The Duellists (1977)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Paramount, $24.00

The DVD release of The Duellists is a momentous event for anyone who appreciates motion pictures as an art form. A towering cinematographic achievement, director Ridley Scott’s 1977 feature debut boasts a visual splendor that rivals the glories of its most obvious influence, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, which had graced movie screens two years earlier.

Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s short story "The Duel" – which was based on a true French tale that had become legend – Scott’s film examines an epic 19th-century conflict between two officers in Napoleon’s army: the rough-hewn Feraud (Harvey Keitel), a serial duellist with a fierce loyalty to the emperor, and the more refined and gentlemanly D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), who seems predestined for promotion. The fates of the two men collide when D’Hubert is dispatched to locate and arrest the unruly Feraud, who has skewered a local mayor’s nephew with a fencing foil; the latter perceives the summons to be an insult, and proceeds to vent his ire by challenging D’Hubert to a series of duels that eventually span 15 years. Ultimately, their long-running feud – and its resolution – can be read as a metaphor for the larger political issues that were dividing the French nation.

Spaced evenly throughout the film, the pair’s artfully choreographed showdowns are staged in some of the most gorgeous settings ever committed to film. Critic Pauline Kael praised The Duellists for its "Géricault-like compositions," and cinematographer Frank Tidy, BSC’s lighting would earn the approval of Vermeer himself. During his excellent audio commentary on this disc, Scott admits that he operated the camera himself, but nevertheless maintains that Tidy’s contributions were equally important. Indeed, he and Tidy had worked together on scores of commercials, so the cameraman was well acquainted with Scott’s cinematic preferences. "I had no concerns about how much [of the imagery] was in the shadows," Scott notes. "Frank knew that this was what I liked … I don’t mind if windows blow out … [and] I don’t mind sometimes if [the frame] goes totally dark. Frank just really knew how far to go."

At another juncture, Scott huffs that some critics found the film "too beautiful" and "too gauzed," even though no gauze or diffusion was used during the shoot. In fact, the filmmakers achieved the striking look by staging scenes in authentic locations that they strategically enhanced with grad filters and liberal doses of smoke. Scott also feels that the production benefitted from "overcast but beautiful weather," noting that mist, precipitation and indirect sunlight enabled his team to create dramatic but naturalistic moods. He concedes that working in variable conditions occasionally affected shot-to-shot continuity, but is quick to add that neither he nor Tidy worried about this much. "By the time it’s been cut together and adjusted and graded, most of the time you don’t even notice," he asserts.

In an interview titled "Duelling Directors," Scott is equally straightforward about the degree of passion it took to persuade Paramount Pictures to greenlight his labor of love. Responding to questions posed by fellow filmmaker and Duellists fan Kevin Reynolds (who cites the movie as a key influence on his own career), Scott notes that he personally put up the completion bond for the picture, which had a budget of $900,000 and a shooting schedule of just 58 days. After joking that this level of commitment would be "an interesting lesson for lots of directors I could name," Scott points out that Paramount "had 900,000 reasons for not making the movie. You have to be the person who is the reason to make the movie."

Scott offers a number of other interesting anecdotes. For safety’s sake, automobile antennas were substituted for foils during the film’s opening duel, which pits Keitel against Matthew Guinness (son of Sir Alec). However, authentic, heavy sabers were used for a more savage sequence in which Feraud and D’Hubert clang their way to a spaghetti-armed stalemate. Scott also notes that he initially envisioned Oliver Reed and Michael York in the starring roles; when they proved too expensive, he sought out Keitel and Carradine, whose contrasting personalities proved ideal for their characters. (The director reveals that it took him more than two months to get a commitment from Keitel, who finally succumbed to Scott’s tempting descriptions of "food, France and cigars.")

Many filmmakers might recognize their own obsessive natures in an ironic line uttered by the exasperated D’Hubert, who cannot seem to escape his destiny as a notorious duellist: "I’m not fanatical enough to persevere in this absurdity." Ah, but he is, and his fortitude comes to seem like more than reflexive machismo – in the face of a relentless enemy, it marks him as a man of character. Scott certainly proved his mettle in mounting this lush, opulent picture, and his efforts were rewarded when The Duellists received the Grand Jury Prize at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, the picture did not get a wide release, and it eventually fell into relative obscurity as a classic familiar only to die-hard cinéastes. Here’s hoping that this DVD, with its fine transfer and illuminating extras, will spark wider interest in a truly magnificent movie.

– Stephen Pizzello

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.