The Duellists Movie Review

In every director's past there are some strange departures. Ridley Scott's directorial debut, The Duellists, is no exception: It's a competent but slow-paced outing that offers no hint that Scott would soon be making exciting thrillers like Alien and Blade Runner.

To be fair, The Duellists (based on Conrad's The Duel) is a type of movie made often in the 1970s -- a low-tech but visually authentic historical drama. As with '70s westerns, the point was to make a new kind of period drama emphasizing cinematic realism at the expense of entertainment values (instead of the other way around). The film is based on a Joseph Conrad story about a quarrel between two soldiers in Napoleon's army which turns into an obsessive folie a deux. Kind of a Gallic High Noon, but not as entertaining as High Noon.

A young, pigtailed Harvey Keitel plays Lt. Gabriel Feraud, a fool who likes to duel. Motivated by envy or wounded pride or French hotheadedness (it's not clear), Feraud picks a fight with soldier Armand D'Hubert (Keith Carradine). They duel. And duel again, and again. But their quarrel is unresolved and festers for decades, following the two men to Poland and eventually Russia, where the killing winter keeps the duellists from scrappin'. After the two men return to France, the regime changes and Feraud is arrested for treason, but D'Hubert intervenes to spare his life so that they can duel again.

The Duellists is not a bad film; the story is interesting, and the location scenes are well-chosen. But the action scenes are too widely spaced to keep the film from drifting into boredom, especially for audiences expecting non-stop action (such as Scott's later blockbusters deliver). Personally, I can't stand the French sensibility at the best of times, so I'm the wrong person for a movie like this. But the real problem is that the characters are underdrawn. As a result, it's hard to care much about Keitel's meatheaded character. Or Carradine's effeminate soldier. Or the women who love them (though Diana Quick shines in a small role as D'Hubert's mistress who later becomes a prostitute).


The Duellists Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 1977


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