The Duellists


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Duellists
"It's difficult to make an epic film on a small budget and even Scott's striking talent is never quite able to keep pace with his ambition."

Between 1794 and 1813, two officers in the French army fought a series of duels with an assotment of weapons, attemping to kill one another in just about every legally acceptable manner. In 1908, Josepf Conrad wrote a short story about them. In 1977, a little known director of TV adverts turned it into a feature film. The Duellists won Best Debut Film at Cannes and launched the career of that director, Ridley Scott.

It's easy to see why it made such an impression. Scott himself had been impressed by Stanley Kubrick's 1975 historical drama Barry Lyndon, and sought to emulate its style, but did so with such aplomb that he was rightly recognised as an artist in his own right rather than just a copycat. Aided by Frank Tidy's masterful cinematography, he drew on imagery from early 19th Century paintings to create a vision of the period that combines realism with painterly familiarity. The resulting settings are beautiful yet grounded, counterpointing the ludicrousness of the acts played out within them. Scott's direction is assured; he never seems daunted by the scale of his project, nor by the limitiations of a tight budget and strictly limited shooting time.

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This confidence mirrors that of the film's protagonists, particularly the brash and belligerent Ferraud (Harvey Keitel), a man so offended by a minor insult that he will never miss an opportunity to try and restore his honour (even after he forgets what that insult was about). Opposite him is D'Hubert (Keith Carradine), a reluctant opponent throughout but himself sufficiently concerned with honour (and social position) that he is unable to escape his rival's obsession. The story centres on the latter, and on his attempts to get on with his life, repeatedly interrupted by this ritualised flashes of violence. In the background we can observe a changing world as Europe and its boundaries are indelibly altered by the Napoleonic wars.

It's difficult to make an epic film on a small budget and even Scott's striking talent is never quite able to keep pace with his ambition. Like Ferraud, the film is intense and charismatic yet continually overreaching itself, sometimes seeming diminished as a consequence. The wit and keen political observation that give Conrad's story its spine are poorly served by the script here, which rarely flares into life the way it should and too often exists simply to string together the action set pieces.

The duels themselves are always thrilling and elegantly choreographed, though poor continuity sometimes lets them down. Those with an interest in historical weaponry will find them fascinating. There are sabres, rapiers, horseback charges, eventually pistols at dawn. Weaponry and costumes are well researched and painstakingly recreated. Sharp editing brings out the best in the combat scenes and neatly elides problems like the shortage of extras to fill out the background. The rest is smoke and mirrors, but very well done.

Intriguing now for its historical value, both as a record of 19th century events and a reflection of the state of the art in the late 20th Century, The Duellists no longer amazes as a piece of cinema in its own right. It is ultimately weighed down by too many weak links; but as far as Scott's contribution is concerned, it throws down a gauntlet few have since dared to take up.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2012
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The Duellists packshot
Two French army officers engage in a series of duels through the first half of the 19th Century.
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Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, based on the short story by Joseph Conrad.

Starring: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney, Diana Quick, Edward Fox, Cristina Raines, Tom Conti

Year: 1977

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK


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