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The Duellists

The Duellists(1978)

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teaser The Duellists (1978)

"The duelist demands satisfaction. Honor for him is an appetite."

The debut feature by Ridley Scott begins in 1800, "the year Napoleon became ruler of France," with an early morning duel in a dewy green meadow. Two men armed with rapiers battle furiously in this bucolic scene until the stronger and more intent of the two, French military officer Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), runs his opponent through and with callous disregard for his condition busies himself with cleaning the blood from his blade and tidying his uniform. In the beauty of this Eden surrounded by emerald forests and seeped in primordial mist, this man has brought senseless violence under guise of a battle for "honor." It won't be the last time.

When fellow officer Armond D'Hubert (Keith Carradine) is sent by their commanding officer to track him down for the offense (his opponent happened to be the nephew of the local mayor), Feraud works himself up to a state of offense. Once again he issues a challenge and attacks with a fury that is clearly driven by something more than the vaguely defined honor of Napoleon's good name. You could say the duel ends inconclusively, but in fact it continues over the next fifteen years as Feraud continues to track down D'Hubert and take him over pistols and sabers and swinging swords from horseback, ostensibly until one of them is dead.

That is essentially the story of The Duellists (1977), based on a story by Joseph Conrad. Feraud transforms a minor offense (if indeed there was any) into an obsessive quest to best this man who has not just survived these bouts but injured him in front of witnesses, an odyssey lacking any obvious motivation. D'Hubert is clearly the more rational and centered of the two men yet is trapped by his own devotion to the chivalric traditions of conduct, which demands no challenge goes unmet, no matter how groundless. "It is the only honorable thing to do," he offers by way of explanation, but that's before Feraud's obsessive campaign stretches into years and the roots of any perceived injury are long forgotten or simply conflated into slanderous lies designed to justify the irrational behavior.

While The Duellists is Ridley Scott's first feature, he had over twenty years experience behind the camera in short form filmmaking. He made his debut with the student film Boy and Bicycle in 1965 and went on to direct episodic television and form his own commercial production company with his brother, Tony Scott. By 1977 he had, by his own rough count, "made about 2,000 commercials" and was eager to make the leap into features. Having already seen a handful of feature projects collapse, he turned to stories in the public domain and found this story by Conrad, a sketch that was inspired by a true story. With a budget of under $1 million (tiny for a period piece, even by 1977 standards), Scott put his production acumen to work to suggest a scope he couldn't actually show on screen and created an astoundingly lush, visually sumptuous canvas. Interiors are bathed in the golden light of candlelight and nostalgia, like a period painting in motion, while exteriors are wrapped in fog and mist. "People don't realize how overcast can help," Scott explained in an interview years later. "That's why films shot in England, Ireland or Scotland look so beautiful. It's raining all the time."

With no budget to build sets, Scott shot The Duellists completely on location in France, England and the Scottish Highlands. He scouted existing structures for his sets and turned countrysides into verdant visions of the past as viewed through the haze of idealization. With no budget for an army of extras, battle scenes were suggested in isolated details - a few men in uniform seen from the inside of an officer's tent in the field, a dead soldier frozen in the winter of Napoleon's failed Russian campaign - and street scenes carefully blocked to show mere slivers of the city where a few extras could stand in for the bustling crowds. New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised it as a film of "almost indescribable beauty, of landscapes at dawn, of over-crowded, murky interiors, of underlit hallways and brilliantly sunlit gardens."

Carradine and Keitel were not Scott's first choices for the leads - he originally had wanted Michael York and Oliver Reed (veteran swashbucklers from the Three Musketeers films) - but settled on the American actors as a compromise with Paramount in exchange for financing. Though they initially appear out of place in the period trappings and continental atmosphere, the actors threw themselves into the roles and, according to Scott, even insisted upon using real sabers for the sword duels, dangerous weapons even when properly handled. The swords were hooked up with batteries to add dramatic sparks to the clashing blades.

Carradine gives D'Hubert a warmth and humanity that slowly establishes his identity outside of the military, in sharp contrast to Keitel's Feraud. Under an impeccably groomed and majestically shaped mustache and braided locks swinging with every lunge and parry, Feraud is all curt manner and simmering intensity, which is as much as we ever know of this man. Scott surrounded them with a fine supporting cast of veteran British actors, including brief but memorable appearances by Edward Fox, Robert Stephens, Tom Conti and Albert Finney. Cristina Raines, who plays the beautiful young Adele, the woman with whom D'Hubert falls in love, had quite memorably appeared as Carradine's lover just the year before in Nashville (1975).

The Duellists was not a commercial hit for Scott but it did earn him glowing reviews and the award for "Best First Work" at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. It also showcased his eye for images and his talent for painting scenes with a camera. On the strength of this film, he was hired to direct a modest little sci-fi thriller that he turned into a smash hit: Alien (1979). The rest is film history.

Producer: David Puttnam
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Gerald Vaughan-Hughes; Joseph Conrad (story "The Duel")
Cinematography: Frank Tidy
Art Direction: Bryan Graves
Music: Howard Blake
Film Editing: Pamela Power
Cast: Keith Carradine (D'Hubert), Harvey Keitel (Feraud), Albert Finney (Fouche), Edward Fox (Colonel), Cristina Raines (Adele), Robert Stephens (Gen. Treillard), Tom Conti (Dr. Jacquin), John McEnery (Chevalier), Diana Quick (Laura), Alun Armstrong (Lacourbe), Maurice Colbourne (Second), Gay Hamilton (Maid).
C-102m. Letterboxed.

by Sean Axmaker

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