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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18 thoughts on “The Duellists (1977)

  1. the war movie buff says:

    OMG You can’t compare this to the bloated, pompous “Barry Lyndon”. I think I watched this before I started blogging. Thanks for reminding me about it. It is a special movie.

    • Maybe it wasn’t entirely clear but I don’t compare it but I saw that many reviewers and critics do and while there are a few similarities I think they are very different overall.
      I liked Barry Lyndon because it was a it like walking around in a painting which is a peculiar experince but I didn’t like the character at all.
      The Duellists is quite special and I’m still amazed I had never heard of it before Guy mentioned it.

  2. I was blown away when I first watched it. The obsession seems strange but then obsessions always seem strange to other people. I was impressed by the physicality of the lead actors, since they really looked like they were trying to kill each other. It definitely needs to be seen by more people.

    • Yes, I think it does. It’s either forgotten or has never been so well known.
      You’re quite right with what you say about obsessions. Keitel’s charcater is like a Pit Bull, he just doesn’t want to let go.
      The actors are excellent, mediocre or just less amazing actors and this would not have worked at all.

  3. nem baj says:

    Nice, thanks for bringing it back to attention. I haven’t seen it for a long, long time so I’d better give it another look before commenting…

    By the way, the aesthetics of Barry Lyndon cannot be separated from the film’s inner dynamics. The static frames and compositions express a quietness, a stillness, a ‘beauty’… that is the exact opposite of what the characters are feeling in those very images – and would be acting upon, were it not for the yoke of social conventions.

    And Barry is a true anti-hero, not the Hollywood so-called anti-hero whose only destiny is to eventually become a hero. He’s just a human being. Trapped in conventions. De-humanized, unable to live. It’s a very gloomy picture, whose basic idea is that the roots of ‘Western Civilization’ are just… crap. It’s a central idea in all Kubrick’s movies since Lolita, and also something that was emerging in Paths of Glory.

    “The soldier is absorbing because all the circumstances surrounding him have a kind of charged hysteria. For all its horror, war is pure drama….The criminal and the soldier at least have the virtue of being against something or for something in a world where many people have learned to accept a kind of gray nothingness, to strike an unreal series of poses in order to be considered normal….It’s difficult to say who is engaged in the greater conspiracy–the criminal, the soldier, or us.” — S.K., 1958.

    • I did appreciate Barry Lyndon when I watched it. I was not too keen on the charcater though. It’s an extremely beautiful movie, like painting. I reviewed it on my book blog a while back. I don’t think we can compare the two movies at all as I saw it done so often in reviews. A huge differnece is alos that one is based on a novella, the scope is smaller, while the other is based on a novel.
      I hope you will watch the Duellists again and comment.

  4. the war movie buff says:

    Barry Lyndon is like watching a painting and has as much action. Boring!

  5. Guy Savage says:

    Thanks for the mention, Caroline. I think the Duellists is a near-perfect film. Barry Lyndon is beautiful to look at (didn’t it win the Best Costumes Oscar or something like that?), and that prize (if I’m correct) speaks volumes for the film content. That said, a friend of mine put Barry Lyndon as one of her top films of all time. Different strokes and all that.

    There are some differences between the book and the film which I think you’d really enjoy fleshing out.

    • I’m glad you suggested I watch it. For some reason I hadn’t heard of it before and really liked it.
      I’m lookig forward to reading the novella. I’ve bought it a while back.
      Barry Lyndon is beautiful as well but still quite different.

  6. nem baj says:

    I hadn’t watched it for more than twenty years… It’s an excellent movie by a master of the atmospheric! As in almost all of Ridley Scott’s films there’s nothing to think about while and after watching, but the sensory experience is fantastic and well worth the ride. You can almost smell the French countryside in the early morning…

    Now, there are some ‘first film attempts’ now and then, such as in the use of opening vignettes for each sequence (the close-ups which function almost as reverse packshots), and in a way the whole film is a catalogue of environments. However the craftmanship of the director in the use of light and sound is absolutely amazing, whatever atmosphere he’s dipping us in (countryside, friends in a room, cold winter, household etc.), including of course the duels themselves.

    The indoors duel is even a great example of what would become one of the director’s trademarks: a choreography of light rays in the background, combined with the use of vivid, colored light micro-spots in the foreground (the sparks of the spades clashing). And the sound juggling, beetween close and far, ambient and intimate, organic or material, noise or silence, is simply stunning.

    To me, The Duellists is another fine illustration of why, even when I strongly disagree with the explicit discourse (for example in Black Hawk Down), I can only bow to Scott’s genius in his approach of cinema as an art of sensation.

    • I really agree on the atmoüsheric but I’m not exactly sure why there shouldn’t be anything to think about?
      Unlike some of his other movies this is based on a short story and I thought there was quitea lot to think about. Why would two people be so relentless, so incapable of letting go.. But maybe I didn’t understand whyt you mean.
      I was surprsied to see it was his firt movie, he was already quite there, wasn’t he. Meaning, finding his full potential.
      As happens often when I watch a movie for the first tme, I’m immersed in the story, charcater and piscture, not so much the symbolism. It’s a film to watch again, Id’ say after having read your comment.
      I’m extremely fond of Black Hawk Down but can see why you would have reservations. I’m going to review it shortly.

      • nem baj says:

        Well, the novella lays out a few tracks, such as the social differences beetween Féraud and d’Hubert, the possibility that Féraud’s behavior is somehow a reflection of Napoleon’s quarrels with every possible European sovereign, the conflict in d’Hubert between his ‘relationship’ with Féraud and his relationship with Adèle, both men’s possible addiction to violence, etc.

        Conrad does lay these tracks from the very beginning, and throughout the text. Of course, none of them are a definitive clue to this mystery, but it could be argued that the mystery is greater because we are given ample occasion for ratiocinating about it. Plus, of course, there’s the past tense, meaning others have tried to solve the mystery before us, but none succeeded, which makes it thicker…

        On the other hand, in Scott’s work these themes are clearly secondary. They’re not entirely evacuated, but they seem either thin, late (such as the final shot of Féraud-Napoléon), or awkwardly modified (d’Hubert with women). Here’s why I think the director wasn’t interested in having the audience thinking. He wanted us to feel. The focus on the tension between the men, on the combat scenes, is entirely justified – and so well executed one can only praise the result.

      • I see what you mean and it’s probabaly true, it still made me think too as their behaviour is very incomprehensible to me. Fascinating but ultimately I have no clue how any one could be so “honor-driven”.

  7. Björn says:

    One of my favourite movies! It was made on a very tight budget, but that hardly shows. The final shot, with Feraud looking out over the river while the sun bursts through the clouds wasn’t planned at all, at least not the meteorological conditions, but fortunate circumstances handed Scott a great closing scene.

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