The Duellists is Ridley Scott’s feature debut and premiered in 1977, four years after his famous advert for Hovis bread (voted the UK’s favourite TV advert in a 2006 poll). Both are picturesque evocations of a world long gone – pre-War England, in the 45-second advert’s case, the world of post-Revolutionary France in the case of the solid 100 minutes of The Duellists.
The story is a true one – about two men in Napoleon’s army who fought a series of around 30 grudge duels over 19 years. Joseph Conrad had used the facts as the basis for a novella, and Scott’s screenwriter, Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, adapts them further with his screenplay, reducing the time frame to 16 years and the number of duels to five.
Scott had little money to make the film. No one would back an ad man. And so he made it on the cheap, shooting the film as a series of chapters, using real locations, exterior and interior, since he couldn’t afford costly set builds. He turned to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, made two years before, for visual inspiration, with the extra bonus that shooting things this way – with as little artificial light as possible – meant fewer lights to hire in and fewer lighting techies to employ. Those two decisions – no sets, Barry Lyndon lighting – yoked to Scott’s eye for a visual are the making of the film, which is gloriously beautiful to look at.
The stars are Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, both well cast since Carradine is playing the tall and patrician Armand d’Hubert, Keitel the stockier Gabriel Feraud. D’Hubert and Feraud are both soldiers in Napoleon’s army, the difference being that the former is a “natural” officer, the latter a man who has risen through the ranks and who carries a grudge against d’Hubert and “his kind”. Feraud is also a fanatical dueller who, once slighted by d’Hubert, simply will not let it lie.
The arc is similar to that of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – man of reason locked in a struggle with a man of emotion, the superego versus the id – which is ironic since Keitel was only available for this film because he’d been fired from Apocalypse Now (based on Heart of Darkness), where he was meant to have been playing the entirely reasonable Captain Willard.
In the same way that Marlon Brando’s Captain Kurtz acts as an offstage instigator, so does Harvey Keitel’s Gabriel Feraud in The Duellists, reappearing every now and again to demand another duel but largely existing as a troubling off-screen presence. The focus is squarely on d’Hubert.
The duels themselves are excellently fought, staged and shot. The men are limber. The sabres are real and look lethal. And the fight choreography is believeable. It’s by William Hobbs, who’d much later do similar great work on Game of Thrones.
Along with Howard Blake’s stirring score – halfway between Nyman and Morricone – and a supporting cast of the likes of Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Diana Quick and Robert Stephens, the total effect is of a massive over-reach, a go-for-broke gamble… that’s paid off.
“Advertising taught me everything I know,” Scott said when the Hovis ad was being remastered in 2019. It’s also been his go-to over the years, sometimes to his detriment. The picturesqueness of poverty is fine if you’re trying to generate a nostalgic glow to sell a loaf of bread, but gentle side lighting, warm-up filtration and a hint of soft on the lens doesn’t always work if you’re trying to convey brutal times as they actually were. Scott’s “ad man’s” eye does sometimes get the better of him in The Duellists, to put it another way. But at least he has an eye. The Duellists has got to be up there with his best looking films.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021