Lyndon’s rise and fall, it periodically reminds us that his actions are intimately tied to his context, an age that fans the flames of spectacular wealth and masculine strength for many men even though reality proves otherwise. As the narrator notes, “It is well to dream of glorious war in a snug armchair at home, but it is a very different thing to see it firsthand.” It is this disjunction between the fevered dream of masculine bravado and the messy reality of our actions where Barry Lyndon lies.

Barry Lyndon speaks to our present moment of reckoning where those formerly victimized by this nightmare of toxic masculinity are speaking out and resisting its intimidations and backroom deals. The messy reality surrounds us always, but, as the film incessantly reminds us, it often remains submerged beneath the stories we tell ourselves. Kubrick brilliantly interrogated in his films the trauma produced by such masculinity, but he could never see what lies beyond it or even if there was a beyond. His films remain firmly lodged within the horror. Other perspectives are painfully absent or marginalized, which can be best seen in the character of Lady Lyndon, who barely speaks during the film. The narrator offers dismissive descriptions of her character and actions. He calls her “always vaporish and nervous”. He often belittles her actions: “To keep a long story short, six hours after they met, her ladyship was in love. And once Barry got into her company he found innumerable occasions to improve his intimacy.”

Why Lady Lyndon would be vaporish, nervous, or in love remains a mystery. In a 1976 interview with Kubrick, the interviewer queries Kubrick as to why Lady Lyndon remains so opaque. Kubrick responds: “Thackeray doesn’t tell you a great deal about her in the novel .. Perhaps he meant her to be something of a mystery. But the film gives you a sufficient understanding of her, anyway” (The Stanley Kubrick Archives, 606). Not quite.

This is both the strength and weakness of Kubrick’s films: they attack toxic masculinity in ways rarely seen in commercial films, but they remain firmly enmeshed within it nonetheless. Perspectives outside a deeply alienated, apelike, and violent white male psyche remain beyond the frame of Kubrick’s films, which doesn’tt mean that many are not brilliant in their own right.

Films cannot right every wrong. Nor should they be required to do so. But we must keep in mind the damage wrought to others that toxic masculinity inflicts and turn to other films—often outside Hollywood and frequently beyond the United States’ border— to hear the voices silenced within its stranglehold.

At its best, Barry Lyndon suggests the damage done in its final frames. A silent Lady Lyndon signs payments, visually wedged between her eldest son and the reverend. From her point of view, she signs a note of 500 guineas to Barry Lyndon. Her hand pauses. A medium close-up follows of her looking up, occupying the frame on her own in detached silence. The narrative pauses. But the sequence then cuts back to a distanced shot of them all encased in the ornate room.

This brief hesitation hints at the inner life and thoughts of Lady Lyndon, but the narrative is not her own. The film suggests something more brewing beneath the surface, thoughts that neither narrator nor narrative can adequately capture. It is Barry Lyndon’s story in particular and men’s in general that dictate the structure of Kubrick’s film. At least the film has the honesty and integrity to acknowledge that within the confines of toxic masculinity, there’s no room for any other voices that might challenge its reign and expose its stance as mere empty posture.

RATING 10 / 10