The Duellists (1977): A thrilling tale of honour and obsession

While he may not have exclusively knocked it out of the park in every instance, the name of legendary director Ridley Scott has rightfully become synonymous with game-changing greatness. Unforgettably revolutionising both the horror and science fiction genres with 1979’s Alien, essentially a perfectly executed haunted house film taking place on a spaceship, Scott continued to blow the socks off of critics and audiences alike. Blade Runner is virtually impossible to usurp as the king of dystopian sci-fi pictures, inductees still having their minds blown by its imagery and scope at this very moment, and it would be utterly remiss not to mention Gladiator taking the swords-and-sandals epic to its apex destination, as Black Hawk Down did with the war film. Outside of these grand, serious-minded masterworks, Scott has also proven a dab-hand when it comes to comedy (Thelma & Louise), whimsical dark fantasy (Legend) and even action-packed bubblegum (Black Rain).

Granted, the likes of Hannibal, Prometheus and The Counselor leave a generous amount to be desired (how the last film could prove to be so unengaging with the talent behind it, I’ve no idea whatsoever), and Exodus: Gods and Kings alongside Alien: Covenant constitute an alarmingly uncharacteristic realm of stinkiness but, ultimately, Scott will forever be associated with his fantastic specimens even if they’re fewer in frequency than his pretty good/average/rubbish endeavours. His feature-length debut, The Duellists, is a stunning slice of cinema that is uniformly solid despite being an inaugural venture, and it’s quite lamentable that it isn’t discussed to the same degree as the aforementioned opuses because it bloody well deserves it.

The film opens in France’s Strasbourg region in the year 1800. Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), a proud and aggressive hussar in the French Army, is first seen on a wintry and desolate field engaged in a messy, wince-inducing sword duel with the nephew of Strasbourg’s mayor. A temperamental narcissist with a psychopathically zealous loyalty to his regiment and Napoleon Bonaparte, Feraud is reputed for reacting with lethal indignation towards any perceived slight against either, regardless of how trivial or ambiguous. The duel concludes with Feraud brutally ramming his blade into his opponent’s chest, the latter miraculously surviving. Nevertheless, the incident enrages the mayor and subsequently incurs the wrathful embarrassment of Feraud’s superiors.

Wishing to keep the apple cart stable by making an example out of Feraud, Brigadier-General Treillard (Robert Stephens) orders another hussar, Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) to locate Feraud and escort him to his quarters, where he will remain under house arrest until further notice. In contrast to Feraud, d’Hubert is a level-headed and gentlemanly professional who observes decorum at all times, committing to this duty as he would any other. Tracking Feraud down at the home of Madame de Lionne (Jenny Runacre), a local aristocrat and object of Feraud’s affections, d’Hubert informs him of Treillard’s orders in a straightforward and courteous manner.

Incredulous as to why Treillard would order such a punishment in response to (in his mind) a perfectly acceptable defence of his honour, Feraud is incensed by d’Hubert’s ‘insulting’ him. Despite d’Hubert’s insistence that he is a mere messenger and intended no offence, Feraud displays his trademark hot-headed arrogance by citing the unforgivable nature of disturbing him whilst in Lionne’s company and inquiring if d’Hubert would ‘let them spit upon Napoleon Bonaparte’. The latter’s attempts to calm Feraud are unsuccessful and, once they have reached his quarters, the irascible duel-addict challenges d’Hubert in a fight to the death. Neither man could envisage that this seemingly insignificant matter will mutate into an all-encompassing obsession for the next 15 years, the Napoleonic Wars seeing them duke it out with swords and guns on an international scale.

Based on Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story The Duel, in turn inspired by the true-life rivalry between French soldiers François Fournier-Sarlovèze and Pierre Dupont de l’Étang, The Duellists may be visually influenced by and thematically similar to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, but I wholeheartedly find this film to be the more engaging and exciting picture, packing a remarkable punch in its 1hr 40-minute handling of a story that many directors would elect to draw out over several hours (I can assure you that I’m not trying to insult Lyndon, it’s a wonderful movie). Far from being just an imagery-rich and visceral war/action drama, it contains subtle yet substantive commentary on social distinctions and motivations in the France of the time.

Similarly to his real-life counterpart, the character of Feraud is an extreme ideologue who worships Bonaparte and sees himself as a gatekeeper of patriotism, to the extent that he naturally wishes to murder anyone who dares call his integrity and/or alliances into question. A man born into modest standing, Feraud essentially owes his military career to Napoleon and the revolutionary upheaval that preceded him, and is ultimately representative of the revolutionary government’s ultra-aggressive, zero-tolerance attitude towards its declared enemies.

The character of d’Hubert, whose name signifies a noble background, conversely does not think much of Napoleon one way or the other, and it is this ambivalence, in conjunction with the nonchalance that he delivers the initial message to Feraud, that ignites the latter’s vehement fixation with killing him. In Feraud’s mind, he is being a good Frenchman and fighting for the ideals of the Emperor against a pompous aristocrat who entered the military for the promotions and nothing else. As a viewer, we know just how ostensible this is, Feraud’s pursuit of d’Hubert (who doesn’t care for the perpetual enmity) amounting to little more than sinister predation that feeds his unpleasant ego.

The work of cinematographer Frank Tidy earned him a BAFTA nomination and, although he regrettably didn’t take home the gold, the consideration is self-evident. Capturing the rural locales of France, England and Scotland in a way that evokes grand paintings of the period therein, the camerawork cements an immersive and palpable atmosphere where you can effectively feel the deathly cold of Russia as Napoleon’s forces take on the Cossacks and the inviting warmth of a hot bath as poor d’Hubert tends to his wounds or sits with his lady beside a crackling fireplace.

Howard Blake’s appropriately haunting classical score complements the film’s look beautifully, never allowing you to forget that these are ultimately pointless and brutish proceedings even if they deftly tap into our adrenal glands. The consultancy of esteemed military historian Richard Holmes makes for an accurate depiction of the Grande Armée‘s uniforms and culture, lauded fight choreographer William Hobbs furnishing the realism with recreations of legitimate 19th-century fencing techniques. The contemplative nature of the film’s landscape shots are masterfully juxtaposed with a hand-held approach to the duelling sequences, capturing the uncomfortable and chaotic nature of these kinds of skirmishes. It’s highly impressive and eminently watchable but it’s far from pretty, which is precisely the point.

Keitel and Carradine may seem like peculiar casting choices on the surface, but they easily provide some of the best work of their careers here, respectively drawing our sympathies as the harried man of upstanding and forgiving character and our anger as the cruelly harassing and egomaniacal brute. I certainly don’t agree with David Ansen’s assertion that the two are ‘perversely miscast’, they manner their natural idiosyncrasies accordingly (I’m not sure if he was also having a dig at the film being English-language, but there’s a laundry list of epics to throw away if we’re going to split hairs over that) and make the action believable as hell. It remains one of Scott’s greatest movies, a veritable triumph that I watch at least once a year. I can assure you that you should take up the same habit.

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