Shout! Factory // 1977 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 15th, 2013
Fencing is a science. Loving is a passion. Dueling is an obsession.
"We came here to kill each other. Any ground is suitable for that."
Our story begins in France during the early part of the 19th Century. It is the era of Napoleon; a time of uneasy class conflict and global warfare. A hot-headed military officer named Feraud (Harvey Keitel, Mean Streets) has recently been causing trouble by participating in some bloody public duels, so a genteel officer named D'Hubert (Keith Carradine, Nashville) is sent to inform Feraud that the military disapproves of his actions. Enraged that anyone would favor modern military conventions over the nobility of dueling, Feraud immediately challenges D'Hubert to a duel. It ends in bloody fashion, but both parties survive. As time passes and France goes through a number of major shifts, D'Hubert and Feraud find themselves clashing again and again. Who will win this lifelong feud?
Director Ridley Scott won great fame for his dark portraits of the future in Alien and Blade Runner, but he began his career with a riveting journey to the past in The Duellists. It remains one of the most unfairly overlooked films of the director's career, a superbly-crafted epic that successfully uses two memorable characters to serve as representatives of a large-scale historical class conflict. It's particularly tremendous as a directorial debut, as the film compares favorably to a sizable chunk of Scott's impressive (though inconsistent) filmography.
Nearly every Scott movie (regardless of quality in other areas) is astonishing on a visual level, and this one is no exception. There are countless individual shots littered throughout the film that look like living paintings; a wide shot of D'Hubert and Feraud stalking each other in the woods is a particularly brilliant composition. The costume design is equally impressive, taking us through a variety of subtle (and a few not-so-subtle) shifts in style over the course of the film's fifteen-year time frame. It's a simple, character-driven film, but it's also an immensely ambitious one on many technical levels.
The characters are well-scripted and well-played. Carradine has the more fully-formed role; he's a man who leans towards peace but whose code of honor will not permit him to dismiss Feraud's insistence on dueling over and over again. Carradine successfully conveys the character's quiet moral anguish and prevents us from viewing him as a fool who can't avoid needless fights. Keitel's character is more enigmatic; a single-minded man whose incessant indignation is unexplained. Why don't know why Feraud is so quick to resort to violence, but we do know that he's found a way to convince himself that this is an honorable way of life. Both men regard themselves as men of honor, and yet both are constantly locked in childish conflict. Keitel impresses by fusing the character's inner fire with a relatively quiet exterior; it's simultaneously an intense and subtle piece of acting. Small but crucial supporting turns from Albert Finney (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), Edward Fox (The Day of the Jackal) and Tom Conti (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) are also excellent.
The Duellists does differ from much of Scott's filmography in its leanness; it's actually one of the shortest films of his career (topped only by Legend). There's not a wasted scene or a useless subplot to be found. Despite the initially languid pace, the movie's snapshots of each year it depicts are spare and precise. It's also relatively free of the sort of elaborate special effects work Scott has leaned on so frequently, as the most exhilarating sights are comprised of natural scenery and elegantly-staged scenes of swordplay (some of the best and most convincing you'll find this side of Rob Roy).
The Duellists (Blu-ray) has received an exceptional 1080p/1.85:1 transfer (oddly mislabeled as 2.35:1 on the Blu-ray packaging -- the film has always been in 1.85:1, so it hasn't been cropped) that offers strong detail throughout. The image looks a little soft at times, though part of that is due to the manner in which the film was shot. Flesh tones are warm and natural and there's a pleasing layer of moderate grain throughout. Darker scenes benefit from shadow delineation, as well. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is quite good, as all of the dialogue is clean and the sound design has been reasonably well-preserved considering the film's age. Howard Blake's memorable score (which turns stirringly thunderous during the film's end credits) sounds particularly robust. Most of the supplements from the previous DVD release have been recycled, including an audio commentary with Scott, an isolated score track with commentary by Blake, a featurette in which Scott discusses the film with fellow director Kevin Reynolds, a brand-new interview with Keith Carradine and a trailer.
The Duellists is a strong historical drama boasting impressively assured direction, nuanced performances and exceptional technical virtues. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1977
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Isolated Score