THE DUELLISTS (1977)

  • Director: Ridley Scott
  • Writers: Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, based on The Duel by Joseph Conrad
  • Starring: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney, Robert Stephens, Tim Conti, Edward Fox, Cristina Raines, Diana Quick, and Stacy Keach
  • Accolades: Shown at 1977 Cannes Film Festival
  • Where to Watch:  Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

This weekend the latest movie from director Ridley Scott hits American movie theaters, called The Last Duel. This movie is set in medieval France, is supposedly based on a somewhat true story from history, and stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as dudes from medieval times. This might seem anachronous, given that, as one Twitter user I saw once said, Ben Affleck’s “face looks like it knows what a cell phone is.” Those reviews I have seen of the movie have actually been quite positive, so I’m curious to see it. Anyway, I didn’t know until doing research for some previous articles on this site that Ridley Scott’s debut feature was actually called The Duellists, and though I knew nothing about it I thought it might be interesting to cover in light of The Last Duel. The thing is, the similarities are actually much more than I had anticipated. Both movies are costume-heavy period pieces set in historical France, both obviously involve duels, both (at least appear to) involve heavy emphasis on some version of what we would today call “toxic masculinity” as a theme, and both make the weird choice to cast very American leads in a European period piece.

In this case, the two male leads are played by Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, who are two French officers before, during, and after the Napoleonic Wars. Neither Carradine nor Keitel makes any attempt at any kind of accent, which I would be fine with except that every single other person in the movie is doing either some sort of British accent or a semi-French accent. It is very inconsistent, is what I’m saying. Whether that sort of thing is important to you or not will likely greatly affect your enjoyment of this movie. Making things somewhat sillier is the apparently very detailed research this production did on the actual clothing of the various periods depicted, many of which look very silly when worn by Harvey Keitel. In the first section of the movie, all the guys have two braids that hang down over their faces, which I guess was a real thing from history(?) but in context just makes the actors look like the aliens from Battlefield Earth

I had a really great time with The Duellists, but I’m not sure that actually translates to this actually being a good movie. On a basic level, it’s a really good concept for a movie, and the directors, actors, etc., neither hit it out of the park or completely ruin things. The film is based on a novella by Joseph Conrad (whose Heart of Darkness you were probably forced to read in high school), which was in turn apparently loosely based on the story of two actual Napoleonic officers. Carradine plays “d’Hubert,” an officer sent by his commander (Robert Stephens) in 1800 Strasbourg to tell “Feraud” (Keitel) that he has to report for arrest because of nearly killing the Mayor’s nephew that morning.m in a duel. The nephew, incidentally, is played in the opening duel by Matthew Guinness, son of Alec Guinness. Feraud, out of sheer force of the chip on his shoulder, spins this into some sort of vague personal insult, and the two of them end up duelling each other with swords. This duel ends inconclusively (Feraud gets slashed on the arm, trips going backward and knocks himself unconscious), which leads to the issue of honor remaining unsettled.

The rest of the movie takes place over 16 years of European history, but this history is entirely a backdrop to d’Hubert and Feraud, who keep meeting up and duelling over and over in different times and places, sometimes with different weapons (one of the duels is on horseback, the final one with pistols). Feraud seems obsessed with the thing, continually pursuing d’Hubert and saying things that are not remotely true in order to get d’Hubert to fight him more. Meanwhile, d’Hubert keeps insisting to all of his friends and family that he hates all this fighting, but somehow feels trapped by his take on “honor” so that he has to keep doing it. One thing the movie does fairly well is make clear that this isn’t a case of these guys being trapped by societal strictures into this bind or something, it’s entirely their individual choices to keep doing this. Everyone d’Hubert knows thinks it’s nuts that this apparently otherwise normal, semi-competent guy keeps fighting duels with the same guy over and over, but he never acts as if he has any choice in the matter. The complexity this might bring is alleviated somewhat by the fact that Feraud is never anything other than an asshole.

The other obvious comparison for The Duellists, certainly at the time of its release, is Barry Lyndon, which was released two years earlier, is also set in the Napoleonic Wars, and also has multiple duels as important plot points. Certainly Scott seems to have taken inspiration from Kubrick visually, down to doing the most famous bit from Barry Lyndon where the camera starts close up on an object and then just keeps pulling back for the whole scene, multiple times. It is also true that Barry Lyndon is probably the reason somebody paid a bunch of money to make this movie in the first place. But it is also a very different movie with a very different tone, about different stuff. Just as you could easily make this story into either a great movie or a terrible movie, obviously the same stylistic bones can be used for very different types of movies.

Scott was born and grew up in northern England, eventually becoming a successful director of TV commercials in the UK during the 1970s. He had apparently originally wanted to make a movie about the the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, but couldn’t get the funding, so, ever the realist from a production standpoint, Scott threw himself into a new project he could get funded. He has since helmed a long series of hits in various popular genres, including Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down, among many other efforts, some of which are much better remembered than others. His brother, Tony Scott, also worked as a director of both commercials and features, and three of Ridley Scott’s children have also made careers as commercial directors for the production company the two brothers have founded. He has become well known in the film industry for persistently coming in on time and under budget, something much appreciated by Hollywood types. This acuity can at least partly be attributed to his habit of shooting the same scene with several cameras simultaneously, which requires a lot of technical know-how up front but can greatly reduce the number of total time-consuming “set-ups” needed.

There are a bunch of reasons The Duellists does not reside among the top tier of Scott’s movies, but I do wonder whether it would be received differently today in a time when semi-prestige period pieces about THEMES are at least a little bit thinner on the ground. The Last Duel has been the subject of much interest in the film community, when its basic pieces seem not dissimilar from The Duellists, a movie I have a feeling most people forget existed. This might partly be attributed to Damon and Affleck being different levels of cultural icons than Carradine and Keitel, even in 1977. But I am also the exact sort of person who would be interested in either of these movies, so I did enjoy The Duellists, and think it’s far more worth watching than its status as a movie you have probably never heard of would suggest.

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