Classic Musings: The Duellists (1977)

The Duellists' path to realization is an easy and logical one to follow: after thumbing through public-domain material to adapt and landing on a Joseph Conrad short story, Ridley Scott -- then an experienced commercial director -- took around a million dollars to emulate the tone and visual style of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon but with his own, distinctive outlook. He made the most of every penny by relying on impressive on-location structures, hiring the right actors, and concentrating on the accuracy of costumes and fighting maneuvers for his Napoleonic-era depiction of two soldiers' duels across the French countryside, taking place over several decades. Surprisingly, what Scott ended up with in his first feature film remains one of his most versatile and time-withstanding pieces of work: an enthralling assessment of both the import and vainness of honor amongst men that's heightened by staunch adherence to historical precision, and an early expression of the visual storyteller's ingenuity.

Joseph Conrad's story has roots in true events about two French soldiers, whose rivalry spurned from a hot-headed duelist's challenge to his prominent comrade for delivering a message he didn't find favorable. As expanded upon in Scott's film, the message was over a lopsided duel instigated by Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) that nearly killed a family member of the mayor of Strasbourg, and the reprimand delivered to Feraud by Lieutenant Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine). This simple act, coupled with Feraud's thirst for swordsmanship and quick-tempered judgment against d'Hubert, leads to a series of duels spanning fifteen years in the early 1800s and between several different European battles, with the two soldiers scaling military ranks at a nearly-even pace. With every new station and every battle fought, however, the rivalry -- one that becomes storied among soldiers and townsfolk -- perseveres; not over what caused it, but for the pure back-and-forth damage to their honor that results.

Significant events happen around Feraud and d'Hubert, bookended by the rise and fall of Napoleon's reign in itself, but Gerald Vaughan-Hughes' screenplay for The Duellists revolves about the physical and mental duel itself, and how it impacts those around them. That tunnel-vision focus on their contention emphasizes an intentional subtext: as major events occur, changing the face of their country and the ones they love, a petty war of personal dominance -- instigated by Feraud, tolerated or avoided by d'Hubert -- remains a central feature as they grow into weathered, prominent officers of disparate dogmas. Obviously, their prowess over one another doesn't directly determine their importance outside the duel, but it endures so long as Feraud's ideal of honor feels threatened by the actions of d'Hubert. Vaughn-Hughes' dialogue, bolstered by Scott's keen eye for the versatile morality of his characters, renders this obsessive tug-of-war into an intriguing challenge of the psyche and spirit of men.

The duel scenes themselves aren't elegant displays. Gorgeously photographed by Frank Tidy against rich location shots that feature breathtaking weathered structures across the French countryside (and other locations), these aren't fights featuring mythical duelists, but flawed men embodying the role of opponents. Despite proper fencing stances and occasional grace given authenticity by the guidance of fight choreographer William Hobbs, they're full of missteps, blood, and self-doubt that nail down the veracity of how they play out. The collective choice between Scott and
his actors to use heavy steel sabres instead of quicker parrying rapiers, a tactic to stay relevant to the era, gives those scenes weight, where the clang of those blades and how it impacts the actors' movement enhance the power, danger, and exhaustion intended. These are observable precursors to the visceral force Scott conveys within his more successful films, and they're impressively enhanced by straightforward, budget-minded decisions.

Director Scott allows The Duellists to dig into a psychological space by navigating those fundamental differences between the duelists themselves, and how they reflect on the different sides of those that cross swords. Possessing a vague history outside of being a commoner-turned-soldier who fought his way up, Feraud's bloodlust and unquenchable desire to conquer shape him into a browbeater custom-made for the duel; Harvey Keitel's intense presence, with the fiery spirit he brought to Martin Scorsese's earlier work, emboldens that perspective. Conversely, d'Hubert possesses aristocratic roots and graduallt progresses towards an obligated fixation on his opponent, and how the bind to honor intrudes on his life's impetus; Keith Carradine's projects easy charm and burdened rigidness through those traits. Both allow the duel to consume parts of them in different ways -- one shackled by his own fury, the other avoiding or preparing for the ongoing conflict -- and Scott relishes that obsession as the world progresses around them.

And progress it does. The Duellists' scope allows their rivalry to crop up under different contexts of the men's lives, especially concerned with d'Hubert's struggle to cope with his constant squabble with Feraud alongside his military and romantic endeavors, featuring a sensual, wonderful performance from Diana Quick as his lover at arm's length, Laura. Surprisingly, by way of Scott's direction, this depiction harnesses an everlasting property when contained by the two men's obfuscated perception of honor, where its rich visual presence commands a specific tone as they trade blows in foggy forests, sun-drenched stone alcoves, and ultimately a breathtaking sprawl of damp, fiddly ruins. This is a sensory piece of filmmaking, there's no denying that, where drenched blood and sweaty, stern-eyed glances convey the mannered evolution of these duelists with every instance they survive yet another encounter. They're different men every time, yet they can't seem to pry themselves from this habitual internal war they've lost perspective of over the years.

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