In 1975 the world was at Stanley Kubrick's feet. His films Dr. Strangelove
, 2001: A Space Odyssey
, and A Clockwork Orange
, released in the previous dozen years, had provoked rapture and consternation--not merely in the film community, but in the culture at large. On the basis of that smashing hat trick, Kubrick was almost certainly the most famous film director of his generation, and absolutely the one most likely to rewire the collective mind of the movie audience. And what did this radical, at-least-20-years-ahead-of-his-time filmmaker give the world in 1975? A stately, three-hour costume drama based on an obscure Thackeray novel from 1844. A picaresque story about an Irish lad (Ryan O'Neal, then a major star) who climbs his way into high society, Barry Lyndon
bewildered some critics (Pauline Kael called it "an ice-pack of a movie") and did only middling business with patient audiences. The film was clearly a technical advance, with its unique camerawork (incorporating the use of prototype Zeiss lenses capable of filming by actual candlelight) and sumptuous production design. But its hero is a distinctly underwhelming, even unsympathetic fellow, and Kubrick does not try to engage the audience's emotions in anything like the usual way.
Why, then, is Barry Lyndon a masterpiece? Because it uncannily captures the shape and rhythm of a human life in a way few other films have; because Kubrick's command of design and landscape is never decorative but always apiece with his hero's journey; and because every last detail counts. Even the film's chilly style is thawed by the warm narration of the great English actor Michael Hordern and the Irish songs of the Chieftains. Poor Barry's life doesn't matter much in the end, yet the care Kubrick brings to the telling of it is perhaps the director's most compassionate gesture toward that most peculiar species of animal called man. And the final, wry title card provides the perfect Kubrickian sendoff--a sentiment that is even more poignant since Kubrick's premature death. --Robert Horton
EDITOR'S NOTE: According to a Warner Home Video technician involved in the production of The Stanley Kubrick Collection
, Kubrick authorized all aspects of the Collection
, from the use of Digital Component Video (or "D-1") masters originally approved in 1989, to the use of minimalist screen menus, chapter stops, and (in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey
and The Shining
on DVD) supplementary materials. Full-screen presentation of The Shining
and Full Metal Jacket
was also approved by Kubrick, who recomposed his original framing, reportedly believing that those films looked best on video in the full-screen format. (In fact, the original theatrical aspect ratio of The Shining
was 1.66:1, meaning that a relatively small portion of the image is lost.) Kubrick also chose mono over stereo, believing that inconsistencies in theatrical sound systems resulted in loss of control over theatrical presentation. In every respect, the Warner spokesman said, the films in the Collection
remain as Kubrick approved them. Any future attempt to remaster or alter them would have to be approved by an appointee of the Kubrick estate.