The Duellists (1977)

More than anything else Ridley Scott’s directing debut, The Duellists, tells the story of an obsession. I’m glad Guy (Phoenix Cinema) suggested it as I wasn’t aware of the movie and found it oddly captivating and very beautiful too. Plus I find duels fascinating. I can’t really say why.

Based on the short story The Duel by Joseph Conrad The Duellists tells the story of a lifelong enmity. Two officers of Napoleon’s army, d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Feraud (Harvey Keitel), pursue each other for years and fight one duel after the other. While the first duel might have made some sense, at least at the time, the following duels are less and less understandable. Although d’Hubert tries to reason with Feraud, the latter becomes more and more obsessed as the years pass by.

The movie has a lot more to offer than a fascinating story and two interesting characters. It’s visually stunning and brilliantly acted. I couldn’t even say which of the two actors I liked better. Carradine as d’Hubert who seems more complex, more humane or Keitel as Feraud who is relentless in his pursuit of d’Hubert. If you like sword fighting you will adore The Duellists anyway as the choreography of the fights, as many reviewers have commented, is excellent.

The movie starts in 1800 and ends around 1815. After almost every duel the men lose sight of each other for a few months or even years as they are often posted in other places. They sometimes meet under quite improbable circumstances, once for example while retreating from Moscow where they fight a group of Cossacks together.

The code of duels was quite complex, I suppose every country had its own set of rules. I felt we learned quite a lot about the rules in France at the time. What made it especially dramatic was the fact that if one of them had been promoted but not the other one it would have become impossible to go on fighting. So every time d’Hubert is promoted he hopes the folly is about to end, only to find out later that Feraud meanwhile has been promoted to the same rank.

The Duellists has been compared to Barry Lyndon but I don’t think they are that similar. Be it as it may, I’ feel more inclined to rewatch The Duellists, I thought it was more captivating. And I really must read the novella soon.

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