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The Duellists

The Duellists
Paramount Home Entertainment
1977 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 95 min. / Widescreen Collection / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Cristina Raines, Robert Stephens, Tom Conti
Cinematography Frank Tidy
Production Designer Peter J. Hampton
Film Editor Michael Bradsell, Pamela Power
Original Music Howard Blake
Written by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes from a story by Joseph Conrad
Produced by David Puttnam
Directed by Ridley Scott

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Celebrated Director Ridley Scott's first feature is a little-known gem. Here his attention to beautiful photography and exacting detail, so admired in everything from Alien to Black Hawk Down, is matched by a perfectly chosen story by Joseph Conrad, and good acting from American leads that we willingly accept as 19th century French soldiers. Made for a tiny fraction of the cost of Scott's recent blockbuster movies, The Duellists is quality goods, and certainly one of his best films.


Hothead French dragoon Gabriel Ferraud (Harvey Keitel) earns the disciplinary attention of a General Treillard (Robert Stephens) by wounding a relative of an important civilian in a duel. When another dragoon, Keith Carradine (Armand d'Hubert) is dispatched to arrest him, and interrupts a soiree at the salon of Mme. de Lionne (Jenny Runacre), Ferraud is incensed, and challenges Armand to a duel. This begins a two-decade feud of repeated duels, an obligation of honor from which Armand is unable to extricate himself, even though they risk his military career, prevent a relationship with the loving Laura (Diana Quick) and jeopardize his eventual marriage to the much younger Adele (Christina Raines). As for the embittered Gabriel, he seems to have based his life on extracting 'satisfaction' from Armand.

As he reports on the confidentially-pitched DVD docu, Ridley Scott had unsuccessfully tried to put together several film projects before clicking with The Duellists. Although Paramount neglected the film, its reputation has endured - it's been recommended to Savant as Ridley's best by an editor friend, Les Kaye, for going on fifteen years now.

Scott is a visual director who doesn't take things over the edge all the time; for every Legend there's a Blade Runner. The Duellists is an excellent choice for a first, inexpensive film. Basically an opening-up of a classic short story, the scale of production is small but the careful application of detail and just-plain good taste makes the movie look every bit as impressive as something like Barry Lyndon.

Scott's rooting section always refers to his experience with television commercials, but the problems he overcomes so well in The Duellists have little to do with that. The movie has a feel of the early 1800s, with a minimum of actual production, because of the choices he makes. Decor is always present, but never emphasized. The subject of a shot is never the scenery, even when the scenery or sets are beautiful, but instead the drama within. Of Napoleon's Russian campaign, we only see clumps of cold soldiers and iced-over cannon, but it's on a real mountain that looks plenty cold. We believe it, 100%.

The tale is episodic, a series of abbreviated passages spread over 16 years and introduced by intertitles showing the changing dates. Like a short story, the narrative hops to the next relevant moment, usually when Armand and Gabriel's paths cross, with Armand finding the responsibility of maintaining his honor yet again ruining his life.

The acting is sensational. Keith Carradine is not always the best choice for every role, but as unlikely as it would seem, he's very comfortable as the dragoon who follows the chivalric code, and finds he has to be more than its puppet if he's to have any kind of a reasonable life. Harvey Keitel is restrained and intense as Gabriel, an obstinate, obsessing zealot who one believes would dedicate his life to such negative aims, and call it fidelity to a code of honor. Both roles are sketched as they would be in a good short story, and our interest is kept up as we seek to understand the backstories that aren't being told directly.

The support is excellent. Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Robert Stephens and Tom Conti have small parts that contribute more than just cameo presences; Finney is so deep into his role, I didn't recognize him. Stephen's insinuating voice is unmistakable.

Scott has assembled an interesting assortment of women as well. There's Jenny Runacre (from The Last Days of Man on Earth/The Final Programme) in a small part, and Diana Quick is captivating as Armand's mistress who he forsakes because of his duelling problem. Young Cristina Raines also makes a positive impression (with a very cute smile) as Armand's eventual arranged bride.

Plenty bloody, The Duellists has a number of intense swordfights, but isn't about the duels for their own sake. The injuries are impressive in their credibility, with the most painful-looking being a slice taken out of Armand's shoulder, as one would carve a Christmas turkey. The only other film I know of to present duelling as fairly as this, is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Even in a fancy wool uniform, killing is just killing. 1

The Duellists reminds Savant a bit of Val Lewton's Mademoiselle Fifi, a conflation of two Guy du Maupassant stories, skillfully adapted to reflect on the 1944 conflict in terms of French collaboration and resistance in Napoleonic times. The focus in Gerald-Vaughn Hughes' script stays firmly on the concept of honor. Without coming out and saying so, by tale's end, we're ready to reject any rigid code of conduct, chivalric or otherwise. With the present world a swamp of ethnic and religious feuds, blood-sworn vendettas, and grudging demands for wars, the quiet wisdom of Scott's film is entirely welcome.

Paramount's handsome DVD of The Duellists has an anamorphic transfer that brings out the beauty in Frank Tidy's terrific cinematography. There are scenes, like one exterior amid a field of birch trees, that go on for sixty seconds before one is tempted to scan back and see it again, just to appreciate how great it looks.

Ridley Scott is a good interview and an honest spokesman about his own work (are we sure he came from TV advertising?), and contibutes a commentary track as well as appearing in a substantial docu, paired with admiring director Kevin Reynolds. There's also a second commentary and isolated music score, some storyboards, and Ridley Scott's first short film, Boy and Bicycle. It's an interesting impressionist film told from the point of view of a 16 year-old boy, that makes good use of a stream-of-thought narration.

Usually rather stingy with the extras (but good on transfers!), Paramount here outdoes itself, especially at the price point - retail is $5 less than a typical disc from the Mountain. Good going, Para.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Duellists rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette docu, two commentaries, short film, storyboards, stills and ad art, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 9, 2002


1. Savant really, really likes the 1995 Rob Roy, which must have the best swordfight on film --- but according to most accepted rules of duelling, Rob cheats, by grabbing Tim Roth's weapon. Those Scots fighters are known for their brute methods!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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