The film is Barry Lyndon and it is a film of rare beauty, a film that is methodically paced but never boring. A film that places Ryan O'Neal of all people, in the role of Redmond Barry, an Irish adventurer, societal manipulator and, eventually, broken down gamester. Ryan O'Neal fills the role with a naiveté that eventually turns to self-serving calculation but through it all, Redmond Barry seems more human than anyone he encounters, save his friend and comrade in arms, Captain Grogan.
For this edition of Just a Moment we will focus on one of the most extraordinarily paced and photographed sequences in cinema history, the famous duel scene between Redmond Barry, now Barry Lyndon, and his stepson, Lord Bullingdon.
The scene, accompanied by a manipulated version of Handel's Sarabande, takes place in a barn, not a pasture or meadow as the first duel in the film. Pigeons fly across the rafters and send dust particles scattering into the light. In the previous scene Lord Bullingdon has demanded satisfaction from a tired, broken down Lyndon.
The scene begins with a shot of a pistol being loaded.
We are then shown the gentlemen who have gathered to officiate the duel and relay the rules to the dueling parties. Throughout the scene the mood is so restrained that the tension builds effortlessly as we await the outcome. That is to say, Kubrick provides no flashy photography, no quick edits, no overpowering musical cues. He lets the duel play itself out in real time allowing us, the viewers, to feel as if we are present at a real duel with people we have come to know well.
As the coin toss is called we can already notice one striking difference between Lord Bullingdon and everyone else: He is overwhelmingly nervous. His body quivers and shakes in stark contrast to the business-like composure of the surrounding gentlemen, including Lyndon.
Bullingdon wins the toss and gets first shot. He is escorted to his position as we get to see the interior of the barn in long shot for the first time.
Behind the sound of drums we here the cooing of pigeons and the fluttering of their wings throughout the scene. Again, a sense of a real time and place pervades the scene.
Lyndon then takes his mark and Lord Bullingdon is told to cock his pistol to ready himself for the first fire. But something unexpected happens. Because of his nervousness, he misfires into the ground while cocking.
It is explained to him in his horror that this counts as his first shot and that he must now stand his position while Lyndon takes his first shot. Bullingdon is now overwhelmed by fear and panic and runs to the corner of the barn to throw up. As he returns and re-takes his position Barry Lyndon once again shows his humanity. Throughout the film Lyndon has performed actions that go against his immediate best interests: When faced with an opportunity to let a berating and cruel commanding officer perish in fire, he saves him instead. When faced with a chance for advancement in the military by acting as a spy he reveals himself to his mark. In every situation his need for humanity and kindness has paid off. Here, for the first time, it will fail him.
As Lord Bullingdon stands ready to receive fire, Lyndon aims his gun down and, in an act of generosity unknown to someone like Lord Bullingdon, fires into the ground.
The officiating gentlemen are surprised and move to confer with each other. It is asked of Lord Bullingdon if he has now received his satisfaction. In a stunning act of selfishness and pettiness, he replies no, he has not received his satisfaction. Barry Lyndon is restrained but can barely believe what he is hearing. His acts of humanity and kindness have always gone his way but now they are mocked. Lyndon's face reveals a man stunned by and resigned to his circumstances at the same time.
Lord Bullingdon now readies himself for his seconds.
He trembles as he pulls the trigger and hits his mark, in the leg. His face shows relief and almost (?) joy as the duel is over and he has won.
The scene ends with Lyndon writhing about in pain and anguish as he is attended to by the officiating gentlemen.
It is a scene that last 8 minutes and 50 seconds. In that span, time seems to stand still. In this scene Kubrick does as good a job as anyone in the history of cinema at portraying a moment in real time that draws all of its power from not being rushed or artificially heightened by music that provides emotional cues or quick edits that direct our attention to an inevitable climax.
Everything we have learned about these two men is portrayed before our eyes unapologetically in this scene. We have had reason to question Barry's motives throughout the film. He has done things that were selfish and unethical at times but one feels they were done out of rashness and haste more than anything else. Conversely Lord Bullingdon has had cause for our sympathy as he has been displaced from the mother he loves and feels that Barry is using her for his own gain. But there is something about Barry that we admire and something about Bullingdon that we mistrust.
In this scene, their characters arrive at their final reckoning and we understand them finally and completely. Barry has done wrong. He has used and shamed Lord Bullingdon's mother. But by shooting into the ground when he has a chance to end the duel by shooting Lord Bullingdon instead he shows that he is capable of understanding his mistakes and atoning for them. He confirms what we have thought about him from the beginning: He is prone to mistakes and misguided actions but has the humanity to accept them and if possible, correct them.
Lord Bullingdon on the other hand shows us that he does not understand honor in any reasonable way outside of shallow displays such as duels to gain satisfaction. We may have had sympathy for him at times but his refusal to accept Barry's gesture of firing into the ground as a clear acknowledgement of his wrongs and, in some ways, an apology tells us that Lord Bullingdon is a small petty man.
As the film ends, Lord Bullingdon presides over his mother signing over money for Barry as a part of an agreement for Barry to leave. Barry himself is now an amputee having lost the leg Lord Bullingdon shot. Lord Bullingdon will live the rest of his life inside a body intact, but one wracked with self-doubt and cowardice. Barry Lyndon will travel to the states and live out his life as a travelling gamester. He may have lost his leg, but unlike Lord Bullingdon, he is clearly a man in full.
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