Wednesday, January 14, 2015

NOVELLA / MOVIE: The Duellists (1977)


            En garde!  “The Duellists” was director Ridley Scott’s (“Black Hawk Down”) feature film debut.  He started strong as the movie won the Best Debut Film award at Cannes.  Scott was tired of doing commercials and had to actively pursue the project.  He was given a budget of under $1 million and a choice of four actors for the leads.  He chose Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel.   Keitel was available after Coppola dumped him from “Apocalypse Now”.  Carradine almost became unavailable due to his surprise #1 hit “I’m Easy”.  The  movie was based on Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Duel” which itself was based on two French officers who conducted a series of duels over decades.

            The movie opens in Strasbourg in 1800.  A French Hussar named Feraud (Keitel) skewers the mayor’s nephew in a duel.  The French general sends a staff officer named d’Hubert (Carradine) to inform Feraud that he is confined to quarters.  He catches Feraud at the wrong time and place which causes Feraud to challenge him to a duel.  Hey, don’t stab the messenger!  The movies second duel in ten minutes ends with d’Hubert victorious and thinking that’s the last time he will have to interact with this mad man.  “He is most unreasonable” will turn out to be the understatement of the Napoleonic War.  Speaking of unreasonable, when he returns to headquarters the general is upset with him.  It is unclear why – must be some French thing.

            Six months later the two meet up in Augsberg.  Their second duel features d’Hubert calling time out to sneeze.  It ends unsatisfactorily.  The third is down and dirty with heavy sabers.  The fourth is in Lubeck in 1806.  This one is on horseback and is a joust equivalent of a duel.  Tres cool.  d’Hubert manages to stay out of Feraud’s path for the next six years until they are both in the detritus of the retreat from Moscow.  Even though they are freezing, duel #5 is on until interrupted by Cossacks.  Spoil sports!  After the exile of Napoleon, d’Hubert retires to a country estate and weds.  End of story, right?  Wrong.  There are still some unresolved issues as far as Feraud is concerned.  Plus we in the audience demand closure!

            This is a very interesting movie.  And why wouldn’t it be when it is based on such an insane story.  Conrad based his novella on the real life adventures of two French officers named Dupont and Fournier.  The series of 30 duels over nineteen years began in 1794 under similar circumstances to what is shown in the movie.  The last one also ended similar to in the movie.  Scott takes the fascinating story and adds excellent attention to detail.  The sets are authentic to the time period and are reminiscent of “Barry Lyndon”.  The uniforms and weapons are spot on for the Napoleonic army.    And we see a variety of weapons in the dueling scenes.  They are all authentic and in some cases quite valuable.  When Keitel insisted on tossing his last dueling pistol, Scott had to make sure it landed on a mattress.  Scott is careful not to be repetitive in the duels.  Most importantly, although you won’t learn much about the Napoleonic Wars from this movie (with the exception of the Moscow retreat scene which will have you cuddling under a blanket), you will be steeped in the minutiae of dueling etiquette.  For instance, years pass by because d’Hubert has been promoted above Feraud and only equal ranks could duel.

I’m not sure if Scott was shooting for the big takeaway that their concept of honor was ridiculous, but the movie seems to push that idea.  Feraud is border line insane and d’Hubert may be worse because he realizes how insane things are, but risks his deserved happiness on these points of honor.  The duels are used as a metaphor for war.  By the end of the movie, Feraud can not even remember what started the feud.

The movie is essentially a two character affair.  Feraud is one of the great war movie villains and Keitel inhabits the part.  You get the distinct impression that he must have been an ass during the filming.  Carradine does some of his best work in a weaker part.  d’Hubert is too good to be true.  He has no flaws.  Although an extremely likeable character, the movie could have used a little less holiness.  This comes to an unrealistic head when d’Hubert prevents the execution of the man he most despises.  He also unnecessarily risks his future happiness to fight the last duel.  This does fit the age-old trope that military men will chose their profession over family.

            If you like duels, this movie is for you.  It has quantity and quality.  It also has two fascinating characters and a story that flows from start to finish.  It is definitely one of the 100 best war movies ever made.


            Don’t read this if you have not watched the movie.  The movie parallels the novella admirably.  The story does not open with the duel between Feraud and the mayor’s son.  The initial meeting between the two protagonists is from the story.  d’Hubert’s reaming by the general comes after their second duel.  He is understanding of the situation, but still forbids d’Hubert to duel any more.  The second duel, which is brief in the movie, lasts a bit longer in the story.  The third and fourth duels are very similar to the ones in the story.  In the story, the encounter during the retreat from Moscow occurred when both men were cut off from their unit and had to open fire on some Cossacks.  They had not been planning to duel.  The climactic duel is much more complicated in the short story.  They start on opposite ends of the forest.  d’Hubert deliberately exposes himself to a long shot which misses.  He lies on the ground pretending to be hit.  When Feraud comes up he surprises d’Hubert who leaps up, but Feraud misses with his last shot.  d’Hubert refuses to kill him.  He returns to his fiancé Adele who is waiting, thus proving she loves him.  Later, d’Hubert writes a letter of reconciliation, but Feraud remains an ass.

Movie  =  A-
Novella  =  B+


  1. I really liked the movie when I watched it a few years ago. It made my best of list of that year. I still haven't read the book though, so I skimmed your review, since I've got ot here and really want to read it.
    The movie is such a great character study and both actors are excellent.

  2. I agree - this is one of my favourite movies, and one of Scott's best. The man should be forced to work on a tight budget again... Some years ago, I bought a few DVDs cheap, and have presented them to friends I know appreciate fine period movies.

  3. Good point about the tight budget. However, he did not stay in that budget range long as his next movie was "Alien"!

  4. Yeah, another classic (I was 14 when I saw it; watched it last year and it still holds up). No, I meant the bloated epics he's doing now. Has he done anything good post-Gladiator?

  5. Keitel is as mad as a cut snake in this film. However I wouldn't say Carradine has the weaker character. He does a great job in making Keitel look like an even bigger pain in the arse - if that is possible.

    1. Okay, I'll go along with that. Thanks for the cool simile.


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