Deadly Duels
Wellspring // Unrated // $29.98 // October 26, 2004
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted December 2, 2004
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The movie

I'm a competitive fencer, so if anybody's interested in a DVD about the history of dueling, it would be me. Of course, the title of Deadly Duels struck me as rather sensationalistic (and how right I was!) but the lure of learning more about the history of swordplay was too strong to ignore. There's certainly plenty of interesting material out there on the topic, but alas, Deadly Duels is a flop.

The documentary is divided into three 50-minute parts, which probably played as separate episodes on television. "Duels of Chivalry" purports to trace the history of dueling from its origins in the Germanic tribes that overran the Roman Empire through to the Middle Ages, spilling over a bit into the Renaissance. "Duels of Honor" picks up the thread in the Renaissance, describing how the chivalric judicial duels metamorphosed into private duels of honor between gentlemen, and how the tradition survives even today. "Dueling in the New World" finishes up the program by taking a look at the adoption of the dueling habit in the newly independent United States, most notably among gentlemen of the southern states and more rough folks in the "Wild West."

Deadly Duels has some of the elements needed for a decent documentary. There's a decent chronological structure; we get to see clips from various experts giving insights about the material; and we are shown re-enactments of the various dueling styles to add some life to the program. But when it comes to putting these decent ideas into action, Deadly Duels has a much harder time.

Most off-putting is the simultaneously sensationalistic and cheesy style. Far too much screen time is taken up by oddly unconvincing re-enactments of duels. (Are those shields really made of plywood? Sure looks like it.) Couldn't they have hired some experienced fencers instead of general-purpose stunt men (or random bystanders) to do the action scenes? In the second program, when we get to see a few moves by a professional fencing instructor, the difference suddenly becomes blazingly clear. Yep, this guy knows what he's doing. Yep, those other guys are amateurs.

The program clearly wants to emphasize the violence and strangeness of the various dueling cultures that are profiled here... but it really tries too hard. I felt like saying to the filmmakers, "Hey, I'm already watching this program. You've got my attention. Now quit rubbing my nose in how dramatic, gory, or violent this stuff was, and give me some real facts to feed my interest." Unfortunately, facts are rather thin on the ground in Deadly Duels. Yes, we do get clips from various "experts," but it didn't take all that long for me to start wondering exactly how reputable these fellows really were. The historical information (such as it was) seemed reasonably accurate, but whenever the topic shifted over to interpretation, I got an odd feeling that the theories these guys were expounding were not, shall we say, well-documented.

Probably the best portion of the documentary is a section in "Duels of Honor" that deals with the modern-day university dueling clubs in Germany. This is one area that Deadly Duels actually goes into decent detail on, as we get to learn a bit about the history of the dueling fraternities, find out that the facial scars from dueling were considered a sign of prowess and manhood, and even witness an actual modern-day student duel taking place. If the rest of the program had managed to be as focused as this, Deadly Duels could have been much more interesting.

I'd have given Deadly Duels a slightly higher mark if it hadn't also been rather repetitive. Several re-enactments are repeated from one episode to the next (and it's not like they're so good we really want to see them again) and some of the same material is dragged out several times. Considering that there's a wealth of interesting material out there on the subject of dueling (the program never touches on the fascinating career of fencer Aldo Nadi, for instance), there's no excuse for the skimpy content of Deadly Duels.



Deadly Duels appears in what I presume is its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image quality isn't absolutely horrible, but it's certainly below par. It has an overall rather low-budget feel to it, with a lot of pixellation and colors that often look a little "off."


There's not much to ask from the Dolby 2.0 soundtrack, but it still manages to be a bit below average. The sound is flat and slightly muffled-sounding, although it's otherwise adequate.


There are no special features on this DVD.

Final thoughts

I really can't suggest Deadly Duels as even a rental. I'm probably the ideal target audience for the documentary, as I'm a fencer and quite interested in the history of dueling... and even I didn't care for it at all. I found the amateurish, cheesy feel and the skimpy amount of information to be an all too deadly combination. Skip it.

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