The Duellists 1977 movie

The Duellist – The wondrous beginning of the young Ridley Scott

For those unfamiliar with it, The Duellists proves that even the greatest of great filmmakers have to start somewhere, as this magnificent 1977 movie is the debut of the then-unknown Ridley Scott.

The Duellists presents a straightforward and memorable story: a relentless clash for honor and respect between two officers of Napoleon’s Army, Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert, and his counterpart Gabriel Féraud.

Initially, these men do not even know each other, but Hubert must arrest Féraud after the latter has already wounded the son of a bigwig in city politics in a duel.

The contempt between them is immediate and decisive, instantly triggering a fight that ends in victory for Hubert and a bloody humiliating defeat for Féraud.

After that, for some years, these officers never have a chance to meet again because of Napoleon’s continued rise and the increasingly imposing war machine growing in numbers among the soldiers of the French Grand Army.

At the first opportunity, catching a fleeting glimpse of him in a tavern, Féraud wastes no time in calling for a new confrontation, and it is Hubert who gets the worst of it, nearly dying from a slash from the enemy sword.

Once again, time passes inevitably, with the two men continuing their careers in the army and navigating between suitor wives and secret mistresses.

Their paths cross again in the cold steppes of Russia, the campaign that marked the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s rule, where they must temporarily put aside their rivalry and fight together an ambush by Cossack soldiers.

However, Féraud is still seething with resentment toward his lifelong friend/enemy, so he sends some of his loyal men to challenge him for a final duel that will take place in the very countryside near the rich and married Hubert’s large estate.

A small but great, unforgettable English production

Inspired by one of Joseph Conrad’s many short stories, whose coincidentally effective style in describing the characters and expanding the story over a long period we can admire, Ridley Scott, entrusting the screenplay to Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, fairly faithfully retraces the original story.

However, he deviates by introducing the female character played by Diana Quick, Laura, Hubert‘s lover, a seemingly secondary character; nevertheless, with her sincere but defiant attitude, she is the best referee and judge of the never-ending feud between these men.

Although she appears in only a few moments, she manages to be essential in showing the withering beauty on her face, in the same way that the aura of invincibility of the French armies fades.

Indeed, as we have already mentioned, the story unfolds very broadly in the nearly two decades between Napoleon’s rise and fall, and it is no accident that the last scene closes with Harvey Keitel staring off into the sunset, now alone and defeated as his beloved commander in exile and forgotten by his loyal troops.

This opportunity to analyze and appreciate the movie’s various narrative layers makes The Duellists an absolute masterpiece of 1977 and the first achievement of one of the greatest directors in the past 50 years.

This is an achievement that I consider even more important than the later Alien and Blade Runner (without in any way minimizing them, let me be clear) since, in this case, we are talking about a low-budget film shot in just a few weeks.

Still, costumes and sets are absolutely perfect, as are the shots in the cold moors or the warm candlelight, rivaling (and perhaps surpass) even Stanley Kubrick‘s more famous Barry Lyndon, not coincidentally released a few years earlier, becoming a new benchmark for historical costume dramas.

Top actors Duel

Besides having a talented director and a fantastic script, it never hurts to have a great cast to make a movie completely perfect.

As with Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino‘s cinematic debut, we have among the leads a superlative Harvey Keitel working perfectly together/against the extraordinary Keith Carradine.

Two great actors whose performances are equally brilliant as they are highly diverse, giving life to the endless duel that is precisely the beating heart of this story.

Keitel is a fanatical Napoleon acolyte, arrogant and swaggering, confident to the point he cares nothing about being wrong or right in any argument.

Even less does he care whether he wins or loses against his opponent, as over the years the clashes between these men will see either one or the other occasionally win, although Féraud is never truly satisfied and continually demands to challenge Hubert, who endures the provocations but never backs down.

Indeed, even before the grand finale, Hubert takes charge of defending Féraud’s honor and removing him from the list of death-row inmates when the Emperor’s new regime removes all the warmest Napoleonian followers.

If we want to distinguish them better, Keitel is a man of the people, ignorant and crude, but built his fame by his fierce and ableness as a warrior, while Carradine’s character comes from the luxury and privilege of the nobility.

We can also read a class clash between rich and poor, birthright and harsh social struggle; this is without either Joseph Conrad in his book or Ridley Scott in his screen version either justifying or condemning the choices, instead just showing the consequences.

For those who have not yet figured it out, I consider The Duellists to be one of the best movies in cinema history and not just the intriguing debut work of an up-and-coming director, and for me, indeed, it was a pity that in 1977 I had not yet been born to be able to enjoy it sitting in the theater, that is, as a work like this best deserves.

The Duellists 1977 movie
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