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