26 October 2022

The Duellists


A young girl shepherds a group of geese down a tree-covered lane.  She’s brought up suddenly short by a tall man in a Hussar’s uniform, standing indifferently in her way.  A short distance beyond, two other men in shirtsleeves are en garde, at rapier point.  She’s stumbled onto a duel.  The two men are clearly mismatched; the first is awkward and inexpert, the second condescending and impatient.  The first makes a stumbling attack, the second parries him and circles to one side, exasperated.  The first lunges again and the second skewers him center body, as carelessly as brushing aside an insect.  “Là,” the better swordsman says,   and steps back, leaving the blade sticking through and through.  He lifts his empty hands in a dismissive gesture, this small business beneath his dignity, and turns away. 

This is the opening scene of Ridley Scott’s 1977 feature picture debut, The Duellists.  Conrad begins his 1908 novella with a brief paragraph to set up his backdrop, the Napoleonic wars, and drops you right into it.  Ridley, if anything, allows us to catch our breath for a single, brief moment, but then abruptly pulls the rug out from under. 

Here’s the hook.  Two of Napoleon’s officers, cavalrymen, fight a duel, the pretext a supposed insult, but the cause of their dispute itself misunderstood.  They go on for another dozen years or so, from Strasbourg to the invasion of Russia to the emperor’s exile, to fight each over and again, to no result, until finally, one forces a resolution on the other. 

Conrad is no stranger to obsession, or the collision of fate and accident, or the opposition of two people thrown into relief, their character mirrored.  “The Secret Sharer” comes to mind, or Lord Jim.  What drew Ridley Scott to it seems more problematic.  I don’t see a lot of ambiguity in his movies.  Subtleties, elusiveness, a thing seen on the periphery, yes, and shape-shifting.  But for the most part, you seem to skitter on material surfaces, often metallic, or reflective, armored, not porous and elastic, not inward. 

And yet.  A sense of something hidden, or withheld.

The cinematographer on The Duellists was Frank Tidy, his first feature, as well as Ridley’s, but the camera operator was Ridley himself.  This is telling.  The guy actually looking through the lens.  You have to wonder which of the two was composing the shot.  The movie’s beyond pictorial – every frame is breathtaking.  You can feel a sense of awe, not that they’re so good at what they do, but that they got a chance at the brass ring, and made the most of it. 

The gods also smiled on their casting.  Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine are the leads, Keitel as the hasty fireplug with a grievance, Carradine as the long, languid drink of water, both of them playing to type, but making it seem new, as if each of them were suddenly startled awake, in character, and blinking at the light.  Cameos to make you swoon: Albert Finney and Tom Conti, Edward Fox and John McEnery, Alun Armstrong, Diana Quick, Pete Postlethwaite.  They lucked into it, whatever it is, and stepped across the magical boundary into the sublime. 

Available to stream on Amazon Prime; also on DVD, both Standard and Blu-Ray. 


  1. Sounds like one to watch. Thanks for the recommendation


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