The Duellists is a 1977 British historical drama and the first movie helmed by the renowned director Ridley Scott. The movie is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novel entitled The Duel and stars Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel in the lead roles.
The Duellists is set during the Napoleonic Wars (early 19th century) and is centred on a feud between two French officers viz. Armand d’Hubert (Carradine) and Gabriel Feraud (Keitel). In truth, d’Hubert is the main character and is fleshed out far better that Feraud’s somewhat two-dimensional portrayal.
d’Hubert is a man of honour and for all intents and purposes a decent gentleman but unfortunately gets on the wrong side of the unreasonable Feraud. At that first encounter between the two, a grunge embeds itself into their relationship and develops into regular duels over the years, in different locations.
The plot of two men mirror each other in status while carrying an extremely antagonistic relationship seems fanciful but I gather than the original Conrad novel was meant to be taken ironically. It’s fair to say that the irrational conflict between the two men, is a reflection of the illogical nature of war itself.
The movie is beautiful to look at, and typical of a 19th century setting places the spotlight on gorgeous landscapes. Even the bleakness of a Russian winter is presented with a stunning vigour contrasted by the blanket of white death that surround the two men.
Carradine does a good job in humanising d’Hubert, allowing the audience to understand his plight though maybe not his dogged persistence in matching Feraud’s ridiculous duel obsession. Even when his life turns to domesticity, d’Hubert places himself into high risk for the sake of his honour. Talk about your toxic masculinity!
Keitel does the best he can with Feraud’s one note personality, providing the feral intensity we expect from him in an unflattering role. After the manner in which the tension is built up for the final act, I am glad to report that the denouement is quite satisfying.
If you are a fan of Ridley Scott then The Duellists is essential viewing to complete the collection. Right from his debut feature film, all the traits that Scott is well known for – his visual flair, his command of action sequences and his penchant for intriguing stories – are already demonstrated. Highly recommended.
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