Last year around this time, I did a number of articles on “Reel Christianity” on some of the films of Stanley Kubrick. Last summer, I got to see some of Kubrick’s films for the first time, from “The Killing” to “Spartacus” to “A Clockwork Orange”, and I really admired his work in terms of his visual style and his writing. One film I didn’t talk about, though, was his 1975 historical drama “Barry Lyndon”, which is a truly magnificent film that genuinely feels like a novel put on the big screen. (If you see the movie, you’ll probably see what I mean.) And as I’ve thought about it, this movie, more than some of Kubrick’s other work, is a fascinating portrayal of a common idea in Christianity.
The movie’s very long and sort of complicated, so as I’ve done in the past, I’m going to skip around some parts of the story to give you the big picture. Young Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal) grows up fatherless in eighteenth-century Ireland and falls in love with his older cousin Nora. When she eventually decides to marry a wealthier man, English Captain John Quin. Barry challenges him to a duel, shooting and killing him—or so he thinks, for his family purposely loaded his gun with other material, so that Barry would flee and no longer interfere with Nora’s marriage. Barry then flees to Dublin, but is robbed along the way and soon joins the British Army.
Barry later deserts the army during the Seven Years’ War and flees to Holland, but along the way, the Prussian Captain Potzdorf catches him disguised as an officer and basically forces him to enlist in the Prussian Army. After the war is over, and after Barry has been commemorated for saving Potzdorf’s life, he is offered a job as a servant of a local gambler, Chevalier de Balibari (Patrick Magee), because he is suspected of being a spy. When Barry reveals to the Chevalier that they both come from the same country, the two men start working together cheating at cards. When he cheats a prince one night, the Prussians declare that he must leave the country—so Barry helps him escape in the night, and Barry himself dresses up as the Chevalier and leaves Prussia.
The two men rejoin and travel around Europe, until one gamble where Barry meets the Countess of Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) in Belgium and marries into her wealth after her husband’s death. This is, of course, how Redmond Barry takes up the new name Barry Lyndon. He and Lady Lyndon have a child, but Lord Bullingdon (Dominic Savage), Lady’s son from her first husband, disapproves of the marriage, for Barry is marrying into their family only for their wealth—he is even publicly unfaithful to her. Bullingdon grows to hate Barry and as Barry mistreats his stepson (even once abusing him in public), he spoils his youngest son Bryan, who, in a story straight out of “Gone With the Wind”, gets a horse for his birthday, falls off it, and dies.
Barry starts drinking, Lady Lyndon eventually attempts suicide, and Barry and Bullingdon even face off in a duel, resulting in Bullingdon not being shot and Barry being shot in the leg. Barry’s leg is amputated, Bullingdon takes control of the estate, and Barry is forced to leave Lady Lyndon as Bullingdon threatens that he will be jailed if he does not leave. A narrator, who has been filling in the blanks for us throughout the film, concludes as we see Lady Lyndon signing Barry’s annuity:
NARRATOR: Utterly baffled and beaten, what was a lonely and broken-hearted man to do? Barry took the annuity and returned to Ireland with his mother to complete his recovery. Sometime later, he travelled to the Continent. His life there, we have not the means of following accurately. But he appears to have resumed his former profession of a gambler without his former success. He never saw Lady Lyndon again.
In the end, Redmond Barry’s selfish ambition led to him pretty much losing everything. And as restrained as the film is, the emotion is still there as Barry and his “loved ones” start realizing that his life has been in vain. By only trying to find wealth, even marrying solely for wealth, he lost relationships, he lost a future, and he lost all that he had. But even with all that he was able to gain through it all, what could he have possibly gotten to make sure his life was not in vain after all?
As always, I propose Christ. There isn’t a whole lot of religious content in “Barry Lyndon”—although Lady Lyndon does consult a priest after Bryan’s death, before Barry’s mother dismisses him, telling him he is doing more harm than good. But through the whole movie, a follower of Jesus may watch it and be heartbroken as Barry and so many other characters are pursuing everything in the world to make them happy… except Jesus! And I truly believe that a life without Jesus and without the Gospel really is in vain.
Paul writes about this in First Corinthians, though he takes it a step further, talking about those who have heard the Gospel but do not live it out. “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” (15:1-2) The only way we can live our life to the fullest is by believing God’s Word and living it out by loving others—and I pray that you would do that today in whatever situation you are in.