“The duelist demands satisfaction; honor for him is an appetite.”
A truculent French soldier (Harvey Keitel) challenges a cavalry officer (Keith Carradine) to a duel, thus setting off a 15-year feud that lasts throughout the Napoleonic era .
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Harvey Keitel Films
- Historical Drama
- Keith Carradine Films
- Ridley Scott Films
Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “excellent, highly original” first feature by Ridley Scott features “exquisite photography” by D.P. Frank Tidy and meticulous “attention to period detail”. Unlike Scott’s later blockbuster films — such as Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1985), and Gladiator (2000) — The Duellists (based on a 60-page short story by Joseph Conrad) was “not an ideal commercial project”, and has remained more of a favorite with critics than with the masses. Keitel and Carradine’s series of “exciting, brutal and realistic” duels — which “parallel the ongoing, equally senseless Napoleonic Wars” — are posited as a thinly veiled attack on “nations that are enemies because of events that happened long ago and are long forgotten”. Interestingly — and perhaps strategically — it’s never made entirely clear why Keitel’s Feraud challenges Carradine’s D’Hubert to a duel in the first place; we simply get the sense that he’s a pugnacious, “temperamental brute” who’s continually “itching for a fight”. While it’s difficult not to wish that Scott’s original choices to play D’Hubert and Feraud — Michael York and Oliver Reed (sigh) — had been cast, I’ll agree with Peary and most other critics that Carradine and Keitel, despite their anachronistic American accents, eventually emerge as compelling leads.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- A compelling tale of an enduring rivalry
- Frank Tidy’s gorgeous cinematography
- Impressive period detail
- Fine supporting performances
Yes, as an impressive debut by a master director.
2 thoughts on “Duellists, The (1977)”
Honor-schmonor. The title of this movie makes a lot more sense if you remove the “e”. In other words, not a must – if you’re asking me.
The “thinly veiled attack” is duly noted. However, though handsomely mounted and stunningly filmed (those deep, rich tones; those manipulated-for-perpetual-overcast skies; etc.), ‘The Duellists’ is largely ponderous and, well, dull. Given the premise, it’s extremely hard for me (at least) to care about protagonists wrapped up in a seemingly pointless, endless, personal war. Every time a frame would pop up announcing a different place and a different year, I found myself sinking with the thought, ‘You mean there’s *more*?!’
[At one point, I imagined this as a gay movie. Each time Carradine found himself once again in Keitel’s path, I kept wanting him to say to him, “OK, so it didn’t work out! Get over it! Lots of other guys out there, y’know!”]
The thinness of the tale lends itself to very little actual drama.
As well, the film is occasionally confusing, with characters suddenly appearing and suddenly disappearing, leaving the viewer distracted by how they fit in exactly.
It doesn’t help that Keith Carradine is a lead. An actor of limited range, he’s fine when directors use his strengths (as in ‘Nashville’, ‘Choose Me’, maybe etc.). I will admit he certainly tries hard here, but he’s not at all up to playing opposite Harvey Keitel, who basically takes his role – and the movie – and runs.
The Duellists is one beautifully filmed period piece replete with the kinds of lavish details meant to be admired. And Director Ridley Scott earned enough respect for it to be awarded ‘Best First Work’ at Cannes. Like many other pics that won at Cannes, its reputation has grown in utter obscurity: you read many favorable reviews while knowing precious few who’ve actually seen it.
Now that I finally have, I admire the visuals and the production in general. But reverence for aesthetics is a superficial appreciation. Missing are any characters to identify with or care much about or meaningful relationships. We are watching two arrogant French soldiers in Napoleon’s army duke it out occasionally. In between, Keith Carradine avoids Harvey Keitel as well as love and commitment. That’s about it for character development. We learn virtually nothing about Keitel other than that he’s a hothead.
Conceptually, The Duellists is not on the firmest of ground, either. Knowing that their first duel began in a casual and impromptu manner leads us to wonder why they even bother rather than yearn for a resolution. But, to see Scott’s stylish first at-bat it’s worth a watch, and once will be enough.