Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes (based on the short story "The Duel" by Joseph Conrad)
Allowing that he was not wholly unseasoned, very few filmmakers (if perhaps a higher proportion of those whose names become common currency) get to start their careers off with as spectacular a success as Ridley Scott did with his first feature, The Duellists. It was critically beloved, and while I can't find any data related to its profitability, and Scott himself doesn't seem to actually know what it grossed, if we recall that he was tapped immediately afterwards to direct the comparatively large production of Alien, then it's not a very dangerous limb to climb out on to say that it must've made some money (it would almost need to have had, if it made any commercial splash at all, considering that, with its $900,000 budget—much of it Scott's own—it was barely a step above an exploitation indie in terms of its industrial backing). Scott was no neophyte, having spent a decade and change toiling in TV advertisements; though you could as easily argue this was a disadvantage, prone to dulling his talent on really insipid crap like his celebrated "Britain's favorite ad" for Hovis bread (STILL WITH MORE WHEAT GERM). He at least wasn't lost as to the technical challenges, scaled-up as they might have been (the logistical challenges of shoots that lasted more than a day took him somewhat more by surprise, though he was up to them), yet The Duellists is probably not the film you'd expect from a guy whose resume was all commercials, and this is the case even by the standards of Scott family ad-men; when his younger brother Tony, following in Ridley's path, made his own first film in 1983, it was The Hunger, a cold, arty vampire movie that, nevertheless, feels like an embodiment of all the finest instincts of a pretentious commercial director expanded into feature form. On the other hand, the foremost duty of the commercial director is to sell what they're advertising, and The Hunger—despite being much the same caliber of accomplishment—was received with abiding disinterest. Ridley's first film, meanwhile, for everything else it does, delivers on all the exciting sword fights (and pistol fights!) that a title like The Duellists promises. It's not an art film, as understood by a maker of perfume spots.
Except, it is?—at least if the term means anything short of "non-narrative" or "experimental"; if it means "boring," it's not that, though I could possibly see someone getting antsy in between sword and pistol duels if they're not on board with Scott and screenwriter Gerald Vaughan-Hughes's program. The film is an adaptation of a short story chosen by Scott, Joseph Conrad's "The Duel," a fiction inspired (but very directly inspired) by the real-life duels of two French officers during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Pierre Dupont de l'Étang and François Fournier-Sarlovèze, who went at each other some thirty times across twenty years; and the film Scott and Vaughan-Hughes made is as faithful as I can imagine something being to the text of a story while almost completely abandoning its ethos. It makes very few changes to the story's events, the most salient being parallel to its violent confrontations and its study of honor, all involving the "heroic" duellist's love life; but there's just enough shift within our hero's characterization and in some details of his biography that I at least don't see how you could arrive at anything like the same ideas from Conrad's tale as you do Scott's film.
Conrad, anyway, seems to respect the notion of dueling more—and I, either thanks to the Southerner in me, or the part that's wanted to stab numerous people I've encountered with a sword, can't help but find consensual dueling appealing (it may help that I once learned some fencing technique from an Algerian champion)—but, far more than that, Conrad seems to better like what he hoped to capture with his story, the spirit of that age. We know for sure these days that Scott does not respect dueling (even if he thinks it's cool), and even as a somewhat younger man (a fresh-faced 39) this was apparently already his settled opinion. I haven't seen Napoleon yet, but one suspects he continues to hold the spirit of that age in more-or-less complete contempt, even though Conrad's story arguably isn't even about two Frenchman in the first place. It's more how a hero, coded as English by his aristocratic status, and somehow even by race (perhaps feeling a certain objectivity as a Pole, Conrad is invested to the point of getting weird about it in the temperamental distinctions between his Germanic Picardian and his Latin Gascon), is tested by a nonsensically-belligerent southern European, not unlike another nonsensically-belligerent southern European, and comes out the other side better able to appreciate maturity, stability, and peace, the best an anti-utopian like Conrad could imagine.
As for Scott, there is the odd phenomenon of how he's spent so much of the last decade navigating his career in concentric circles (he has returned, almost in order, to Blade Runner, Alien—twice—and, bifurcating its subject matter into The Last Duel and Napoleon, The Duellists, these being his third, second, and first films, respectively), and naturally it's hard not to make morbid assumptions about the octogenarian's preoccupations; but let's not get sidetracked. The narrative I've more-or-less already encapsulated by accident, even though Conrad changed the names to protect the guilty: in Strasbourg in 1800, a young cavalry officer named Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine), presently boasting the rank of lieutenant, is sent on an errand to collect for arrest a lieutenant of another regiment, Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), whom we met this morning as he ran through a relative of the city's mayor in a duel. D'Hubert tracks the brazen hussar down to a local salon, and something about d'Hubert's manner, or the residual aura of d'Hubert's aristocratic background—even just the mere fact of being given a message he doesn't want to hear—engenders in Feraud a furious dislike of his comrade. He challenges him to a duel, which is to say, he basically attacks him outright, but d'Hubert wins. Yet this is only the beginning of their enmity. At every opportunity, whenever the stars align—when they are in the same place, when they possess the same rank, and when the Empire is not at war*—Feraud issues one more challenge to d'Hubert, and d'Hubert, by obligation, accepts it. Eventually the Empire falls, and still Feraud is not done with him.
This is the Conrad story (and, apparently, the story of l'Étange and Fournier) in all its essentials, including its structure, with this 100 minute film encompassing sixteen years by means of visiting upon d'Hubert and Feraud only in their connection with one another, so that it amounts to six vignettes across the breadth of Europe (although encompassing only five duels, since one of those vignettes finds our deuteragonists obliged to struggle side-by-side on the downslope of the Russian campaign). The attitude, however, is different than Conrad's—at every turn, d'Hubert is more baffled and annoyed, and Feraud's dislike of d'Hubert, fairly obviously class resentment and jealousy of d'Hubert's social graces in Conrad's tale, is more mysterious and elemental. Beyond just attitude, the movie more forcefully foregrounds the feminine attachments of d'Hubert's life that have been endangered by his masculine rivalry, first with Laura (Diana Quick), something akin to a camp follower and very possibly d'Hubert's first love, and then, many years later, with his noblewoman wife Adele (Christina Raines). The former is a bespoke creation of Vaughan-Hughes's screenplay; meanwhile, d'Hubert and Adele's relationship, though already in Conrad's story, is found at a much later stage here, having arrived not just at marriage but children. It's against these two women that d'Hubert pursues his duellist destiny, even though it costs him Laura (who loses much in her own unwillingness to stand by his side watching him continually risk his life for nothing), and we will find him still tied to the deadly routine of his existence, despite everything to live for and despite having spent all sixteen of these years ideologically opposed to dueling and aghast at the pointless absurdity of it. There is no suggestion that d'Hubert even tells his wife, in smaller part because he knows she wouldn't understand, in larger part because he finds it embarrassing. At no point, however, does Vaughan-Hughes's script launch into any didactic explanation as to why d'Hubert submits to Feraud's demands; and frankly I suspect that d'Hubert being expected to consent to an insane man's vendetta is not, strictly speaking, all that sociologically accurate. (One surmises l'Etange and Fournier must have enjoyed their legend, while d'Hubert plainly does not.) But it is, at least initially, required of him. Even after it clearly no longer would be, he need only be reminded that he is, after all, "a gentleman," and even then, it's clear enough in Carradine's performance he doesn't actually need the goad of any reminder.
Practically needless to say, but for form's sake we'll say it, it winds up being "about" all manner of things beyond the riddle of steel: the inexplicable unreason that inheres to masculine codes when they're pushed this far past their function, and the very real force they can still exert even if you personally reject them; the facade of Enlightenment rationality stretched paper-thin over instincts so brutal you would prefer to call them animalistic (though, per Conrad, their deranged fixed intention is what makes them so uniquely human); cycles of violence, amongst nations as readily as men, with the cause murkily remembered and heavily embellished; and, in the remarkable lead-up and just as remarkable aftermath to one of our principals' duels, this one fought on horseback, it even manages to be about d'Hubert, the character, and his own personal psychological makeup as a soldier who's wholeheartedly embraced a life of violence, but it wears on him nonetheless.
Instead of the duels getting easier they get harder—this time, he can barely face his enemy—but he wins this one anyway, and the trauma vaporizes into the kind of exultation where you jump your horse over a haystack, which is a lot closer to the spirit Conrad sought than anything else here, even if the film itself is still pretty jaundiced about it, given that this duel involves Scott's most aggressive filmmaking of the entire picture, basically a full-on formal break full of kniving flashbacks, and discontinuous editing even within the scene itself, which obviously must have "happened," but until its result has been decided it's locked inside a repeated shot of Carradine in darkened profile, frozen with fear. (This gets echoed, by accident—and this is a film full of happy accidents—on the road out of Russia, as d'Hubert contemplates a blue corpse who, because Scott couldn't afford to restage the shot, still blinks his eyes, an avowed mistake, but one that feels awfully intentional in its enigma. Most of the film's other happy accidents are matters of light and weather, and hence of low intrinsic interest to anybody besides The Duellists' actual crew; but because I would like to mention it somewhere, probably the most serendipitous of these accidents comes when d'Hubert is proposing to Adele and their horses don't behave, making Carradine's attempt to stick to the blocking cute and awkward, and then one of the horses even "kisses" the other before the human lovers do. All along, Raines is barely controlling her giggling, and maybe it's less strictly "cute"--we can probably agree on "awkward"—if one happens to notice that what she's giggling at is the stallion threatening to give Scott's movie an X rating.)
Before I make it sound too schematic, though I expect that damage is already done, it's certainly very exhilaratingly about itself, too. The Duellists is a pretty great martial arts movie, beneficiary of technical advice from swordsman William Hobbs, with what experts tend to agree are some extraordinarily authentic duels. (And whether by instinct or by Scott's design, Keitel gets that it is, in a very real sense, an occidental "martial arts movie": the strongest beats of his antagonistic performance are found in the way he haughtily huffs in victory, and in how he languidly pulls himself into hard-to-call-them-anything-else-besides-"cool" fighting stances that generate a terrific tension against the brutish balance of his performance elsewhere by demonstrating that, in matters of combat, he's every bit as thoughtful as Carradine's d'Hubert is, only without the palpable diffidence.) But Scott gamely offers a wide diversity of means of potential destruction here: almost undoubtedly, the most viscerally exciting of them involves sabers, albeit sabers virtually used as clubs, when a brusque transition drops us unceremoniously into the final stage of one more inconclusive duel—by some measure the ugliest and goriest of them—which has already degenerated into exhausted atavism and still manages to keep going for another couple of minutes inside a cryptlike space illuminated by a golden hour dying sun. (The climactic pistol duel an hour hence, in keeping with the film's prosecution of theme, is a significantly more tactical, intellectual affair—the first time we've seen d'Hubert get to fight on literal or figurative ground of his own choosing, and with a different tenor to it even beyond the different weapons, thanks to a significantly more static, magisterial camera.) Meanwhile, if The Duellists manages to be a pretty great war movie, maybe that's the more surprising accomplishment, Scott managing with extreme carefulness to imply the scale of the European contest, despite having nothing approaching the means to depict it, by way of tailoring this war movie spanning a continent and an era to the very intimate scale and narrowed focus of its antagonists. It works out astoundingly well at generating an epic feel despite its intimacy, with the very minor exception of a "Russia" that occasionally feels more like what it is, that is, a ski slope covered in man-made snow.
But, being an early Ridley Scott film, it's above everything about the possibilities of ravishing pictorial expression. It's not so much of a fever dream the way his subsequent batch of legacy-defining sci-fi and fantasy films would turn out; obviously, it prefigures the historical epics that Scott would become known for in the 21st century, with their burgeoning emphasis on an intellectual interrogation. But it pursues that interrogation through image far more than his later period pieces would, possibly the inevitable result of it being such a small, fairly short movie, so this was the only efficient way to go about it within those constraints. So what it winds up being "about" was decided pretty much only as production commenced, communicated through the tableaux-like recreations of 19th century France that are, in many respects, not "recreations" at all.
Tremendous effort, and a great deal of the film's budget, was devoted to Tom Rand's richly-accurate costuming—the hussar uniforms are some sumptuous creations (as are their hussar braids!)—and a non-trivial amount of that budget was spent on decorating the sets with period detail; yet barely one penny was devoted to building them. Everything in the film is a found location, and for all that, the film's champion craftspeople are clearly art director Bryan Graves and set dresser Ann Mollo, the latter of whom Scott repeatedly cites in his commentary as indispensable; and this feels less like the typical back-slapping since he's fairly candid about how he had to effectively take over more of his TV ad cinematographer Frank Tidy's job than he would find out was usually the case with a DP. (The Duellists is beautifully shot, a strange hybrid of romanticizing lighting and blunt naturalism, but I suppose the only bad things I have to say about it involve some of Scott and Tidy's photographic choices, notably a "candle-lighting" scene that entails some awful timing with the approximating offscreen electric light sources, and the continual overuse of this black diagonal swatch across the top left hand corner of the "Russian" scenes to further bleaken the skies is exasperatingly misguided.)
The effect is stunning, perhaps not initially purposeful—though it's difficult to claim Scott didn't quickly figure out what he was doing—essentially that of a corpse propped up to gawk at, a bitter assessment of Napoleon's achievements on behalf of human progress. The aesthetic of The Duellists is only ever one of picturesque rot, informed, as Scott will cheerfully admit, by Barry Lyndon's own attempt to replicate in photographic motion the feel of 18th and 19th century painting, paradoxically brought more alive than Kubrick's film in its very rottenness. These are figures living through an apocalypse they don't dare notice, and accordingly the film is shot through with their world's decay—d'Hubert accrues a debilitating leg injury we never even see him receive, whereas even the shooting schedule of a misty French autumn gets in on the act—and Scott punctuates this with flourishes, frequently enough to add up to a motif, of nature (rainwater, birds, rats) encroaching into the crumbling architecture of even the coziest interiors. Everything is a century and a half older than it "should" be, akin to ruins that people still happen to occupy; the final confrontation happens between a pair of men consigned to the past is arranged to take place amidst the legitimate ruins of a regime so ancient that it's been forgotten even in 1816. It's a film with a chill to it, despite my growing appreciation for Carradine's performance (the American does heroic work with a character even more English-coded than Conrad's d'Hubert, by way of verbal ornamentation that feels more like the dialogue of a Regency novel than that of a French cavalryman, somehow making this the correct expression of his brittleness and tetchy dissatisfaction), and there's a distance and cynicism here that's a little off-putting. But I've seen it twice—what it wants to accomplish, it accomplishes almost flawlessly—and Scott's first is really beginning to insist upon itself as one of Scott's best.
*I suppose the presumption to extend here is that the persistent state of war with Great Britain didn't "count."