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The Duellists

Paramount Home Video

Starring Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine

Written by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes
Directed by Ridley Scott

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

After mastering the world of hucksterism as a creator of award-winning, high-art advertising, British director Ridley Scott decided to go the way of fellow adman Alan Parker and try his hand at commercial films. His first feature effort was 1977's The Duellists, a breathtakingly gorgeous film that may be the most ambitious, most commercially appealing experimental film in cinematic history.

Based on a dark yarn by Joseph Conrad, The Duellists is about two Napoleonic soldiers who, well, duel. Again and again. It begins when Lt. Ferraud (Harvey Keitel) wounds a man after a duel. The man turns out to be the son of a Major, so Ferraud is put under house arrest; the soldier who delivers the message of his impending imprisonment is Lt. D'Hubert (Keith Carradine). As he's dallying with a woman when the message arrives, Ferraud interprets D'Hubert's message as a personal insult and insists upon a duel. When Ferraud loses, he's further angered and his enmity continues through the next 15 years as the two officers rise through the ranks — paralleling Napoleon's battles during that period — dueling with swords or pistols whenever their paths happen to cross.

A beautiful but rather stodgy movie, it was originally intended as a one-hour film for French television. When that deal went sour, Scott pitched it to Hallmark, who thought the $700,000 price tag was a tad steep. Picked up by Paramount, the film's final budget was a mere $900,000, with Scott making full use of all the cost-cutting tricks he'd learned as a commercial director — the film's crew often stood in as extras, the movie was shot primarily on existing locations, and lots of smoke and fancy editing skirt around the lack of bodies in front of the camera. Yet for all of that, the attention to detail is meticulous — the clothes, the props, and the architecture are obsessively chosen and fetishistically rendered.

The Duellists showcases Scott's primary strength as a director: He has an almost magical eye for composition. The film's plot contrivances and weak dialogue can be forgiven here simply because the movie is so awesome to look at. Essentially a (painfully obvious) allegory for the pointlessness of war, one can see numerous homages to Paths of Glory in the treatment of Scott's theme, and an instinct for sweeping, lush grandeur that would later mark Scott's films like Legend, 1492 and Gladiator. Keitel and Carradine are terribly miscast, but miscast in a distinctly Ridley Scott manner — they look great, and they're both good actors. But when they speak, they're so blatantly, unapologetically American that everything falls apart. Additionally, while the film's visuals are sumptuous, many of the more gorgeously constructed scenes belie Scott's previous career as a commercial director — one expects to see an SUV come hurtling out of the mist, or for one of the soldiers to hold up a can of Coke. That eye for the perfect image actually works against Scott at times.

Winner of the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for numerous awards for its costumes and cinematography, The Duellists is fascinating to watch today both for the chance to witness the genesis of Scott's distinctive visual style and to applaud how much movie he squeezed out of such a small budget. A difficult film to find for many years, the DVD release offers the curious a chance to finally see Scott's first outing as a film director.

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Paramount Home Video's DVD release of The Duellists offers a very good transfer of the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The film's visuals have a deliberately soft quality, but nothing is lost here — everything looks as stunning as one would hope.

Extras include two commentary tracks, by director Ridley Scott and the other by composer Howard Blake. Scott tends to explain what's obviously on-screen a little too much, but as befits the oh-so-visual director, he also goes into a lot of detail about the costumes, the set dressing, and there's a great deal of discussion on the subject of light — getting light, losing light, what time of day was best for shooting, etc. Blake's commentary should be a real treat for film-score buffs — it's a commentary over the isolated score, as Blake points out the different themes within his score and discusses how he wrote and arranged the music.

Also on board is the 29-minute featurette "Dueling Directors — Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds." It's an odd feature, almost like a commentary track only with clips. Scott holds his own well here, while ostensible "interviewer" Reynolds — known mainly for being a pal of Kevin Costner and directing the crapfests Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld — alternates between self-important shop talk and panting idolatry as they discuss the meaning of the film, the shooting of the film, and the adaptation of Conrad's story. Reynolds also mentions that he directed Count of Monte Cristo at least five times.

Ridley Scott's first short film, a 27-minute black-and-white short called Boy and Bicycle, is included. With obvious — but effective — nods to Bunuel and Bergman, Scott's camera follows a boy as he rides his bike through the city and out to the seashore, and as he smokes a cigarette, gazes in a bakery window, wanders though an abandoned, off-season amusement park, and finally gets spooked by some creepy stuff. It's obviously an experiment, and even here Scott's eye for detail is amazing — but it's boring as hell. The music is by John Barry, though, and the boy on the bike turns out to be Scott's younger brother, Tony — who grew up, arguably, to be a better director than Ridley.

Storyboards, scribbled by Scott, are offered in two permutations — as a simple slideshow or as a storyboard/shot-by-shot comparison. The Photo and Poster Galleries have a large collection of exquisite portraits of the actors, as well as stills from the film and amazingly uninteresting black-and-white candid production shots; the film's various posters are here, too.

— Dawn Taylor

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