The Duellists (1977)

The Napoleonic Wars are hardly the place I’d’ve imagined the man who gave us Alien and Bladerunner would have started, but then, he has gone on to make period films like Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, so I’m probably coming from a bias of preference for the more fantastic (in the subject matter sense) films. Nor, particularly, did I expect to find Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel in a period piece, or in a Ridley Scott film in general. Admittedly, I have little experience with Carradine (having more with his brothers, and possibly even his father)–primarily his role in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, wherein he was simply “one of the Carradines.” I attempted to watch this film a few weeks ago whilst in a state of personal frustration and could not deal with the pacing or deliberate dialogue–sounding very faithful to the original writing of Joseph Conrad, which the film is allegedly (I’ve not read the story)* extremely faithful to. I set it aside, plowed through some television series and returned to it, from the beginning, tonight. Certainly what stands out in any and all Ridley Scott films I’ve seen is the cinematography and framing. Many of the duels take place with an entire horizon in view in background, the men duelling dwarfed by the world around them, open fields broken only by a single building in each case, and masses of trees in the distance, afternoon light causing a warm glow over scenes of intense fighting for survival against inarguable persistence and obsession. This was something I saw even when I did not have the patience for the film–the majesty of these images instantly reels you into the beauty of their own images.

Feraud (Keitel) is an officer in what became La Grand Armée, first seen duelling viciously with a civilian man near a mill, running him through after an intense build up of otherwise nearly absent music, creating a very thorough and palpable sense of dread at the approaching and inevitable violence. One of his superiors hears of this event and angrily asks for what other officers are familiar with Feraud. No one responds except D’Hubert (Carradine), who says he has met with him before. When D’Hubert requests Feraud leave the presence of Mme. de Lionne, he begins to see the probable reason he was the only one to respond to his superior’s orders–from the moment of his arrival, Feraud clearly has it in for him–not necessarily him in particular, but insisting that he begin another duel, trying to find any reason he possibly can for a duel with D’Hubert. Eventually, D’Hubert recognizes the futility of his refusal to fight and participates in a brief duel with Feraud. From here, Feraud holds on with unimaginable tenacity to the perceived insult of the more truly honourable D’Hubert, who attempts to avoid or sidestep the endless duel at whatever time he can, but again and again over the years–1806, 1812–they cross paths and Feraud inevitably points events toward a duel.

An unusually introspective film for Scott–again, in terms of what I have seen–this film follows very closely these two men and looks almost exclusively at their own varying interpretations of life and honour. Certainly, Alien was claustrophobic, and Blade Runner dealt with some of the tunnel visioned nature man sometimes exhibits, but none seemed to magnify the personalities, philosophies and lives of two men so fully. D’Hubert is a man of reason, quiet grace and calm, able-bodied both physically and socially, no matter what the state of, well, the state. Under Napoleon he is a well-regarded and decorated officer. After Napoleon’s defeat, he is a man of some standing and title, living on a magnificent estate with his sister. Feraud is a bulldog of personal insecurity, bottled yet unrestrained anger and obsessive pursuit of bettering himself by bettering others in combat. He will not look to reason, reacting purely through instinct and emotion, not acknowledging anything that conflicts with his desire for combat. It’s unusual, but definitely shows the spark that indeed opened wide the gates for Scott’s later work, with an absolutely stunning closing shot, leisurely paced but drawing the eyes to every detail in its staggering natural beauty and carefully orchestrated, albeit minor, movements.

*The Duel, also the inspiration behind Steven Spielberg’s film, which originally had a man duelling sabres with a diesel-powered 18-wheeler, this concept abandoned when they couldn’t determine how to make the truck hold any kind of sword, let alone nimbly fence with a sabre.

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