In the summer of 1973, the famed American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick – already regarded as a cinematic genius based on his steady output of stunning films, including "2001: A Space Odyssey," "A Clockwork Orange," "Dr. Strangelove" and "Lolita," among other classics -- arrived in the Republic of Ireland to begin work on a new movie based on the adventures of Barry Lyndon, a fictional 18th-century Irish soldier-adventurer-gambler-playboy-con-man created by English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
Kubrick, a notorious perfectionist who demanded absolute authenticity, spent months in Ireland filming in such well-known sites at Powerscourt House, Waterford Castle, Moorstown Castle, the Kells Priory and Dublin Castle. The movie company featured hundreds of extras all in period costume, including many military figures meticulously adorned in appropriate gear. One of the most memorable elements of the film (which gathered modest critical success upon release in 1975) had to do with its absence of artificial or electrical light – indeed, nearly all lighting in the movie came from either natural sources or candlelight, thereby creating some spectacularly beautiful images similar to paintings of that era.
But Kubrick’s masterpiece about an 18th-century Irish rascal (played by Ryan O'Neal) almost never got made – not because of actor salary demands or studio opposition. Rather, the Bronx-born film auteur came head to head with the grim Irish political realities of the 1970s, namely, the Irish Republican Army, then at the zenith of its militant activities. According to various accounts, including biographies of Kubrick, the IRA placed the director on a “hit list,” apparently because he was making a film depicting English soldiers on Irish soil. (Ireland was under British rule at the time the story takes place.)
According to Kubrick biographers, an agent of Britain's Special Branch, which monitors national security, called his production office at Ardmore, in County Waterford, to warn Kubrick that their intelligence determined he was a potential target of the IRA. When Kubrick became aware that his life was suddenly in grave danger -- around January 1974 – he departed Ireland for England by taking a ferry from the port of Dun Laoghaire, just outside Dublin. Within just two days, the entire film production crew followed his exit out of the country. (Kubrick had permanently moved to England from New York in the early 1960s.)
Not only was Kubrick terrified of the kind of violence perpetrated by the IRA (over the prior few years, the militant group had killed or wounded dozens of people in both Ireland and Britain), but he had already received threats in Britain following the release of his prior film, "Clockwork Orange," which prompted him to withdraw that movie from circulation in the United Kingdom (ironically, over objections to its explicit violence). In fact, Kubrick had been blamed for a number of copy-cat murders in England that were allegedly inspired by the "ultraviolence" in "Clockwork Orange."
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In the documentary "Castles, Candles and Kubrick" by journalist Pavel Barter, it was revealed that the IRA may have already planted some bombs on some of the film locales for "Barry Lyndon." “Everyone turned up to the set and asked ‘where is our director?’” Barter told Irish media. “It was a sudden exit, but it was probably necessary.” After Kubrick’s departure, he continued filming in England and Germany.
Geoffrey Cocks, a professor of history at Albion College in Michigan and an expert on Kubrick and his films, told International Business Times that "Barry Lyndon's" early scenes of British military units on parade and in bivouac were shot in Ireland and it was possibly these scenes in particular that raised the ire of the IRA. “The early 1970s were a time of great nationalist unrest in Ireland ever since the Bloody Sunday [massacre] in Londonderry [Northern Ireland] in January 1972,” he said. “So when Kubrick began filming in Ireland… he was walking into a highly fraught situation. Ironically, he had moved filming to Ireland partly in response to a threat he had received from unidentified sources in England.” Cocks also suggested that these death threats likely confirmed the Jewish Kubrick's “trepidation about the world, which stemmed from his deep reading and observation of a world of violence and war.”
Robert Kolker, an adjunct professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, however, noted that in a biography of Kubrick by John Baxter, the IRA may have threatened the director not over "Barry Lyndon" itself, but rather in connection with the continuing fallout from "Clockwork Orange." In any case, the story of Kubrick’s departure from Ireland may also have exacerbated the perception of his reclusiveness – something both Cocks and Kolker believe is exaggerated.
“Kubrick did not enjoy the celebrity chumminess of Hollywood since he was above all an artist who wanted his films to say something about the world,” Cocks said. “So he preferred rural England, where his success as an artist who could at the same time fill theater seats and allowed him the time to read and research topics that he would then painstakingly craft into unique and visually powerful films.”
After the 1975 release of "Barry Lyndon," Kubrick would release only three more films over the remaining quarter-century of his life: "The Shining" (1980), "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) and "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999). He never filmed in Ireland again.