The Duellists (1977)

To mark the founding of a new film site carrying on the legacy of Ferdy on Films, the site I co-authored with Marilyn Ferdinand for 13 years, I offer as the first piece on Film Freedonia the previously unpublished full-length version of the first essay I ever posted on that site, my look at Ridley Scott’s debut feature, The Duellists

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Sir Ridley Scott today stands at the forefront of popular cinema with a raft of works easily nameable to any self-respecting cineaste – Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down – and also a long mid-career slump with a slew of artistic and commercial failures. Scott often falls into the familiar trap of visually-oriented directors, turning in works overly-stylised and dramatically under-powered. But he has proved a remarkable survivor. Scott rode the vanguard of a generation of film-makers who stressed a visual sumptuousness almost unknown in British cinema outside of David Lean and Michael Powell; some were trained in television and advertising, like Ridley, brother Tony Scott, Hugh Hudson, and Alan Parker; others, like Peter Greenaway, rooted in a far more arty sphere, but in some ways similar in their love of gaudy flash. Most were instinctively commercial, and found varying degrees of success in Hollywood. Aiding many of these men was the impresario producer David Puttnam, who led a short-lived but impressive campaign by British cinema to reconstitute itself as a global force after a collapse in the early ‘70s.

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Puttnam pursued a strategy of tapping American money, hiring slick, commercially amenable talents, telling strong stories made with care and artfulness, and taking advantage of what was then the British industry’s surpassing, underused technical talent, to turn in films both ravishing in appearance, solid in drama, and cheaper to boot. They soon achieved Oscar success and box office victory with products including Parker’s Midnight Express and Hudson’s Chariots of Fire. The Duellists is one of the first films in this campaign, but it does, however, stand apart; it’s basically an art film, a hit at Cannes and not at the box office. It did, however gain Scott enough attention to land him the job of directing Alien.

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I would say his masterpiece is still his debut. Most first films are messy affairs; The Duellists, however, is remarkable for being the most concise film Scott has made. It is obviously influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s exercise in historical storytelling, Barry Lyndon, from two years previous, (indeed, the influence of Kubrick is still strong in later Scott works) in evoking with its cinematography the texture of still life and landscape paintings of the eighteenth century. As with Barry Lyndon, a swashbuckling story is turned inside out by this cool style, and becomes a study in irony, in watching what passes for classically heroic achievement revealed as idiocy and baseness. Yet it is its own film and it could be argued to be superior to its model, chiefly in being half as long but telling its story with equal impact. The story, adapted from a Joseph Conrad tale itself drawn from an apparently true account, is relatively simple. Beginning in Strasbourg in 1799, “the year Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler of France” as Stacy Keach’s narration puts it, we encounter Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), a Lieutenant in the 7th Hussars, swiftly and happily skewers the nephew of the town’s mayor in a duel because the man spoke disparagingly of Bonaparte.

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This incident sets in a rage the formidable General  Treillard  (Robert Stephens, the first in the film’s pitch-perfect series of character turns), and he orders D’Hubert, also a lieutenant in the Hussars, to find his vague acquaintance and place him under house arrest. He finds Feraud at the salon of Madame de Lionne (Jenny Runacre). Feraud is, naturally, less than pleased at this errand. On their way to Feraud’s billet, the gentlemanly, uncomfortable D’Hubert constantly trips verbally over Feraud’s fuming, and by the time they get there, Feraud has directed his rage at D’Hubert, promptly challenging him to a duel, and with his bullying D’Hubert cannot avoid it. Their furious fight in the courtyard is interrupted when D’Hubert slashes Feraud’s arm, causing Feraud’s mistress to promptly assault her lover’s assailant. What unfolds in episodes across the next fifteen years is a personal conflict backgrounded by a world war, and the nature of their antagonism broadly reflects that war. At first glance, The Duellists seems a disjointed, episodic film. We only see these two men in the times when they come across each-other in the course of the Grand Army’s campaign across Europe, and after. We come into the various chapters, identified by locale and date, and are made aware of the passing of time and the toll of war as friends and faces disappear, reappear, make their indelible impression, are lost and forgotten. In this way, The Duellists manages at once to maintain the economy of its short story basis but also evoke a novel’s complexity of texture.

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The chief – indeed only – similarity between Armand D’Hubert and Gabriel Feraud is that both are exceptionally good and brave soldiers. In fact, we see in them a study of two different kinds of bravery and honor. Armand is a relentlessly honorable man. We suspect, and later find it’s true, he comes from wealthy circumstances, and his manner is scrupulously gentlemanly and reasonableness. Yet he is a man who does not entirely understand himself, because he is ultimately so willing to engage in this trap of ethics and masculine pride. Late in the film is own self-defence, “I’m a temperate man! Temperate in my speech-” is rightly laughed at by his fiancé, because as we know already, his strength of character is at odds with his projected surface. His sense of honor forces himself to enter into circumstances when his good sense warns him away. He cannot be seen to turn tail, to tell tales, despite the fact that he does not even himself know just what exactly offended Feraud so badly, and thus considers their quarrel incoherent. Nonetheless he fears Feraud’s savagery. D’Hubert has the kind of guts that arise from necessity. Feraud, on the other hand, relishes violence, and Armand lives in constant, queasy-making fear of his enemy. In one of my all-time favorite lines, Armand’s physician friend Jacquin (played by Tom Conti), in considering Feraud’s face (D’Hubert has had him attend Feraud’s injury), describes perfectly one kind of bigot; “The enemies of reason have a certain blind look. Feraud has that look don’t you think?’ Jacquin has crucially recognised that Feraud is quite set on carrying on the quarrel until he kills Armand, and gives three crucial pieces of advice; keep away, keep ahead in rank, and hope Bonaparte keeps the wars going, all of which forestall further duels.

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Feraud is not a one-dimensional bully. Where the essentially Romantic Armand reckons their quarrel to be around a supposed disrespect shown for Madame de Lionne, it is to Gabriel about Bonaparte, and Gabriel’s private class war. He seems driven by deep resentments, and the surface reasons he finds to enact them, whether it’s assumed disrespect for Bonaparte or the fact that he can no longer win arm wrestling contests because of the wound Armand gave him, are excuses for a deeper resentment. Indeed, he has a psyche that feeds on such hates, to drive him in his pleasurable seeking of war and hate. He refers to Armand as a “boudoir soldier” and a “staff lackey” where he himself is, in the words of one fellow, a “man who would ride straight at anything”, a man’s man who fills his tent with other soldiers and vivandieres, boozing, screwing and betting. The duel is more than just an outlet for his angers; it is his equivalent of an extreme sport, the thing that sirs his blood, renews his soul and gives a mode of self-expression. “You make fighting a duel sound like a pastime in the Garden of Eden!” Armand comments in Madame de Lionne’s apartment.

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Armand’s own ‘woman of the garrison’ is Laura (Diana Quick). She is the last of an old crew of camp followers, representative of the women who have kept, comforted, and celebrated this roaming mass of organised madmen. Sprightly on the surface, increasingly melancholy beneath, she keeps account of what happened to her fellows and the soldiers they loved. She has a standing marriage proposal from one invalided ex-soldier, but passes it up to be with Armand, “the only one I ever loved”, when she accidentally comes across him in Augsburg (1801, the second “chapter”). Laura, however, soon finds herself driven to worry and anger at the spectacle of her man not merely endangered as a soldier but living in fear and readiness in between campaigns. She is forced to live constantly with the spectacle of death, maiming, and ruination not as a brave soldier and gallant but as a passive onlooker and ledger-keeper, the price paid for bathing in their collective sexy and spectacular glory. After their second contest, where, in a swift set-to, Armand almost accidentally receives a nasty gash in his chest that prevents further fighting, but Feraud will not shake hands with him. Laura subsequently confronts Feraud and his fellows in his tent. When he jokingly draws a sword to protect himself, saying, “I once knew a man who was stabbed by a woman, it gave him the surprise of his life”, she ripostes, immediately sizing up this figure as a mere cheap macho bully, “I once knew a woman who beaten to death by a man. I don’t think it surprised her at all.” Finally, Laura, inspired by a tarot card reader’s assessment of the situation, leaves Armand, leaving him a pointedly poignant farewell by writing “Good-bye” in lipstick on his sabre. Left grimly barren, Armand throws himself into an exhausting, brutal match with Feraud where the two men end up wrestling in utter exhaustion on the ground.

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Kingdom of Heaven featured one moment that tellingly quoted Scott’s debut work, The Duellists, when Balian (Orlando Bloom) recognised the head of his Templar friend (David Thewlis) stacked amidst many others, covered in a glaze of dust, a personal signature of the unseen brutality of battle, and a replica of a scene, in a different climate, in The Duellists, when Armand D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) discovers the frozen form of his friend and fellow soldier Lacourbe (Alun Armstrong) during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The Duellists, a film made on a stringent budget that nonetheless manages to be at once one of the most beautiful films ever made, one of the best evocations of an historical period, and a work where the visual texture is in complete unity with the dramatic material.

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Ironically, despite the trouble it brings his personal life and the tirades he receives from Gen. Treillard, Armand actually benefits from this situation. “You’re a notorious and savage duellist,’ jests Lacourbe when he, Laura and Armand are dining in an Augsburg restaurant, and there’s the suggestion his career is helped along by this reputation. “All the little girls adore you.’ Lacourbe observes, and indeed, these soldiers are hold the dazzling, florid, outside-the-common status held only for rock and film stars today. Their duelling, though illegal, is actually grand theatre and entertainment. Their next fight, in Lubeck, 1806, is done on horseback, as “a compliment to the cavalry”. Here Armand encounters Laura once more; having married her invalided suitor, and then lost him in a typhus epidemic, she has returned to following the army but is now a bitter wreck, and when Armand ardently recommends she give up this life in spite of her tearful account that her husband suggested she return to “that fool Armand”, she hisses back spitefully; “This time he’ll kill you!” and runs away. Indeed, Armand becomes convinced of this, prompting Lacourbe’s angry answer; “Dammit, kill him!” In this duel, Scott makes a brilliant and inspired stylistic shift; as the two men face off on their chargers, and race in for the kill, a series of flash cuts illuminates Armand’s mind, recalling Feraud’s impudent savagery and Laura’s past love and present wretchedness; realising the evil mark Feraud has left on his life til now, Armand gains warrior rage and rather than dying leaves his enemy with half his scalp torn from his head.

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“Six years later,’ Keach intones, “The Emperor’s Grand Army regrouped for Armageddon.” “Russia, 1812”, gives a glimpse of the grim destruction of this grand force and its dashing, beautiful men. Frozen, whiskered, faces bitten into by chilblains, starved and without boots, they drag themselves tediously across a vast frigid landscape. All the trappings of decorum, civility, and humanity have fallen away, and the second they catch sight of each-other, Feraud bunks down paranoiacally with two rifles and eyes D’Hubert as they both huddle in shiver in a blizzard. They are now in a barren landscape where only instincts reign. Against all the codes they have been following to this point, they head off, under the pretext of reconnaissance, to duel in private. This scene is only stopped by the intrusion of a Cossack who mocks them, and, realising they are surrounded, the two men fight off their mutual enemy – only survival overwhelms their grim enmity. Feraud’s particular comfort with this animalistic state is seen when he calmly slices the wounded Cossack’s throat and refuses D’Hubert’s offer of a drink to celebrate their approaching the Neiman and escape. It is at this point D’Hubert finds Lacourbe’s body, a haunting image of lonely death on the edge of nothingness.

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“Tours, 1814” finds D’Hubert, retired having risen to the rank of General of Brigade, living with his sister Leonie (Meg Wynn Owen) on her estate, walking on a wounded leg and telling his nephews war stories. With his injury and his psychic exhaustion, despite being still a relatively young man, he has convinced himself he is done with the world. Leonie, recognising the danger and waste of this, immediately sets about matchmaking Armand with the niece of an elderly neighbouring Chevalier (Alan Webb), who is both happy to be restored to his rank post-Bonaparte but also fussily proud of his acquired trade as a boot-maker. Armand’s subsequent romance with Adele (Christina Raines) aids in his regeneration from emaciated, limping burn-out back to a serving commander again. But Bonaparte’s escape from Elba brings another ghost back to his door. A Colonel (Edward Fox) brings D’Hubert the offer to command a brigade – “The Emperor is our strength,” he says, “We belong to him.” “I rather fancied I belonged to myself.” Armand answers icily. In Armand D’Hubert we have not just seen the death of Napoleonic zeal but the rude birth of the better kind of modern man; partly cynical (“I fear the army will have more realists than Royalists”he reckons after Waterloo), partly still idealistic and honorable, Armand has notably rejected the call of grand projects and ethereal ethics. “It has been said that you do not love the Emperor.” Fox suggests. “By whom?” “By General Feraud, for one.” “Ask General Feraud what the honor of the Emperor has to do with Madame de Lionne.” D’Hubert suggests. Forced to recall this long-ago event, Feraud remembers D’Hubert as saying “As far as I’m concerned they can spit upon Napoleon Bonaparte!” Where up til now these two men have been quarrelsome aspects of the same thing, they are now bent in diverging directions.

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Whilst there is still the fire of defiance in Feraud’s stance, and in the whole Napoleonic revival, it is a shame defiance, idealism and vision become partisanship, compulsive destructiveness, inability to change or adapt. After Waterloo Feraud and his fellows return with missing limbs, eyes, glowering, aging, misshapen stumps of men, where D’Hubert grows strong, rich, secure, gains a command under the King, and more importantly, has a child expecting by his beautiful bride. But there is still in his sense of honor a form of security he won’t allow himself. Using his contacts, Armand approaches Fouché (Albert Finney), a virtuoso of survival by his own description – or as Fox calls him, a sewer rat; a turncoat who has gotten the job of handling political prisoners (“Or else my name would most certainly be on that list”), an image of the kind of corrupt, sleazy men who have inherited the nation now the brave ones are dead and with whom the peace is necessarily a negotiation; Armand saves Feraud from the chopping block. We sense immediately Armand’s reasons; his personal code of honor will not allow him the shabby security of avoiding an enemy by letting him get taken care of by someone else. Yet we also suspect Armand has some small part of himself that considers this piece of business unfinished and needing one last true decision.

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Nonetheless, when the time comes, and Feraud, released, dressed in self-conscious imitation of his exiled idol, comes looking for his nemesis, Armand condemns the proposed duel. Once again, Armand finds his life and his relationship threatened. Their final encounter, enacted around a ruined castle in a pristine morning wood, ends with Feraud’s raw hunter’s cunning almost winning, but Armand’s wits finally clinch the moment; aiming his gun at the waiting, goading Feraud, we suddenly leave the scene behind, and see Armand proceeding home, humored smile on his face, greeting his worried wife with cheer. And Feraud? We return to him, wondering the woods in grimacing solitude, musing of their encounter, when Armand stated, “By every rule of single combat from this moment your life belongs to me, is that not correct? Then I shall simply declare you dead. In all your dealings with me you do me the courtesy to conduct yourself as a dead man. I have submitted to you notions of honor long enough. You will now submit to mine.” In short, Armand has won a more important victory, a victory of life. He is no longer playing by Feraud’s bloodthirsty ethic, but his own, and he finally frees himself from any last hint of responsibility for this wretched, outdated man. Our last glimpse of Feraud is in one of the most beautiful images ever put on film. He stands on a bluff overlooking a flooded valley in a sun-shower. The scene before him would lift most men to a sense of glory – but the final shot, closing in on his grey, implacable, brooding face, suggests he is doomed to eternally turn inwards in gravely gnawing spite.

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Beyond being a very relevant study of a peculiar kind of masculine madness that is most certainly not dead although the mode it express itself in here – the duel – is long defunct, The Duellists also provides a map for the greatness and failure of the Napoleonic movement; idealistic, liberating, beautiful, stimulating, ultimately monstrous, destructive, dead-ended, and for the creation of the hesitant, more humane, less volatile, less rhapsodic modern state of mind. It’s easy to miss the full depth of the finale’s implications on a first viewing. Gerald Vaughn-Hughes’ screenplay is at once a masterpiece of subtlety and economy, mixing light and dark with great deftness. Scott’s direction is invaluable. The best works of his oeuvre have tended to concentrate on fierce conflicts between opposites – sometimes individuals with each-other, or societies and ideas, sometimes as representatives of such, sometimes merely Manichean, yet often also complex and layered, common to so many of Scott’s subsequent films. The rigorous self-control evinced in The Duellists is redolent of enormous talent, but also one born partly out of determination to make a mark, partly out of pragmatic necessity to reduce costs. At times, Scott is a little too controlled, and serves up some overly-arch shots designed merely to awe with their resemblance to paintings. For the most part, however, the film’s enormous sensual beauty does not weigh it down, and Scott employs hand-held cameras and jump cuts with creativity and fidelity to the film’s physical evocation of an inherently more physical time. Cinematographer Frank Tidy’s work is the sort of work that movie dreams are made of, alive to every blade of grass, belt buckle and bead of water – a pity that Scott, who had worked with Tidy before on TV, has never subsequently done so, a point he laments on the fine DVD’s commentary. As a last note on the film’s fusion of technical and artistic skill, Howard Blake’s score is a masterpiece in itself.

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