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Non-Review Review: The Duellists

The Duellists is the first film from director Ridley Scott. While it certainly isn’t his best remembered or the most highly rated, it is a cracking piece of historical cinema that manages to do a lot with very little. It’s a simple little concept, set against an epic backdrop, elevated by two leads, a wonderful sense of historical fidelity, and a young director with a long career ahead of him.

Ridley Scott's first stab at directing...

The basic plot of the film features a young French officer by the name of Armond, who is assigned to bring a rebellious officer before the general. Theroux, this officer, has a thirst for combat and violence, one that leads him to repeatedly challenge others in duels and fights to the death. Armond has done nothing but follow his orders to the best of his ability, but Theroux’s reaction to the young soldier is to challenge him to a fight – and so, from this most modest of starting points, begins a conflict between the two men that would last almost a lifetime – enduring war and peace and all manner of changed circumstance (including emperors and kings).

It’s a wonderful exploration of a culture that values “honour” so highly, and how easy it is for a man like Theroux to use it as an excuse to indulge his own bloodlust, while it just as easily traps Armond in this ever-repeating cycle. Throughout the film, the rules and conditions which govern this practice of organised and sanction bloodletting are explained to us – we’re assured that this sort of person-to-person combat only occurs under what must seem the most civilised of conditions. We’re informed that national emergencies and military ranks may serve to prevent a duel from happening at an improper interval.

No need to be on the fence about this one...

However, the film also assures us that all this is just a convenient lie. Armond is bound by the code of honour, but he finds that others treat it casually, as something to be bent or broken. Theroux is hungry for blood, and the rules indulge him – he observes the bland form rather than the honourable spirit. Early on, for example, Theroux picks an old man (who he doesn’t seem to know and only refers to as an “old man”) to be his second, a vital role in form of organised duel. Similarly, Theroux won’t let any of the rules stop his combat – he even lies and exaggerates to justify the grudge he holds against Armond (accusing his target of slandering Napoleon, for example).

Armond is similarly confined, even though he seems to harbor relatively little ill-will against Theroux (at least at first). His conduct is effectively governed by those around him, with very little freedom given to the man to determine his own affairs. For instance, he is informed at one point he will fight Theroux “on horseback” as “a complement to the cavalry” because “the regiment expects it.” We also witness Armond’s somewhat forced courtship with his future wife. Even when the young officer tries to do the right thing, it inevitably comes back to bite him in the backside.

Last chance, Harvey?

Historically, there’s always been something absolutely fascinating about the idea of dueling, and I think Scott’s film works so well because it picks up on the core paradox quite perfectly. The whole notion of civilised dueling represents an attempt to construct a rational and ordered structure around a barbaric act – it’s inherently contradictory, there’s nothing civilised about the practice, no matter how you might dress up the rules in fancy terms. It’s the irony of a system that forces a man to act “like a wild beast” on “a point of honour.”

The film features two strong lead performances. If you’d asked me whether I ever thought that Harvey Kietel would work within a Napoleonic drama, I would probably have looked at you funny – but Theroux suits Kietel perfectly, with a raw and tough character who is barely managing to survive in a time that would proclaim itself as “civilised.” Keith Carradine is also impressive as Armond, playing the character as a likeable but arrogant person just trying to live his life without upsetting the apple cart too much.

Streetfighters!

The direction is beautiful. Reportedly the budget was so low that Scott had to find and use existing structures to film his scenes, and I’d almost believe that the film looks more organic for it – there’s not hint that this is being film on a sterile soundstage, everything looks like it has existed for years and been used and lived in. There are some breathtaking shots of scenery, which just look absolutely fabulous. And the music isn’t half-bad either.

I think The Duellists is one of the better period pieces I have ever seen. It’s just a wonderfully simple premise (it was, after all, adapted from a short story) executed with great skill by a talented director. If you keep your eyes open, you may even spot a young Pete Postlethwaite. Highly recommended.

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