THE DUELLISTS (1977)
Ridley Scott’s directoral debut is the story of two French officers, d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Feraud (Harvey Keitel), who engage in a decades long conflict with each other over the coarse of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, which was itself inspired by a true story. The Duellists won the Best Debut Film prize at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.
I find the story itself interesting: The conflict begins when d’Hubert is ordered to retrieve Feraud, since Feraud has been caused trouble for the military by dueling with a politician’s relative. Feraud considers himself slighted by d’Hubert, for seemingly no other reason than d’Hubert being the one sent to do the job, and essentially forces him to duel. d’Hubert wins, narrowly. But Feraud is unsatisfied. He will continue to challenge d’Hubert to duel after duel, until one of them is dead.
If all of that sounds fairly petty and stupid, I think that’s the point. Whether Ridley is is using their conflict as a metaphor for war, or just as an extreme example of how things can go wrong between two people, the message seems clear; Sometimes you just gotta let that shit go. A particularly interesting message, considering that Ridley grew up the son of a lifelong British officer. Mixed feelings about the nature of armed conflict? This will come up again and again in Ridley’s oeuvre. It’s very much a first movie message; Deep, if perhaps a bit heavy handed.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is very impressive. The photography, by Frank Tidy (who went on to do a bunch of crap, like Stop, Or My Mom Will Shoot), is superb. Based on Ridley Scott’s background in art history, and his consistency in the look of his films, I’m guessing that he takes a fairly active hand in the cinematography, much like Stanley Kubrick. And that’s not the only Kubrickian aspect of this film; It’s impossible to watch this without thinking of Barry Lyndon, which came out just two years before this. The narration, the titles, and especially the “natural” lighting, are all very much Lyndon.
The main faults that I find with the film are in the script and the acting. I can understand why you wouldn’t want everyone speaking in french accents, but here we have a strange mixture of french, british, and . . . Harvey Keitel. A little consistency would have perhaps been in order. You’ve got to be very careful with period dialogue, since a too ernest delivery can come off as extremely hokey, as is often the case in this film (And future Ridley works. Cough! Gladiator! Cough!).
Overall, I enjoyed the film, but I understand why it isn’t often talked about in film circles. I would recommend it mostly to fans of the Napoleonic time period, and leasurely paced stories about honor and vengeance.
7 out of 10