After establishing himself as a formidable director of television commercials, Ridley Scott made the leap to feature filmmaking with this handsome adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story titled “The Duel,” which was based on real people who existed in Napoleonic France. A small-scale drama exploring huge themes of honor, military conduct, nationalism, and personal obsession, the movie boasts gorgeous costuming and production design, impressively evoking early 19th-century Europe even though the film was made for less than $1 million. (In fact, budget constraints probably added to the verisimilitude, because Scott shot the movie on existing locations instead of sets.) From start to finish, The Duellists offers a feast of artful images, with Scott emulating the lighting style of 19th-century paintings and treating every shot as an opportunity to demonstrate his gifts for pictorial composition. Clearly, Scott’s visual acumen impressed many, since the picture won the Best Debut Film at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival and helped Scott secure his career-making job as the director of Alien (1979). Alas, for all its elegance, The Duellists is a hopelessly cold film. The motivations of the characters are dramatized well enough, but human feeling is smothered by meticulous imagery—at this point in his career, Scott seemingly lacked the skills needed to extract passion from his players.
In his defense, the movie was badly miscast. Originally set to star Oliver Reed and Michael York, the picture instead features Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. Both actors are so inherently modern (and so inherently American) that they seem like they’re playing dress-up. Another problem is that the story is an intellectual exercise rather than a proper drama. When the movie begins, savage French officer Feraud (Keitel) skewers an aristocratic opponent in a duel. Another officer, d’Hubert (Carradine), is sent to arrest Feraud, but Feraud—who is obsessed with dueling—invents a slight as pretense for drawing d’Hubert into a fight. And so begins decades of on-again/off-again combat between the men, with their battles ending in draws until a peculiar resolution puts an end to their lifelong quarrel. Scott captures the surfaces of this strange story, but never the inner lives of the characters, so the question underlying the narrative—asking why one man seeks to foment conflict while the other seeks to resolve it—receives only perfunctory attention. As a result, The Duellists is quite dull and repetitive, which is a shame, since it’s easy to imagine a full-blooded version of the same material casting a powerful spell. Nonetheless, The Duellists is interesting to watch as the opening act of a great directorial career, and it holds many delights for fans of pictorial splendor.
The Duellists: FUNKY