I’ve been playing a lot of Napoleon: Total War lately, and i mean a lot… As a result i’ve developed a bit of a fascination with the time period. I particularly like the aesthetics of the uniforms, as having formations march into hell and look marvelous while doing so is a treat to watch.
I had heard of this movie before (the name at least), and considering it is Ridley Scott’s feature debut my interest in watching has always been there. Seeing it on bluray i decided that the time was right a bought a copy.
The course of history is merely a backdrop to the ongoing duel between two officer’s of Napoleon’s Grande Armee.
First films always make for good curiosities at the least. Either the director hasn’t yet developed their personal style, or is completely obsessed with it. Here in The Duellists Ridley Scott’s penchant for memorable imagery is in full display, and his trademark use of long lens cinematography lends much of the film’s shots a painterly quality (credit must also be given to Frank Tidy who is also making his debut here). The visuals are helped by setting being mostly during the autumn months, which add in varying degrees a muddy, foggy, lush, vibrant, and spectacularly green look to the film.
Credit for the wonderful look of the film must also go to Peter J Hampton who acted as production designer, whose attention to period detail is absolutely exquisite. I have no doubt that what is on display in The Duellists is as close to the time period as possible, without going into the past itself.
It also must go without saying that William Hobbs’ fight choreography, looks both authentic and good for the camera and you can currently see his work today on Game of Thrones.
The story itself, is also a bit of a curiosity, and takes some welcome side steps to the typical Hollywood execution of this type of period action film. If this were done in today’s Hollywood, the duelists would probably be fighting over a woman, in some done to death love triangle. Thank god that isn’t the case, while there is a bit of romance the focus of the film is the two rivals and their various duels. The clash of swords or bullets is the main drama here, with the passing of the time and historical events merely providing a setting and a sense of place. In fact the cause of the initial duel is so petty and insignificant that it’s forgotten by the character’s by the time the end of the film comes about.
While the focus on the duelists is the film’s biggest advantage it also leads to my biggest criticisms. Due to the short running time (100 minutes) and blazing fast pace, the film is forced to focus on only one of the duelists. Keith Carradine’s D’Hubert gets the lions share of the running time, while Harvey Keitel’s Feraud gets completely shafted. Feraud comes off as an obsessed bully and while it works in that his character provides the narrative drive of the film he as a result is completely one dimensional; as nothing other than his anger is shown to drive him into pursuing his rival.
By the end of the film D’Hubert is married and happy and Feraud is alone and bitter, this creates an interesting dichotomy between the characters that has a lot of room for exploration. After all the two characters serve in the same army, in the same formation (Hussar’s), and are promoted to equal ranks over the years. However even given the same opportunities D’Hubert clearly comes out the winner. More focus on this dichotomy between the lives of these two men would have given a bit more narrative weight to the ending, as it would allowed Feraud to become less of a cardboard cut out bad guy and more of an interesting adversary.
The Duellists filled with lush images and memorable fights it satisfies as a quick paced period and action film. However its rocket speed leaves a few too many things behind for it to achieve greatness, as a result i wholly recommend it on the basis that it’s the debut film of a very interesting and important director, and an interesting look to a very interesting time and place.