Title: The Duellists
Language: English, Russian
Genre: Drama, War
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: Gerald Vaughan-Hughes
based on the story THE DUEL of Joseph Conrad
Music: Howard Blake
Cinematography: Frank Tidy
Meg Wynn Owen
Ridley Scott’s feature film debut is a handsome period drama taps into a historical factoid concerning a string of duels between two French Hussar officers in the Napoleonic era, in this film, the two duelists are Armand d’Hubert (Carradine) and Gabriel Feraud (Keitel), whose overall 5 duels extend nearly 2 decades and their weapon of choice changing from sabers, rapiers to pistols, once on horseback.
If you are keen on finding the rationale behind their drawn-out conflict, you may feel a bit unfulfilled, there is no feud or even rift at the first place to begin with, being his acquaintance, Armand’s sole mistake is to volunteer as a messenger to deliver some not so jovial news to Gabriel, who is a wacko fanatic of bloodbath, Keitel is outright menacing and snarky in an ultimately underwritten character, because Scott plumps for the chivalry-minded Armand as the cynosure, an accountable decision since he is the one we root for unyieldingly, albeit Carradine’s devoted performance, Armand’s life trajectory does fall into every bromide along the fragmented narrative: he is an honest man, true to his feelings (doesn’t want to settle down with his mistress Laura, played by a spunky Diana Quick, only to be thrown into oblivion perfunctorily) and doesn’t shirk from his duty and will fight for his honor till his last breath, with the exception of his noble decision to anonymously save Gabriel from the gallows after Waterloo fiasco, why on earth he wants to spare his arch enemy? In a weird logic, one finally gets the impression that Armand doesn’t want their unfinished business to reach such a bathetic denouement, in his heart of hearts, the urge to settle this old score with a final face-off also tickles him, that intrinsic violent id is every man’s inner demon, right before their last pistol duel, Armand is simultaneously hot to trot and dreads his possible impending fate. This is what the film brings home to its viewers, less a mockery of foolhardy gallantry than burrowing into a man’s conflict between his fighting instinct and its knock-on effects, which also compels us to divine what is the mindset behind Gabriel’s outwardly monstrosity, is he psychiatrically impaired or there is something deeply nefarious worth digging (to smear Armand’s loyalty toward Napoleon is such an underhand ploy), only if the story could have been a far more even-handed portrayal of them both.
On the aesthetic front, Scott makes the most of its elemental and picturesque natural locales which remind us BARRY LYNDON (1975), but in a less heavenly fashion, the palette is more muted and cruder in impression. From almost any aspect THE DUELLISTS is a far cry from Scott’s galaxy-shattering sophomore ALIEN (1979, 8.5/10) and his canonized Sci-Fi magnum opus BLADE RUNNER (1982, 9.2/10), but this is where he starts, pales in comparison with what he would conjure up in his prolific and prestigious career, nevertheless, it auspiciously breaks his duck, that is not just a beginner’s luck.
referential point: Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975, 8.1/10)