Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Considered something of a holy grail by fans of the director, The Duellists made
little impact in the USA on its release but was well received in Europe. The director
Kevin Reynolds (Tristan + Isolde, Waterworld), speaking on the DVD extras
reel, points out that the film although rarely seen has proved influential, particularly
to his own career.
The story concerns two French officers, fighting for the Emperor Napoleon, that become locked into a personal enmity that spans 15 years. As the film starts we see Feraud (Harvey Keitel, Reservoir Dogs, National Treasure) fighting a duel that earns him the censure of his commanding officer (Robert Stephens, American Roulette), who dispatches another officer D'Hubert (Keith Carradine, TV's Deadwood) to recall him to for discipline. D'Hubert finds Feraud paying court to Mme. de Lionne at her salon and, in extricating him, inadvertently causes some offence. The slight D'Hubert is guilty of seems, initially, to be just that, but in the two officers' short journey back to Feraud's lodgings the latter broods and builds up a seething resentment until, upon arrival, he challenges D'Hubert to a duel. The almost farcical way in which Feraud manages to turn an imagined insult into cause for a fight hints at a sociopathic complexity to the character, and there are hints that these are rooted in feelings of class inferiority; by the latter part of the film Feraud sincerely believes that the cause of the duel was an insult to the Emperor by D'Hubert and not some occasion of social embarrassment.
D'Hubert draws blood in the first duel, but the situation remains unresolved as he, in turn, is attacked by Feraud's mistress, who claws his cheek. In the second duel that follows immediately after in the film, Feraud seriously wounds D'Hubert and the duel is abandoned. The stage is set for a sequence of fights that take place against the changing fortunes of the Emperor Napoleon, including a scene on the Russian Front where the two duellists temporarily bury their mutual resentment to see off a band of Cossacks.
With the approaching defeat and exile of Napoleon, D'Hubert, now like his enemy a General, refuses to ally himself with the Bonapartists and, with the restoration of the monarchy, finds himself commissioned in the army of Louis XVIII; anonymously he saves Feraud from the impending 'white terror'. Feraud is placed under supervision in the provinces as a potential enemy of the state where he hears of D'Hubert's latest promotion, the latter lives in some style in the countryside with his pregnant wife, and Feraud and two associates give the local police the slip in order to engage in one final duel.
The Duellsts is something of an oddity, based on a short story (The Point Of Honour) by Joseph Conrad, or as Ridley Scott puts it in the extras 'a sketch' intended as part of a longer work, the film explores single-minded notions of honour as motivation, as in that author's more famous works (Lord Jim, The Secret Agent). The character of Feraud remains an enigma, however, and we are only really offered a glimpse of D'Hubert's makeup, even this is contradictory as the latter allows himself to be swept along with Feraud's madness yet is able to make a stand when urged to continue his association with the fallen Emperor. It has been suggested that the character studies are themselves allegorical representations of Napoleon Bonaparte (Feraud) and his opponents (D'Hubert) and certainly some effort is made to make the link; in his own exile Feraud paces the streets of a provincial town wearing a greatcoat and hat and looking every inch like popular representations of Bonaparte.
Allegory or not, the film rewards repeated viewing even if there remains a suspicion that there is a void at its heart. The film looks superb and the performances and cast are exemplary; the final shot of Harvey Keitel in a landscape washed by the morning sun is part of cinematographic legend.
DVD extras: director's commentary, isolated score with composer commentary, Ridley Scott in conversation with Kevin Reynolds, storyboards, trailers, gallery, and a short film: Boy And Bicycle (1965) - the directing debut of Ridley Scott, starring Tony Scott (brother of the director and himself a director, of True Romance, Domino, etc).