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United Kingdom 1977
Directed by
Ridley Scott
100 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Duellists, The

Ridley Scott’s debut feature film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival but did not get a wide release and soon sank from view. Few people would pick it as a work by Scott who is better known for his slick, big budget Hollywood movies.

Although a superb production with stunning cinematography credited to Frank Tidy (according to Scott he himself operated the camera but it was Tidy who lit the scenes) that marvellously recreates the look of the period as we know it from contemporary painting, the dramatic content of The Duellists is another matter

Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s short story "The Duel" Scott’s film depicts the protracted conflict between two officers in Napoleon’s army.  Harvey Keitel plays alpha-male, Feraud, who takes an obsessive disliking to the gentlemanly D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and over a twenty year period, during which time Napoleon rises and falls, the two periodically engage in a series of duels with each other that, bar the final encounter, end in stalemate.

Scott was influenced by Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which had appeared two years earlier but unlike that film there is no strong central narrative here to hold one’s interest. One can see the issues of honour and the conflicting ideas of manhood being touched upon but they are never really given dramatic embodiment in the characters and the film remains a series of skirmishes conducted against the background of the Napoleonic wars. 

Keitel is quite effective as the blustering fool, Feraud but Scott’s original choice, Oliver Reed, probably would have been better. On the other hand whilst Carradine is also satisfactory at least he is much more appropriate than Scott's first choice, Michael York.

Part of the problem no doubt was budgetary and given this fact (the film was made for under $900,000) what Scott has achieved is impressive.  




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