Our review of The Duellists (Blu-ray), published January 15th, 2013, is also available.
General Feraud has made occasional attempts to kill me. That does not give him the right to claim my acquaintance.
The Duellists, adapted from the short story "The Duel," by Joseph Conrad, was the feature film debut of a young director named Ridley Scott. It earned Scott a Special Jury Prize for "Best First Work" at Cannes in 1977.
Facts of the Case
It is the era of Napoleon, and France is involved in conflicts on all sides, without and within. The monarchy may be gone, but there is still a strong class distinction between the old, genteel aristocracy and the new, boisterous men of the people who have risen to new positions of power. This tension is evident in the army, as demonstrated by two young, upcoming cavalry officers: the genteel, reserved Lieutenant Armand D'Hubert (Keith Carradine) and the belligerent, ferocious Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel). Feraud, despite being one of the new guard, has embraced certain old-fashioned romantic ideals. He has adopted a rigid, outdated concept of personal honor that treats the smallest slight, whether real or perceived, as a grave insult. He has also become a fierce devotee of dueling as the only appropriate way to expiate such insults. Ironically, although he a product of the aristocratic society that gave birth to such romantic notions of honor, D'Hubert takes a more tolerant, perhaps more enlightened view of such things. His sense of personal honor is no less strong, but is certainly less bloodthirsty. For D'Hubert, honor is an internal matter; for Feraud, it is an external matter.
When Feraud mortally wounds a well-connected civilian in one of his countless duels, the general in command of the Strasbourg garrison sends D'Hubert to place him under house arrest. While D'Hubert is only following orders, Feraud finds the idea of being arrested for dueling and the manner in which the general's message is delivered so insulting that he immediately challenges D'Hubert to a duel. D'Hubert sees dueling as an anachronistic bother, but his own sense of honor makes Feraud's challenge such a grave insult that he has no choice but to fight. Feraud is wounded, and both men are placed under house arrest for dueling. However, war soon breaks out and their arrest is happily forgotten.
Not so their dispute, however. Feraud, obsessed with his honor, calls D'Hubert out repeatedly over the next thirty years, intent on settling their old score. D'Hubert, for his part, would just as soon forget the whole thing, but his sense of honor forces him to fight each time Feraud challenges him. As their careers advance in Napoleon's army their duels are sometimes delayed due to a prohibition on fighting between men of different rank. However, as soon as they are once again on equal footing, Feraud is always there to renew the feud. The men fight first as lieutenants, later as captains, colonels, and finally, near the end of their military careers, as generals. Politics and regimes change, and the fortunes of each man with them, but the duel remains.
The Duellists, like Joseph Conrad's short story, manages to compress the broad story of social upheaval in France of the Napoleonic era into the very personal story of D'Hubert and Feraud. Director Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator, Legend) and screenwriter Gerald Vaughan-Hughes tell an intimate tale that focuses primarily on D'Hubert's life, career, women, and family, and the disruptions caused by Feraud's obsession.
The contrast between the two adversaries is heightened by the actors cast to play them. Keith Carradine (Nashville, Madonna's "Material Girl" video), with his precise enunciation and calm veneer, is the very model of a 19th century gentleman, unfailingly polite even when clearly vexed by his circumstances. Carradine almost did not appear in the film, as his Oscar-winning song "I'm Easy" was climbing the charts at the time, eventually to peak at number 17; the multi-talented star was forced to choose between the demands of his acting career and his budding success as a pop star. Fortunately for Scott and the audience, Carradine chose to star in The Duellists, rather than embarking on a promotional tour for his song.
As Feraud, the other principal, Harvey Keitel (Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction,The Piano) brings his usual explosiveness. Where Carradine's character allows emotions to simmer under a veneer of gentility, Keitel's character allows his passions to boil over at the drop of a hat. This is done without any overacting on Keitel's part; Feraud is a man of extremes, and Keitel manages to capture him perfectly without ever going over the top.
Their story plays out against the backdrop of Ridley Scott's usual outstanding direction and visual compositions. Scott's formal training is as an artist, and he brings a painter's eye to every scene he creates. In The Duellists, perhaps more than any of his films since, his visual style works seamlessly with the material. Almost any shot in this film would be suitable for framing, but deserving special mention are the "still lifes" that Scott uses to punctuate major transitions.
Paramount may have slighted The Duellists on its initial theatrical release, and they may be the undisputed champions of the bare-bones release, but they have certainly changed their ways, at least long enough to create an excellent Special Collector's Edition DVD. It is one of the most feature-laden single disc editions in recent memory. It almost seems that they are attempting to make amends for their shoddy treatment of this fine film on its theatrical run. Either that, or perhaps more likely they are attempting to cash in a bit on the fame and notoriety that Scott has gained in the past quarter-century. Whatever the case may be, this is an impressive collection of value-added features by anyone's standards:
Director's Commentary—A Scott commentary is always fascinating and well worth the film fan's time. One of the most striking things that emerges from it is the realization that this was at the time a very low-budget film, unlike Scott's later blockbusters. Scott emphasizes that his background making TV commercials is what taught him the precision needed to stretch his meager budget into a film that looks and feels much more expensive.
Composer's Commentary and Isolated Score—During breaks in the music, Howard Blake (The Bear, A Midsummer Night's Dream) discusses the ideas that influenced his score for The Duellists. This is an interesting idea, and calls attention to an often-neglected part of the filmmaking process, but does get to be a bit dry after a while.
Duelling Directors: Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds—This 29 minute interview featurette is a conversation between Scott and director Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Reynolds is a long-time admirer of The Duellists, which had a major impact on him both as a young filmgoer and as he developed his own cinematic style. The two men watch and analyze several key shots and sequences from Scott's film.
Storyboards—The multi-angle function on your DVD player allows you to view two different views of each scene; one with just the storyboard, and the other a comparison between the storyboard and the finished scene. Both are useful; the storyboard-only view allows the viewer to see more detail, while the comparison view gives a sense of how the transition to finished film takes place.
Boy and Bicycle—Ridley Scott's first short film is an abstract, stream-of-consciousness journey into the mind of "The Boy," played by his younger brother Tony. While it may seem like not much happens, the sensation of being inside his head, hearing the sometimes nonsensical interior monologue of a young teenager playing hooky, becomes almost hypnotic after a while. What really stands out is the early development of Scott's visual style; he is able to use The Boy's surroundings, both natural and man-made, to frame his subject skillfully and direct the viewer's eye to the precise details he wants to emphasize. Of note is the music provided by none other than John Barry (Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves).
Photo and Poster Galleries—This is divided into four sections: portraits, from the film, behind the scenes, and international posters. There are about 77 images in all—thankfully, a "view all" option is provided.
Theatrical Trailer—It is what it is.
Video quality is for the most part excellent, and adds to the impression that this is more than a $900,000 low-budget flick. Details are sharp and clear. Scott's use of "golden hour" natural light and shadow looks outstanding on this DVD. Colors are rich and deep, especially the reds, blues, and grays of various uniforms and the contrasting gold and silver trim and buttons.
The primary audio track is a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track that sounds a lot better than one might expect. It's not going to stand up when compared to some of Scott's later films like Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, but overall it is a pleasant surprise. There's not a lot of focused directionality in the surround channels, but they do carry Blake's score nicely.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Duellists is not perfect; one major flaw is the inclusion of heavy-handed voiceover narrations between the major episodes in the lives of D'Hubert and Feraud. Even though they are provided by Stacy Keach, they are still more of a hindrance than a help to the film. Scott never comes right out to say it, but one suspects these were the result of studio interference, much like the similar voiceovers Scott was forced to include in Blade Runner a few years later.
One of the more fascinating stories that Scott relates in his commentary track is the story of his arrival in the French village where he was to shoot the film. The locals were more than a little distrustful of a foreign film crew in their midst, and Scott was summoned to City Hall to explain himself to the mayor. As Scott told the story of Conrad's "The Duel," a look of recognition spread over the mayor's face. "Yes," he said, "I know this story. These men were from this village!" (Well, it was words to that effect, but you get the idea.) As it turns out, Conrad had based his story on an actual historical event, something that Scott did not know until he serendipitously arrived in the very place where it had happened.
There is something of the making of The Duellists in that story. Quite simply, the film comes together and works on the audience in a magical way that must have been impossible for Scott and his associates to foresee.
Not guilty! The Duellists is a wonderful film that more people should see, and an amazing effort from a rookie Ridley Scott. The DVD is quite a break from Paramount's norm, and is packed with a pleasing assortment of special features. The Duellists alone makes this disc worth a purchase; if you still aren't sure, Boy and Bicycle makes it worth at least a rental.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by Director Ridley Scott
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