The Duellists (Shout!, NR)

duellists 75Harvey Keitel never came close to convincing me that he was a 19th-century French soldier, although he was quite convincing on the “driven by mad obsession” front.

 

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Harvey Keitel once described himself as a Brooklyn kid and mad as hell, and that’s the kind of resentment-fueled ferocity he brings to his role as Feraud, an officer in Napoleon’s army. Feraud comes from peasant stock, while most of the officer class is from the upper classes, and Feraud is constantly trying to make up for his background with unfocused belligerence. After Feraud kills a politically connected young man in a duel, a fellow officer, d’Hubert (Keith Carradine), is ordered to bring him before the garrison commander, because soldiers were not supposed to fight with civilians. This almost-chance encounter is interpreted by Feraud as a grave insult that can only be addressed through a duel, the first of several that the two men will fight over the course of the film because, you know, nothing is more important to a gentleman than his honor.

The Duellists is Ridley Scott’s first feature film (it won “Best First Work” at Cannes in 1977), and it’s a marvel of period style: clothing, weapons, fencing styles, interiors, and hairstyles are all meticulously recreated. This can be a little distracting at the start of the film—for instance, all the officers wear little braids framing their faces, reportedly to offer some protection from sword cuts, but it makes these big tough warriors look vaguely like yeshiva bochers—but as you settle into the film, such details become less distracting. I can’t say the same for Keitel’s acting: He never came close to convincing me that he was a 19th-century French soldier, although he was quite convincing on the “driven by mad obsession” front.

Fortunately, Carradine is better, and the film is far more concerned with d’Hubert, who marries and has a family, while Feraud comes to seem like a deranged Inspector Javert willing to throw his own life away rather than leave a score unsettled. A number of excellent British actors appear in small roles, including Albert Finney, Edward Fox, and Tom Conti, and the chief female roles are ably handled by Christina Raines, Diana Quick, and Meg Wynn Owen.

The big reason to watch The Duellists, however, is for its stunning visuals. Scott’s model was Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, and the cinematography by Frank Tidy (also his first film) is excellent throughout. Anyone interested in learning how to get big effects with a small budget should listen to Scott’s commentary track, much of which is spent describing how he produced such a beautiful film on very little money.

 The screenplay for The Duellists, by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, which is in turn based on a real-life case. In case you’re tempted to say “Oh, those silly Frenchman,” remember that the man who created our modern financial system, Alexander Hamilton, died in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, within the years covered in The Duellists. The duels (by epee, by sword, on horseback, and by pistol) are suitably bloody, but in between the story drags—and it’s hard to avoid thinking that someone should just knock their heads together and be done with it.

The Duellists looks and sounds great on Shout!’s new blu-ray release. It comes packed with extras, including two commentary tracks (by Scott and soundtrack composer Howard Blake), an interview with Carradine (oddly intercut with what appears to be material from the trailer), and a Kevin Reynolds interview with Scott. | Sarah Boslaugh

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