The Duellists (1977)

duellists

The Duellists
Dir. Ridley Scott
Premiered August 31, 1977

What makes a Ridley Scott film a Ridley Scott film? I asked this of a friend once before. It was a troubling question. Scott has made so many films that it’s easy to find commonalities: throwbacks to midcentury epics, strong woman protagonists, a penchant for respectful ambiguity that drives studios insane. But these are all cherry-picked.

Yet can’t be denied that there’s…something…in almost all of his films. A monumental visual element that is at home in most of his works, making even the smallest stories feel operatic. And that can be seen in his very first feature film, The Duellists.

The Duellists is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, itself a thinly veiled retelling of actual events. The year is 1800. Napoleon Bonaparte has taken power in France, but has yet to crown himself Emperor. His country is almost constantly at war with its neighbors, and requires a massive army in which order is the only way to survive. It is here that we find the insatiable Lieutenant Feraud (Harvey Keitel) under arrest for nearly killing the son of the mayor of Strasbourg in a duel of honor. Critically upset over having been arrested in the home of a friend, Feraud demands satisfaction from the fellow officer who arrested him, Lieutenant D’Hubert (Keith Carradine).

The ensuing duel is inconclusive; when D’Hubert is prevented from killing Feraud, and much as he may not want to, D’Hubert is honor-bound to defend himself the next time they meet in peacetime. Occasionally, the Napoleonic Wars do take a break, and almost every time D’Hubert irritatingly finds himself in Feraud’s presence. Accusations of unpatriotism fly, wars come and go, regimes rise and fall, and both men get older. Yet they always continue.

The weakest link in the film is Carradine. Like many of the actors in the previously-covered Cross of Iron, Carradine’s California shag is a preposterous giveaway of the 1970s in what is otherwise a thoroughly realized and uncommonly grim portrait of the Napoleonic Era. And that more than makes up for it: The Duellists is one of the most visually sumptuous movies of the year, its cinematically atypical style evoking art from its period setting, such as the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. The production design is similarly deliberate, and the action scenes are as sharp as those of films like Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Altogether, the viewer is witness to the most visually unique period piece one might have made at the time (comparisons to Barry Lyndon by critics are myriad, and partly valid).

How Did It Do?
Box office receipts are undocumented for The Duellists, but at a deceptively low $900,000 budget, the likelihood of a profit is very high. It won Best Debut Film at the Cannes Film Festival (for which reason I should’ve reviewed it back around A Special Day) and deservedly so. Critics adored it, earning a 91% fresh rating on RT. Having long worked in British television and advertising, then-39-year-old Ridley Scott was a late bloomer. But The Duellists was just the beginning.

Next Time: Soldier of Orange