Set in France during the First World War, Kubrick's 1957 war film is his first major achievement, or perhaps his second after The Killing. As with The Killing, this film also featured a collaboration with Jim Thompson, who though miffed at only being credited with dialogue for the earlier film, returned to work with Kubrick out of a mixture of pride and necessity. Thompson is now much better known as the author of such brilliant hard boiled novels as The Grifters, The Killer Inside Me and The Getaway, which would later become films in their own right to varying degrees of success. Thompson's left wing politics are more than evident in the film (Thompson's most autobiographical book is 1942's Now and on Earth) which is drenched in a world weary cynicism against the ruling classes and reserves its sympathy for the working Joes who, in this context, are literally the cannon fodder for the effete and immaculately bearded generals, one of whom refers to the first wave of men 'absorbing' the fire to allow the second wave to get through. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is the man caught in-between, condemning the stupidity of the suicidal attack but forced to carry it out, knowing he is one of the few competent officers.
Kubrick's tracking shots first come into their own as Dax marches through the trenches prior to the attack under a steadily worsening barrage of artillery fire. This is cinema at its most immersive as we become part of a total environment. The tracking shots across the battle field show a halting progress which is bought at the cost of terrible loss of life. The soundtrack is made up entirely of the sound of gunfire and high explosive. Narrative, as such, doesn't exist. The attack falters and Dax is back in the trench, cajoling his men to try again. Compare this to Saving Private Ryan, where initial chaos and confusion gives way to a more militarily comforting sense of narrative: clear the wire, take the sniper out, off the beach.
The second half of the film is made up of a court martial that seeks to punish three men for the cowardice of the regiment. Each man has a different reaction to his impending doom: the coward grabs religion, the brave man is gripped by violent anger, while the average soldier swings between the two before settling on a dignified resignation.
Kubrick's control of the details is masterful and becomes all the better when we get to the firing squad. The prosecutor, who was simply a hissable villain at the trial, reads out the sentence in a frail voice as he seems to realise the gravity of what he has done. Dax, utterly powerless now, a mere spectator is shot in shallow focus. The birdsong of the soundtrack continues even after the firing of the fatal shots, suggesting an indifferent universe.
The coda heaps more opprobrium on the high command, allowing Dax to vent, albeit impotently. There was a happy ending Kubrick considered, but in the end he opted for the bleak purity of the novel and Thompson's screenplay. The results was a film that seethes at the hypocrisies of the military and the injustice of war. It was honoured by bans in France, Switzerland and Fascist Spain for its negative portrayal of the army, and yet, oddly, Winston Churchill admired its authenticity.
Once upon a Time in the West is Sergio Leone's first attempt at genuinely challenging and mature cinema. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly had already begun to move in that direction. The epic sprawl of the Civil War was directly inspired by David Lean: the bridge episode specifically, but also the general feel of the epic. At its heart, however, it is an action movie, one of the best ever made. It allows social, political and historical asides, but the pursuit continues. In Once upon a Time in the West, history and politics is unavoidable and it is the action that feels like an aside. Whereas the beautiful final confrontation in the early film takes place in an arena, a cemetery with the gunfighters taking centre stage, in Once Upon a Time in the West Harmonica and Frank face off in what is basically the back yard. Their confrontation travels back to history to explain what we have tantalisingly glimpsed, the back story that leads up to the gunfight, the psychological motivation. Harmonica is nothing except back story. Bronson wears the same costume as he did as a child as if he was frozen at the point of his trauma. And as Frank and Harmonica face off, the work continues, The outlaw Cheyenne dying from a gunshot received in a fight so marginal that we haven't even seen it takes refuge in the kitchen of his idealised mother figure and seeks to pass on some final advice. He has been shot by the new legal robber--Mr Choo Choo, the rail road man.
And yet as a political film the film never quite escapes the gravitational pull of its own sadness. The full is drenched in disappointment. Everything goes wrong: the men waiting to pick you up from the station are really there to kill you, and the wedding becomes a funeral. But no one is happy. Frank is a strangely reluctant murder 'Now you called me be name'. He dresses in a pin stripe suit and actually longs to sit behind a desk and be taken seriously as a business man. It is an ambition he fails at. He's not a business man, 'just a man' he admits. Even Mr Choo Choo the arch-villain is a sad figure, a man destroyed by polio and dying. His ambition is to see the ocean and he is played with wounded sympathy by Gabriele Ferzetti. We can't triumph in his demise. The irony is too cruel as he gasps in a muddy puddle and we hear the ocean of his disappointed vision.
Cheyenne is the clownish gun-slinger, his striped pantaloons and his relentless spiel, 'a thousand thousands'--'they call them millions'--but he's also a tragic figure, mourning a wasted life and seeing in Jill a mother figure, a figure of comfort and release. Morricone throughout the film foretells his death with the hopping score with its false comic ending that will eventually be his real tragic end.
Harmonica is not human enough to be disappointed. Charles Bronson plays him with a gnomic smile and the harmonica he plays is not music as such but simply the sound of long breaths being taken, anticipating once more the death rattle. His survival is moot. His identity was so wrapped up in his revenge that one feels, as he rides off, that he is taking Cheyenne's corpse down to hell with him. He doesn't seem to have anywhere else to go.
Claudia Cardinale's Jill is the first female character of any depth of complexity in a Leone Western. Her prostitute trying for reinvention is immediately disappointed, having resort to degrading her body once more purely to survive, but through the intervention of the sympathetic Cheyenne and Harmonica, she finally cracks a smile of triumph. She is given her role as universal mother, going out to the workers to minister to their needs, both with water and affection. She is the heart in a heartless world.
Barry Lyndon is Stanley Kubrick's tenth feature film. It came after a series of magnificent successes capped by the the trauma of A Clockwork Orange, a film that Kubrick withdrew from distribution in England after death threats. The handsome adaptation of William Thackery's lesser known novel was greeted with praise for its technical accomplishments, but the film did not enter into the intellectual conversation of the time the way his previous three films had, nor did it win over large audiences, who perhaps not surprisingly preferred the more bite-sized Jaws. Not being an overwhelming success for Kubrick was an abject failure. He might bravely recite the European awards the film picked up and the praise garnered from intellectuals at the time to Michel Ciment, but the fact of the matter was, compared to every film he'd made since Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon was something of a disappointment. For some, even for its supporters, Kubrick's film was slow, painterly, cold and featured a bland performance by Ryan O'Neal. And in retrospect it seemed the beginning of a decline. No film made afterwards, and each with a greater interval from the last, from The Shining to Eyes Wide Shut, would achieve unambiguous acclaim which he had once seemed to effortlessly win.
And yet, watching it again, I have changed my mind about this film almost totally. I had previously ranked it as a flawed masterpiece, now I'd ditch the qualifying adjective. First of all the film is funny. Although not the Tom Jones-esque romp the studio had been expecting and one of the posters seemed to suggest, the film is full of fantastic comic performances. Leonard Rossiter's clownish officer, Steven Berkoff's fingertip kissing fop, Patrick Magee's chevalier, the Reverend Runt, the highway robbers who pride themselves on their fairness and politeness. And the way money is mentioned all the way through the film stands as a wry running joke. From the courtship of Nora (by Quinn who's worth 15 hundred a year) through the soldier's bounty and the gambler's winnings to the final shot of Barry's annuity being signed over, money is a motivating factor for almost everything that is done. Even Bullingdon sees that he has let a fine fortune go to ruin, as well as having seen his mother dum de dum de dum.
In the context of the broader comedy, O'Neal's performance makes sense. He's the tragic magnet towards which all the comedy is attracted; the quiet centre around which all else revolves. Watch the scene in which Redmond Barry disguised as an officer has a romantic candlelit dinner with a young German girl who's taken him in. The two adults speaks lines that are obviously a conventional romantic prelude, but the baby gives a comic performance as it gets increasingly irritated at not being fed. The summary given by the narrator seems needlessly cynical and cruel. Barry is not a rake and the woman is obviously not a strumpet, but the narrator wants them back firmly in their respective boxes.
The progress of Redmond Barry is one step forward two steps back. The narrator, who seems at times to hold a grudge against Barry, repeatedly tells us that Barry decided from that time forth never to slip from the sphere of a gentleman, only for him to do exactly that. Even at his height, the title card that introduces Part Two of the film anticipates his decline. O'Neal plays Barry with a quietness all the way through. He has the eyes of a man who knows even at the height of his success that he is going to be found out. The look, for example, he gives George III who has dismissed him and all his efforts. He is an orphan, an outlaw, a deserter, a parvenu and, importantly, an Irishman. We never see him do anything particularly bad, except perhaps chastise Bullingdon his stepson, but in the thinking of the day his actions would not have been controversial. In fact, in the end he's remarkably generous in not killing Bullingdon.
A lovely detail in the duel is the fact that the only close up of a detail comes with the bullet being put in the barrel of the pistol, to reassure us that unlike the second duel we saw, this is not going to be a fix up fought with plugs of tow.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.