The Duellists (1978)
The Duellists (1978)

Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: January 13th, 1978 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Ridley Scott Actors: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Cristina Raines, Robert Stephens, Tom Conti, John McEnery, Diana Quick, Meg Wynn Owen, Jenny Runacre, Alan Webb

 


 

I

n Strasbourg in 1800, the year Napoleon became the ruler of France, a duel takes place in the countryside. Armed with swords, Leftenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) proves victorious over the mayor’s nephew, who survives a good skewering. But a lodged complaint results in General Treillard (Robert Stephens) ordering Feraud’s arrest. And unwitting cavalryman Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) is tasked with tracking down the culprit, who hides away at Madame de Lionne’s (Jenny Runacre) abode. Thanks to Feraud’s belligerent attitude and his fondness for fighting, he demands yet another duel, this time with the mere messenger. “He’s most unreasonable.”

“Keep away from him. Keep ahead of him.” When Armand wins the duel by cutting Feraud’s forearm, the enraged lieutenant plots his revenge. Despite the ongoing military campaigns, punctuated by periods of peace, the two eventually cross paths again, this time in Augsburg. And so yet another official duel is arranged, with Feraud ending up the victor through a well-placed strike to the chest. It’s not fatal, however, which means that the antagonistic duo are destined to clash again.

“It would have been the only honorable thing to do.” In an almost hysterical fashion, Feraud and d’Hubert are twinned by their eccentric interpretation of honor – one in which death can be the sole, ultimate satisfaction. The original reason for their rivalry is soon lost to the game of continual conflict; it hardly matters why they duel – only that they never relent. The fight choreography is superb, with handheld camerawork shadowing the combatants’ movements, cutting back and forth between subjects, and even moving away from the action to take in the reactions of onlookers. Paired with brief, graphic violence, the duels are thoroughly entertaining, realistic, and tense.

“I’m not fanatical enough to persevere in this absurdity.” As the years pass and the face-offs accrue, both participants gain positive reputations, providing rousing displays for the troops who place bets on the outcomes. Outside of risking his life, d’Hubert also sacrifices love for his perverted sense of righteousness, pushing aside the attentions of Laura (Diana Quick) – perhaps for fear of commitment as much as believing himself the noble one saving her from the misery of life attached to a soldier. There’s a sadness to this trade, as Armand neglects worthwhile interests in his endeavors to remain a formidable fighter. Later on, when he does finally settle down, the disregard for related responsibilities is equally troubling – yet far from unexpected. “Honor before everything.”

From 1806 to 1812 to 1816 and beyond, “The Duellists” employs a rather unfortunate narrator selection, breaking up the storytelling with an unfitting voice that cuts in to provide needless updates and commentary. It’s particularly odd since the timeline isn’t disordered or difficult to follow. Nevertheless, it’s a minor misstep in an otherwise sharply constructed costume drama merged with historical wartime adventures. The look (and cinematography) of the film is exceptional, from the makeup to the hairstyling to the set designs (and exterior locations) to the costuming; the focus on little details is remarkable. Even the music is significant. It’s an ambitious undertaking for first-time director Ridley Scott, whose burgeoning filmmaking styles are evident even in this early effort. The picture has slow spots (time for brooding more than lack of content), but the next, inevitable, looming duel furnishes considerable suspense; and each one impressively escalates in complexity and lethality.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10