Ever have a small, perceived offense – taking someone’s parking spot, stepping on someone’s sneakers, inadvertently cutting someone off on the freeway – turn into a long-term sparring match with an individual of questionable mental equilibrium and a penchant for weaponry?
Right. Such is the motivation behind the debut effort of director Ridley Scott, who scraped together a paltry sum of money and took a crew to a small French village in 1977 to film “The Duellists,” a stylish endeavor that turned into one of the most impressive directorial débuts in British movie history.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, we are gradually introduced to two officers in the Emperor’s Grand Armee. In the garrison town of Strasbourg, French Hussars are enjoying a lull in slaughter. We are treated to a pastoral scene of a young girl driving a gaggle of geese along a lane until the camera lifts and we see Lieutenant Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel) impale another man on his épée during a duel. The vanquished duelist happens to be the nephew of the Mayor of Strasbourg, and he has a hole in him that will not soon mend. When the garrison commander (Robert Stephens) makes inquiries about the duel (frowned upon by the army) he asks about Lieutenant Féraud.
Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) obligingly admits to knowing Féraud in passing and is immediately dispatched to find him and bring him back to the barracks so he can be placed under house arrest. D’Hubert, after looking all over town, ends up at Féraud’s private quarters, where he meets the other officer and informs him of his mission. Féraud, pugnacious and with a rather large chip on his shoulder, feels he was the insulted party in the morning duel, cannot comprehend the reason for his arrest, and asserts that d’Hubert has in turn insulted him. Féraud challenges d’Hubert to a duel with sabers, which ends with Féraud wounded and now, pridefully demanding further satisfaction.
With this as premise and the Napoleonic campaigns as timeline, we see the two men continue to flail at each other in an increasingly violent series of pitched battles driven by Féraud’s misguided concept of honor.
D’Hubert, a reluctant but skilled opponent, seeks the counsel of other officers and officials in hope of avoiding a drawn-out grudge match with another officer who has taken a mad dislike to him, but to no avail..
What follows is a series of elaborate, historically accurate (except for the sparks of a saber strike against stone) fights between the two men, neither inflicting the killing wound and both gaining bloody “victories” over the other in turn.
The feud lasts until the Russian Campaign of 1812, both men battered by war and the Russian winter but willing to walk into the woods for a duel by pistols interrupted by a group of Cossacks on horseback. Féraud and d’Hubert join forces long enough to fight off the mutual enemy and, in a gesture of reconciliation, d’Hubert offers Féraud a drink from his hip flask, which is refused.
“Pistols, next time,” Féraud says darkly, walking off into the driving snow.
And that sets the stage for the final, ultimate combat – years later and under vastly different circumstances – and we won’t blow that for you.
If you like period pieces, filmed with spartan but loving attention to story and character development, The Duellists may be for you. It may be a little bloody at times, but it’s also beautiful, filmed on the same ground the men whose lives formed the basis for the story trod in the 18th and 19th Century.
Available on Amazon, Vudu and other streaming services.