This was Ridley Scott’s directorial debut in feature films, and it is a masterpiece. For those (unfortunate ones) not familiar with it, The Duellists tells the story of two calvary officers in Napoleon’s army who fight a series of duels against one another over the course of 15 years. Based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, it is an exploration of the lengths to which men will go to satisfy an obsession with honor.
Keith Carradine plays Armand D’Hubert, a dashing young Hussar with a good head on his shoulders and bright prospects. Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) is also a fearless and formidable soldier, but of the more hot-headed ilk. When Lt. D’Hubert is sent on an errand to arrest Lt. Feraud (for having fought a duel, naturally), Feraud’s response is – what else? – to provoke D’Hubert into dueling him. The film follows D’Hubert’s career as his rises through the ranks. Again, he displays a sympathetic character who conducts himself throughout with level-headed competency, yet his occasional encounters with Ferault inevitably lead him to throw all other concerns aside and engage in yet another duel. Even as he begins to understand what price he is paying for the pursuit of honor, he cannot bring himself to refuse. When informed by his “second” that the upcoming duel will take the form of a one-on-one cavalry charge, he mutters in helpless tone “I am going to be killed responsibly, on horseback, as a compliment to the cavalry.”
Although saddled by the studio with the casting of two relative unknowns in the leading roles (yeah, yeah, I know, but they were relatively unknown in 1977), Ridley Scott coaxes great performances from both. After a while, even the absurdity of Carradine’s breadbasket American and Keitel’s New York accent, surrounded by impeccably British actors portraying men and women of early 19th century France, disappears. The supporting cast, it should be noted, includes some stellar names, most of whom are really little more than cameos: Robert Stephens, Albert Finney, Edward Fox, and Tom Conti to name a few. While production values were extremely low, Scott filmed his little masterpiece in rural France, taking great advantage of existing structures and stunning scenery to create gorgeous screen pictures. The script is commendable not only for its compelling story, well-drawn characters, and tight structure, but also for the fine, literary lilt to its dialogue.
Never having seen this film up for discussion on this board, I thought I’d amend this oversight. En garde!