Ridley Scott is a truly intriguing case. How can the director of Blade Runner and Alien go on to create mediocrities like Exodus: Gods and Kings and The Counselor? Why is it that his career has been so uneven and inconsistent? I haven’t the slightest clue. What I do know, however, is that his earliest works are the ones that will forever be regarded as his masterpieces, as the films that cemented Scott’s place in the pantheon of film makers. The Duellists is one of those films, even if it is one of his more obscure and largely forgotten works. It isn’t a cult classic like Blade Runner, or a trend-setter like Alien. It is more an exercise in style than in innovation, but is nevertheless one of the most impressive debuts in film history.
The Duellists follows the story of a small feud between two officers in Napoleon’s army, d’Hubert and Feraud. The cause of this quarrel is insignificant, as Feraud claims to have had his honor slighted by d’Hubert during their very first encounter. What follows is a series of duels, set in different parts of the world, that stretches over more than two decades. One might imagine that the dueling would become quite dull after the first few engagements, but that assumption would be quite far from the truth. The novelty of their fights never wears off. The circumstances of their battles change with each iteration, weapons switch, as do the rules of their duels. But the main focus of these bouts of saber-rattling and gun slinging isn’t the physical act of fighting, it’s what this fighting represents for the two men. Their first duel is quick and largely impersonal, it looks and feels much like the opening scene of the movie in which Feraud battles and defeats an unnamed character. The monotony of this fight is broken in its very end, when d’Hubert prepares to deliver the final blow, by Feraud’s wife. She lunges at d’Hubert and scratches at his face, saving her husband. This interruption, this break with normality, serves as the introduction to their unusually long rivalry.
The most memorable round is also their most bloody. Unlike previous duels, we’re introduced to this one after its beginning, we’re thrown in the middle of a frantic spar in a dimly lit barn. Both men are wounded, heaving and striking at each other ferociously. Their lives are at their lowest at that point, and the fight represents their mental state. Each blow is vicious, delivered with both hands and with as much strength as possible. This is also the first fight that becomes almost intimately physical as they desperately tackle each other trying to get ahead. The camera is hand held, the editing is at its most frantic, the score is tense and thriller-like. All this, combined with the choreography and the fact that Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine both did their own stunts, makes for an incredibly kinetic scene that delivers on all fronts. This practice of using fight scenes as a means of exploring the character’s psyche was later used to even greater effect by Scorsese in Raging Bull where Jake LaMotta is, in the words of the late Roger Ebert, “…a man with paralyzing jealousy and sexual insecurity, for whom being punished in the ring serves as confession, penance and absolution.” But, unlike LaMotta, d’Hubert and Feraud do not seek penance or absolution. Their feud is utterly absurd, even by d’Hubert own admission.
The absurdity of the feud is what makes The Duellists a truly special movie. Instead of focusing on the psychology of the men or wading too far into anti-war territory, Scott explores the way this obsession affects both of them separately, the queer relationship that arises from their frequent battles, the mutual respect that develops over time. It’s a case of protagonist and antagonist establishing a connection at a fundamental level, even if not purposely. There’s a deep beauty to this film, it explores something very human, very natural. It doesn’t look at society as a whole, it doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. Instead, it looks at the way life can spiral out of control by no fault of our own through the character of d’Hubert, as well as the cyclical nature of violence towards the end of the movie when Feraud stands on the edge of a cliff and contemplates the way his obsession drove him, how it framed his life and completely consumed him. This last shot is incredibly meaningful because it doubles as a commentary on the pointlessness of war without being overt or obvious. It’s a reference to a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte on St. Helena by Francois Joseph-Sandmann, as he watches the ship that got him there sailing away. His lengthy campaign amounted to nothing and his life returns to the monotony of balance and normality.
Some have called The Duellists “Barry Lyndon-lite”. It’s easy to see the parallels. The setting, the decor, the way that interiors are shot with seemingly natural light emitted by candles or by the rays of the sun coming in through the windows. There are plenty of establishing, wide-angle shots that show the character slowly making his way through the big world, but these similarities are merely visual, the effect they have on the picture is very, very different. Barry Lyndon is a Kubrick movie, and as such it bears the distinct feeling of cynical detachment that Kubrick is known for. It’s almost as if an alien is looking at the lives of humans, coldly judging them from a distance. The Duellists is much more intimate. There are plenty of close-ups and moments of emotion taking precedence over logic and sound judgement. That said, Scott’s film does indeed owe much to Barry Lyndon in terms of the way that d’Hubert’s life is portrayed in the later parts of the film. The way that the camera shows up early on in the scene, showing characters just sitting around or going about their business puts an emphasis on naturalism and realism, and that is something that Barry Lyndon had in spades.
Overall, The Duellists is a brilliant film that served as a stepping stone for Scott on his way to creating two of the most influential films of the past 50 years. It’s refined and beautiful, though it does not truly reach very far. More than worth a watch for anyone looking for a good historical drama.