The Duellists

RIDLEY SCOTT’S direc­to­r­ial debut, 1977’s The Duel­lists, is a phe­nom­e­nal paragon of nar­ra­tive purity. It is the story of two per­pet­u­ally quar­rel­ing French sol­diers in the era of Napoleon, one played by Keith Car­ra­dine and the other by Har­vey Kei­tel, who encounter one another every few years and recom­mence their oft-interrupted duels. What begun, and pro­longs the life of, these reck­less dances with death? To find the well­spring of their dogged dis­con­tent with one another, you must under­stand their char­ac­ters, for what­ever lit­tle strife it was that spurred the ini­tial demands for sat­is­fac­tion even­tu­ally becomes con­signed to oblivion.

Mr. Keitel’s Lt. Gabriel Fer­raud, for whom the word “bel­liger­ent” might have been coined, is a bristling, wrath­ful lit­tle warthog of the 7th Hus­sars who has the steel to match his provo­ca­tion; The Duel­lists’ first scene has him effort­lessly dis­patch­ing the son of a local politi­cian. By con­trast, Mr. Carradine’s Lt. Armand D’Hubert is a tall, mild-mannered gen­tle­man of the 3rd Hus­sars whose severely rigid con­strual of honor and dig­nity seem to be what keeps him on his feet, tot­ter­ing around with a gen­tly aggrieved expres­sion per­ma­nently fixed upon his exquis­itely mus­ta­chioed face. Mr. Car­ra­dine makes him a com­plex man to alter­na­tively pity, ridicule, and admire but most impor­tantly to root for. D’Hubert is the polar oppo­site of Fer­raud, and, as we are oft reminded, oppo­sites attract.Therefore D’Hubert has the dubi­ous honor of inform­ing Fer­raud that his brazen­ness has con­se­quences, and circumstances—not to men­tion the dis­par­ity between the two men’s characters—prevail in ensur­ing that they emerge as ene­mies, there­upon locked in a bit­ter feud out of which will emerge only one survivor.

Mr. Scott fol­lows these two sol­diers as their enmity spans decades, falling and ris­ing in part with Napoleon’s fickle for­tunes of war, each suc­ces­sive duel either end­ing inde­ci­sively or in unset­tled post­pone­ment. We mostly have the oppor­tu­nity to observe D’Hubert, who, it can be said, got the short end of the stick; not sali­vat­ing at the mouth to bran­dish sabers at his oppo­nent by any means, it is only his strict adher­ence to the code of honor that makes him face, with an increas­ingly wan but ever courtly acknowl­edge­ment, the unhappy Fer­raud time and time again. Much to the audience’s delight, of course, for The Duel­lists more than lives up to its name. When the two adver­saries meet to fight, it is always cap­ti­vat­ing scenes of con­sid­er­able inten­sity that emerges from the con­fronta­tion of Mr. Car­ra­dine and Mr. Keitel’s finely real­ized char­ac­ters, and from their clash of swords. One would require really very lit­tle else to enjoy The Duel­lists, but Mr. Scott indulges us with rich Barry Lyn­don–evok­ing visu­als that brings out the splen­did cos­tumes of the period and the pro­duc­tion value. It’s a sim­ple movie with plenty of splen­dor. A