Ask any film-goer familiar with Ridley Scott’s work and the movies he will be associated with are likely to be one of his blockbusters such as Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, Hannibal, or even Prometheus, all of which Scott directed. But it is unlikely that anyone will have seen or could recall his debut film The Duellists, which if re-released today could possibly make the box office jingle in response to the footfalls of knowledgeable cineastes.
The Duellists is a small budget film that resembles a big budget movie, tastefully photographed with a host of remarkable performances by a handful of talented actors. It is a film with finesse and subtlety rarely encountered among debut films. It is a film that introduces the viewer to a director who loves his craft and can hone it to perfection. It is not surprising that The Duellists went on to win the Cannes film festival’s best debut film award in 1977. None of his later, more popular Oscar-nominated films ever made the competition grade of the Cannes or the Berlin Film Festivals. The Venice film festival thought Scott’s film Legend (1985) was good enough for its competition line-up but the film failed to win any award. If we discount the three unsuccessful Oscar nominations for his later films, the Cannes festival award for The Duellists is truly Scott’s crowning artistic achievement to date. And yet few moviegoers today are even aware of this lovely impressive work that is superior to his later commercially successful works.
|Honorably waiting for the duelling opponent to arrive|
Now Ridley Scott is not a director who can develop his own original screenplay for his movies. He is one of those directors who utilize published works that are crying out loud to be made into great works of cinema. It takes talent to spot such works, and Ridley Scott found it in Joseph Conrad’s The Duel, a novella of some 60-odd pages. Various directors of repute have attempted to film Conrad’s works and have tasted success—Richard Brooks with Lord Jim (1965), Francis Ford Coppola with Apocalypse, Now (1979) that cleverly in incorporated Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into a modern Vietnam war tale, Hitchcock with Sabotage (1936) incorporating Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and Polish director Andrzej Wajda with his Shadow Line (1976). Conrad’s written works, like Shakespeare’s works, often make great movies, provided they are well directed. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Conrad’s The Duel falls in that category.
Directors who choose to film Conrad’s works are interested in delving into unusual human characters: their moral growth, their hubris and eventually their fall from grace. Conrad did not develop heroes, he developed anti-heroes. Conrad’s father introduced his son to the works of Victor Hugo (specifically Toilers of the Sea)—and although to this critic’s knowledge no literary or movie critic has perceived the closeness of Hugo’s Les Miserables and Conrad’s The Duel, the two works have distinct parallel plot developments.
|Playing with light and shadows indoors: the cinematography capturing the mind of the principal character,|
with books strewn on the floor...
|..and the picture postcard exteriors of cinematographer Frank Tidy|
The Duellists is about two honorable officers Gabriel Ferraud (Harvey Keitel) and Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) of two different French Hussar regiments of Napoleon’s army. Ferraud is brash and argumentative, while d’Hubert is quiet and reflective. That they are excellent soldiers is apparent as the film and novella reveals—eventually over decades both characters get promoted from mere Lieutenants to Brigadiers-General in their respective regiments. Early in Conrad’s tale, d’Hubert unfortunately was ordered by his superior to arrest Ferraud for having grievously hurt a politically connected man in a fair duel, and d’Hubert does locate Ferruad in the company of a noble lady to reveal his purpose. For Ferruad, this was a dishonorable act as he was shamed in front of a lady, and challenges d’Hubert to a duel forthwith. Thus begins a series of honorable duels between the two officers in the novella/movie.
|Ferraud (Kietel) and d'Hubert (Carradine) duel|
|Laura (Diane Quick) realizes that "nothing cures a duellist"|
No duel is completed as in each duel one of the duellists is grievously hurt. For Ferraud, the duel has to be completed even after decades of incomplete duelling as he sees it as a matter of honor and challenges d’Hubert whenever their paths cross. Armand d’Hubert loses Laura, his mistress, over these series of absurd unending series of duels. Laura had come to realize that “nothing cures a duellist” and even taunts Ferraud as a man who could beat a woman to death. But at the final duel between the two principal characters, there is a winner and a loser. Intrinsically the tale is very much like Hugo’s Les Miserables where an honorable convict is pursued by a policeman who believes it is his honorable mission to arrest the convict again, over the decades long pursuit.
Ridley Scott was making his first feature film and he used the adapted screenplay written by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes, a screenplay-writer who had only one obscure but entertaining movie called Sebastian (1968) to his credit apart from some TV movies. One cannot guess how much Scott contributed to the screenplay and how much of the final work belonged to Vaughan-Hughes. Between the two of them, they recreated a brilliant opening sequence, a fascinating end sequence, and an incredible sequence of the two principal characters meeting in Russia as Napoleon’s army is defeated by the freezing cold temperatures. The visuals—whether it is the white geese in the opening shot or the clouds over a deep and silent river in the final shot—tell a psychological story that complements the actions of the principal characters.
These afore-mentioned three sequences in The Duellists will be indelible from the memory of any student of good cinema. These three sequences show the mettle of the director and screenplay-writer. The opening sequence is how a young girl, guiding a gaggle of geese, perceives the absurdity of bloody duels between adults—a lovely picture of innocence versus gory games of “honor.” Conrad’s tale was just about that and Scott/ Vaughan-Hughes introduce the viewer to just that only a few minutes into the film.
Similarly, the final scene shows Ferraud (Kietel) contemplating a river flowing below silently for several minutes. Nothing happens. Not a word is spoken. Scott and Vaughan-Hughes achieve in this sequence what most other directors would have achieved with dialog. Here visuals and the silence do the talking.
|An innocent girl watches the outcome of a gory duel|
|Offering a drink in cold Russia to a duelling opponent--honor of a different kind|
Similarly the actions of Ferraud and d’Hubert in the Russia sequence reveal the differences and commonality of what honor means to both the principal characters. Again the spoken words are minimized—the verbal interaction is replaced by body movements. This is pure cinema that Conrad would have been proud to see on screen if he were alive—better than Peter O’Toole’s Lord Jim or Marlon Brando’s Kurtz. Scott had chosen Kietel and Carradine over the original choice of Oliver Reed and Michael York because of budgetary constraints, but the performances of the former duo tuned out to be exquisite. So are the brief roles of Albert Finney, Robert Stephens, Diane Quick, Tom Conti, Edward Fox, John McEnery and the late Pete Postlethwaite (in his first screen appearance). Kietel’s brash and argumentative personality serves as the opposite of Carradine’s reserved and calculating persona of two very honorable Hussar officers. Ridley Scott was able to guide the viewer inside the mind and soul of the anti-hero in each of us, to re-evaluate the concepts of honor and the variants acceptable to different audiences. Conrad was concerned with differing mindsets that led to the Napoleonic wars,
|The final scene: clever play of light and shadow with not a word spoken|
Ridley Scott was offering the viewer a chance to question why we take “honorable“ positions on various subjects—social and political, and duel to the death. Scott is to be appreciated for this delectable and wholesome film, but more so, the genius of Joseph Conrad that the film brings on screen. A sensitive viewer will dwell on the importance of the final silent scene and that makes the work a treat for the mind of the viewer.
P.S. Richard Brook's Lord Jim, another adaptation of a Joseph Conrad tale, was reviewed on this blog earlier.