on 27 July 2003
Based on Joseph Conrad's book "The Duel", the true story of a 30-year feud between two Napoleonic cavalry officers, "The Duellists" was Ridley Scott's first major film. Starring Keith Carradine as the pompous D'Hubert and a particularly menacing Harvey Keitel as Feraud, the film climbs inside the minds of two men for whom honor is more important than life itself.
The two antagonists begin their series of bloody encounters when D'Hubert is ordered by his commanding general to arrest Feraud for wounding the local mayor's nephew in a duel. Feraud, in a hopelessly irrational state, challenges D'Hubert to a duel, which is carried out more or less on the spot. D'Hubert comes off slightly better in the initial encounter, which only serves to fuel Feraud's rage, and the course of the film is set.
The cinematography of this film, shot by Frank Tidy, is almost beyond comparison. The previous versions on VHS simply looked muddy and rather washed out. The colors lacked any real saturation, rendering Feraud's bottle-green dolman black and it almost looked like a poor quality black and white in some scenes, especially those set in Napoleon's abortive Russian campaign.
The DVD transfer, by contrast, is staggeringly beautiful and releases colors, which I did not realize existed in the original. I am, by coincidence, a professional cameraman and I rate this as the best shot film I have ever seen. The only criticism I have is a somewhat inconsistent use of graduated filters, which, whilst they were probably quite innovative for their day, don't always work well. Grads are always a problem and any film made since will tend to suffer the same way. A very minor point.
The costumes and settings; mostly in The Dordogne, make the film not only totally authentic but defy the viewer to believe that it was made on a shoestring budget. The visual splendour challenges any modern filmaker to create the same effect without spending a vault full of money to achieve it. That is only part of the appeal of the film.
The acting performances, particularly by Keitel, want for nothing. The scene with Feraud standing on a cliff overlooking the river valley, taken in context, makes you realise that his life and pretensions to honor have been for nothing. His mania for revenge has cost him everything. Melded to the other performances with superlative skill by Ridley Scott, this film is a masterpiece and has now gone from a film I liked a lot to one which is now firmly wedged in my top ten. Like as not, it will stay there for a long time.
The Duellists is directed by Ridley Scott and adapted loosely to screenplay by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes from the Joseph Conrad short story The Duel. It stars Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Cristina Raines, Robert Stephens, Tom Conti, John McEnery and Diana Quick. Music is scored by Howard Blake and cinematography by Frank Tidy.
Plot finds Keitel and Carradine as officers in Napoleon's army, who after an incident brings them into conflict, sees them duelling over a number of years. Something that greatly affects the lives of both men.
Ridley Scott has never hid from the influence of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon on The Duellists, and why should he? For The Duellists is every bit as noble and enjoyable as Kubrick's lengthy picture. Here on his first feature film assignment the director has crafted a picture of lush visuals, while also garnering great performances from his two leads. Story ultimately is a bit thin, but Scott explores interesting themes and keeps things ticking over nicely for the hour and forty minute running time. The characters are intellectual, the dialogue sharp, the Napoleonic period splendidly recreated with thought and attention to detail. While the sword fights are intense and credible and never once does it feel like Scott is slotting in a duel purely for action's sake.
A darn great film for the period film lover to gorge on, where the futility of war and men's obsessions blend seamlessly with visual splendour. 8.5/10
I saw this when it came out and vividly remembered it for over 30 years, though when I saw it I did not know that Ridley Scott directed it. To see it again was an extraordinary pleasure, the quality was so great that I was astounded. This is an absolutely first rate film, a genuine masterpiece.
The plot of the film is about two men locked in a duel of mortal combat, the tail end of the aristocratic honor code as the modern age dawns with Napoleon. Though an aristocrat, one man (Carradine) is rather civilized, given the task of hauling the other, an incorrigible brute, into prison for the murder by sword of a politician's relative. After a silly insult, the result is an explosive hatred, with the macho aggressor (Keitel) imposing the fight and his own code on his adversary. Carradine would like to stop the madness, but carries on for the sake of his reputation. All of this is played out against a vivid historical backdrop, the Napoleonic Wars and the restoration, which are evoked with splendid intelligence and subtlety.
The action scenes - the fights - are of a bloody realism that I have rarely seen in an action film, but then, this is a historical drama of wonderful accuracy. In a variety of contexts, you watch the men go at eachother with a blood lust, with a youthful energy that slips away before the viewer's eyes, with a growing sense of futility and emotional scars. It is an extraordinary transformation.
The cinematography of the film is also second to none: from the odd angles of provincial French architecture to the flourishes of the most Baroque aristocratic homes, you witness the men as they pursue their careers. Truly a feast for the eyes, utterly mesmerizing, breathtaking. Iconic images are a Ridley Scott hallmark.
Finally, the extras on the making of the film are very nice. You get context with the usual hollywood fluff treatment. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
on 5 April 2002
With a cast which reads like a "Who's Who?" of British theatre this film should be good. It isn't, it's fantastic.
After umpteen viewings of this beautifully photographed work I still devour each scene. Although the costumes and accompanying paraphenalia give an air of the finest BBC costume drama, the atmosphere created is one of frill-free realism.
The two main protagonists, both men of honour and professional soldiers, are studies of reason and unjustified hatred. They are brought together by pure chance yet their destinies seem to be interlinked over a period exceeding two decades. Throughout the entire film, I desperately wanted to shake Keitel's character and make him realise how wrong he is to pursue Carradine so relentlessly. They should really be able to have a beer and forget their differences, but then again, I suppose that would have made a pretty poor film.
The action scenes are graphic without being gory, each duel a miniature peak in an enthralling landscape of characters.
I won't spoil the story by giving away the ending, but I don't think that I've ever seen a better denouement in a British film. Let's just say that by the time the titles come up, both characters have had an experience of justice and that any spectator must sympathise and empathise with both men. Given the extremely diverse nature of their two characters, this is perhaps the main triumph of the film.
on 26 September 2009
For such a marvellously constructed film, it's hard to believe this was Ridley Scott's very first feature length work! It's also quite surprising to realise that, for someone that was described as being uncomfortable around actors when "Alien" was in production, here Scott managed to get his whole cast to give more than capable performances and delivered his trademark dazzling visuals with overwhelming results.
"The Duellists", based on Joseph Conrad's story 'The Duel', deals with man's obsession that turns into folly, namely Feraud's intolerant arrogance that turns him into a loose cannon, whose compulsions overpower his life and of those around him - he shares some similarities with Mr. Kurtz in Conrad's better known novella 'Heart of Darkness.' Yet ultimately it's the beautiful visuals that grabbed my attention - many said that the film was too beautiful at the time of its original release! Ridley Scott was heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" during filming, and admits that, like Kubrick had for "Lyndon", he also took the work of painters as references to create his superbly detailed images in the commentary track. Curiously, Kubrick's work was so influential to Scott that he went as far as to cast Gay Hamilton, who had played Nora Brady in "Barry Lyndon", in a small role as one of Feraud's mistresses.
Keith Carradine as D'Hubert renders a quiet and understated performance, and Harvey Keitel is excellent as the intense and almost impossibly obsessive and maniacal Feraud. Funnily enough, their native accents never bothered me as I felt they weren't obtrusive in delivering their very well written dialogue, plus they didn't affect the incredible atmosphere set up by the director for the entire length of the story.
Another amazing thing to realise is that this movie was made on a low budget of only 900.000 dollars, if you look at all the depth and richness Scott was able to convey - to such a degree that I'd describe it as an epic in miniature scale! "The Duellists" won the Special Jury Prize at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival (for Best Debut Film), however it was poorly distributed in the United States and remains the least seen of Ridley Scott's films. I hope this DVD corrects that handicap and the extras are actually quite good. The 'Duelling Directors' featurette is most interesting as it's interspersed with footage of actual location shooting in France, of Scott receiving the award and being interviewed alongside producer David Puttnam in Cannes. Scott's first short, 1965's 'Boy and a Bicycle', is a revelation in that it shows not only his early visual motifs, but also a path he could've taken and avoided in the future as Scott started working on shooting commercials. Indeed, everything in this short is reminiscent of the kitchen sink dramas that were prevalent in British cinema in the early 60s, noticeable in the films of Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, emphasizing the realities of working classes in the poorer industrial areas in the North of England.
Go for it as this is one of the best, and certainly most beautiful, period dramas I've ever seen.
Based on a Joseph Conrad short story inspired by a real-life long running duel between two of Napoleon's officers, Ridley Scott's first feature The Duellists is one of the most visually beautiful films of the 70s. Often adopting the look of paintings of the period while pulling off the difficult trick of avoiding looking like staged or slavishly copied tableaux but instead immersing you in a different time and place, at times it looks and feels as if Scott and his collaborators had somehow travelled back to the Napoleonic era and shot their movie there. Scott manages to marshal his extremely limited forces splendidly, using the natural landscape and existing locations to give the film a sense of scale while strategically cramming the tighter shots with memorable detail to convince you that it's only part of a much more densely populated world. Adding to the verisimilitude is the fact that many of the locations chosen turned out to be the hometown of one of the real life duellists whose series of some 30 duels inspired Conrad's short story.
In many ways it's the least Ridley Scottish film of Scott's career, at once inhabiting the classic British costume drama tradition while still making something quite unique out of it that ensures it's not all about the look and the interior decoration. It's a thin story, but Scott makes it feel a surprisingly rich one, Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel's constantly interrupted duel following the course of Napoleon's rise and fall as one adapts to circumstances and becomes a man of substance and the other turns belligerence into a point of honour until even he can no longer remember the truth of the trivial incident that inspired his life-long unconsummated vendetta. While unlikely casting - it was originally intended as an Oliver Reed-Michael York vehicle until it proved impossible to raise finance on the stars despite the huge success of The Three Musketeers - both are surprisingly good and never feel out of place, Carradine allowing his casual but confused decency to have just enough dismissive incredulity to further fuel Keitel's intensity (the latter going through the entire film convinced he was the hero).
The duels themselves are magnificently savage and often physically gruelling affairs, each with its own distinct character and location as the duellists' celebrity grows, benefiting both from the director's eye and William Hobbs' typically excellent choreography that shows his mastery of drama, always putting character at the forefront rather than just going for a series of visually impressive moves (not that there's any shortage of those either). There's a genuinely impressive supporting cast - Albert Finney, Robert Stephens, Alun Armstrong, Tom Conti, Edward Fox when he could still do understated and even familiar faces like Pete Posthlethwaite in bit parts - and a fine classical score from Howard Blake. While Scott's subsequent fame has rather perversely had the effect of making the film increasingly overlooked and forgotten today rather than being widely rediscovered, it's a surprisingly compelling and at times hypnotic portrait that deserves more attention and seems to gain in stature with each new viewing.
Shout Factory's recent Region A-locked Blu-ray release loses quite a few of the extras from the original Paramount DVD release (Scott's first short film Boy and Bicycle, the storyboards, stills and poster galleries and the original theatrical trailer), but it retains several others (the audio commentary by Scott, Howard Blake's isolated score and commentary, director Randall Wallace's 30-minute interview with Scott) and throws in one excellent new one, a 25-minute interview with Keith Carradine. The star proves an articulate and enthusiastic advocate for the film, whether its commenting on the deliberate clash of accents between him and Keitel to emphasise the class differences that aggravate the duel to the ingenious cost-cutting measures they employed to disguise the meagre budget (including painting a carriage different colours front and back so it would look like two completely different carriages!). That said, it would have helped if the editor didn't constantly cut to clips of Diana Quick every time Carradine talks about Cristina Raines... The widescreen transfer is also particularly impressive and a boon to a film as visually impressive as this.
on 8 January 2003
Perhaps one of Mr Scott's lesser known films, but in my view maybe one of his best. The style, the colours, the action all say this is a Scott film. Set during the Napoleonic wars, and based on a misunderstanding, it takes on a vivid portrayal of duels, honour, war and the impact these have on the protagonists. Harvey Keitel is as usual brilliant, and Keith Carridine plays one of his finest roles. Maybe a cult film, but a film that deserves much more recognition than it ever recieved.
on 29 March 2003
Scott's first feature is a spectacularly beautiful period piece set in Napoleonic times. Not only is it pretty to look at, it also demonstrates one of Scott's trademark qualities; the ability to create a believable, richly textured universe. Everything here FEELS just right.
The acting as well is top of the line and the story itself is a solid adaptation of Joseph Conrad's excellent short story.
It's not as groundbreaking as 'Blade Runner', as appealing as 'Thelma & Louise' or as kinetically exciting as 'Gladiator' or 'Black Hawk Down' but it's pretty darn good in its own way.
This 1977 film is an impressive big screen debut from Ridley Scott, and possibly my favourite of his films (even more than Alien or Blade Runner). It's certainly a lot better than his recent historical epics Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven.
Based on a novel by Joseph Conrad it tells the story of two French soldiers in Napoleon's army. After an insult more imagined than real Harvey Keitel's Feraud demands satisfaction from Keith Carradine's D'Hubert. They fight each other to a standstill, and the duellists cross paths and swords many times over the coming years in an attempt to finish their business. Duty or circumstance always seems to comebetween them, and on the occasions when they do get a clear run they are so evenly matched that no man can get the upper hand. And so it goes, over the years until the final climactic duel.
It's a beautiful film. Carradine and Keitel are well cast as D'Hubert who just wants a quiet life and Feraud, a rabid duellist with an overdeveloped sense of honour. Keitel, an inveterate ham with a real taste for scenery is especially good, with a sense of restraint in his performance for a change. While it is a tale of obsession and the darkness in the hearts of men, it is also a sweepingly grand epic, moving from era to era in the Napoleonic wars as the tide of fate washes established orders away, new orders are built only to be washed away again, with the two men caught in the tide and bounced around from fortune to disaster to fortune while still trying to settle the score.
Filmed totally on location, Scott has an eye for the scenery and the grandeur, and contrasts this with intimate portraits that show day to day life and the realities of a prolonged war on a nation and ever changing political situation in grim up close realism. And the all important dule scenes are just amazing. There is one particularly impressive sword fight where Scott's use of light and dark is quite breathtaking. As a fencer myself, I have to say that the sword fights are some of the best choreographed I have seen. It really looks like the fencers are going for each other rather than the usual screen fencing where there is much grandstanding and they only aim to hit the sword, not the opponent (`Flynning'. As my instructor calls it)
It's a captivating film. 5 stars.
on 27 February 2007
I watched this many years ago on BBC2 and found it a fleeting curiosity (being quite young and believing there would be more battles etc. I expected more). However, I've just watched it again (on a very big screen) and reappraised what a gem this actually is. Scott's direction is assured and each frame drips with shadow and washed out colours, like a faded painting of the era. The characters are little clichéd in places, but their motivations are interesting and their constant collisions resulting in duels are suspenseful and exciting. I watched this not long after Barry Lyndon, and must say The Duellists is a superior film.
Picture: 5 of 5
Sound: 4 of 5
Extras: 2 of 5