The final duel in Barry Lyndon is one of my favorite scenes in all of Kubrick’s work. You could say that the sequence actually starts in the previous scene where Bullingdon challenges Barry. This beautiful composition of a grieving Barry alludes to one of the “Marriage A-la-Mode” series paintings by William Hogarth, which BFI notes is referenced in the original novel. The dueling theme music begins when Bullingdon asks to speak with Barry Lyndon and carries over into the dueling sequence.
Leon Vitali: “The thing was that all these things plus the pace of how it was being moved, the rate of speed, and everything was so specific—it was so intricate because, as the arm raised, you had to zoom back and it all had to be in perfect synchronization with the turn and it had to be keeping track of me at the same time. And I’d never experienced that before.”
The scene in the script was more or less written as: “They duel” (stanleyandus). The book has a different ending so, they had to build the scene up out of nothing. Kubrick started filming the scene and wasn’t happy with it, so they went away and did some other work and then came back and restructured it (stanleyandus). All in all, it took about three weeks to shoot (stanleyandus).
The final duel scene starts with a close-up of a metal ball being loaded into a pistol because the last duel we saw turned out to be a hoax and there wasn’t a bullet in the gun.
“The plan of the duel was all arranged in order to get you out of the way.”
We now see that this duel is for real.
I think part of the brilliance of this scene is that we don’t really know who to root for. We’ve been following the story from Barry’s perspective the entire film and we sympathize with him being grief-stricken at the loss of his child. On the other hand, it is easy to see why Barry is viewed as a villain by Bullingdon—Barry is an opportunist who treats Bullingdon and Lady Lyndon poorly, Barry has spent much of their fortune, and he turned Bullingdon’s mother against him.
Tension is built through the mixture of steady ominous music and the mundane protocol of dueling—loading the guns, stating the rules, flipping a coin, etc. By its nature, the duel promises something extreme will happen and Kubrick makes us wait for it.
In an interview Kubrick told Michel Ciment: “The setting was a tithe barn which also happened to have a lot of pigeons resting in the rafters. We’ve seen many duels before in films, and I wanted to find a different and interesting way to present the scene. The sound of the pigeons added something to this, and, if it were a comedy, we could have had further evidence of the pigeons” (Ciment Interview).
According to Leon Vitali who played Lord Bullingdon, the pigeons were a problem and he and Kubrick were pretty much the only ones who didn’t get hit with pigeon droppings. People had to keep rushing in and wiping off the very expensive and often vintage costumes (stanleyandus).
Kubrick continues: “[You] tend to expect movie duels to be fought outdoors, possibly in a misty grove of trees at dawn. I thought the idea of placing the duel in a barn gave it an interesting difference. This idea came quite by accident when one of the location scouts returned with some photographs of the barn. I think it was Joyce who observed that accidents are the portals to discovery. Well, that’s certainly true in making films. And perhaps in much the same way, there is an aspect of film-making which can be compared to a sporting contest. You can start with a game plan but depending on where the ball bounces and where the other side happens to be, opportunities and problems arise which can only be effectively dealt with at that very moment” (Ciment Interview).
Another difference is in the way the duel is carried out—the past duels we’ve seen have both men shoot at the same time, but here, they take turns.
“Now gentlemen, to determine who will have first fire, I will toss a coin in the air.”
Kubrick wasn’t sure how to go about the scene, so he read through hundreds of books that detailed how people dueled during this time and built the scene out of those findings (stanleyandus). Culturally, taking turns displays an even more amplified absurdity of high society than we’ve had so far. Stand still while someone shoots at you. It’s likely that the coin flip itself could seal your fate. And here is the theme of the film. A lot of chance occurrences led Barry to becoming a gentleman and to this duel and the duel itself represents both fate and the absurdity of civilized society. You can make shooting at each other appear gentlemanly, but violence is violence.
Each of the three moments of gunfire represents a turn in the scene. Bullingdon’s first shot, a misfire, represents an act of fate. He might very well be killed because of a simple mistake. It is interesting that, while building tension, there is a surprise moment.
It reminds me of a Hitchcock principle employed in his film Sabotage. A boy is carrying a package on a bus that he doesn’t know has a time bomb in it. If the audience didn’t know this and the bomb went off, all we have is five seconds of surprise, but if we are told upfront about the bomb we will be in suspense throughout the sequence. What Kubrick has done, in essence, is shown us a time bomb on a bus, but before it goes off, a car crashes into the bus.
We are shocked, circumstances have changed, and still, the suspense persists.
“I’m sorry Lord Bullingdon, but you must first stand your ground and allow mister Lyndon his turn to fire.”
I think the trick here is that we don’t necessarily want to see either of them to get shot, so the suspense continues regardless of who is now at the receiving end of the pistol.
However, despite all of the coincidental events and choices that that led Barry down a variety of unknown paths and to this very situation, he seems to have finally received a concrete choice to which he knows the outcome: kill Lord Bullingdon and rid himself of an annoying adversary or spare his life and attempt to heal their relationship and his reputation. Barry chooses the latter and fires his pistol into the ground. Perhaps, Barry was now fully assuming the role of an honorable gentleman. However, Bullingdon decides to continue and wounds Barry’s leg. Vitali mentioned that it was very difficult to find the right way for Bullington to continue. The feeling was that Bullingdon could not get himself to leave the duel without a result (stanleyandus). Of course, this is true of the film as well.
The Barry Lyndon Blu-ray has 5.1 surround sound and the background music is on its own channels, so if we mute those channels, we can watch the scene without the music at all. Here it is easy to tell that, while the scene is still tense, the music forces the tone of the scene.
“What is your call, Lord Bullingdon?”
“What is your call, Lord Bullingdon?”
It also sustains the suspense throughout the mundane protocol.
Also, an interesting parallel was discovered by Rodney Hill in the fact that Leon Vitali, who plays Lord Bullingdon, ousts the impostor protagonist, Redmond Barry, from a wealthy and exclusive society and Vitali does the same to Tom Cruis’ character Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut. Vitali plays the man in the red cloak (Archives).
Thanks for watching! The question I have for you is: when do you think that Barry decided to fire into the ground? Was it after the misfire? After Bullingdon threw up out of fear? Or do you think he never would have fired at Bullingdon? Let me know in the comments. Also, be sure to check out my longer video on the cinematography of Barry Lyndon. And if you’re new here, please hit that subscribe button now because there are plenty more videos on the way for cinephiles like you! Thanks again for watching!