In the first year of Napoleon's reign a lieutenant of the Hussars, Feraud (Harvey Keitel), was fighting a duel with the nephew of the mayor of the town his regiment were staying in. He injured the nephew very badly, though did not kill him, and as a result of these actions another lieutenant, d'Hubert (Keith Carradine), was dispatched to inform him he was to be punished. Feraud was not best pleased at the message, and decided to take it out on the messenger, challenging him to a duel the next day; not wishing to lose face, d'Hubert had no choice but to accept...
The Duellists was director Ridley Scott's first film after quite some time making his living as a creator of commercials for television, which gave some the excuse to look down on him as an upstart if he thought he could settle into this new role without any criticism or indeed comparison between his old line of work and this new one. He didn't do himself any favours with the sceptics by rendering the visuals here as painterly as possible, not so much imitating the Old Masters but more showing that his approach to the Napoleonic setting was pretty much the same as if he had been doing a recruitment ad for the French army of the day.
This can be distracting, especially when your eye is caught by a composition redolent of a still life or a landscape artwork, but if you could get over any prejudice about where the filmmaker learned his craft then you could appreciate Scott was not merely dressing up this as art for art's sake, but was allying his imagery to his themes. That's because the two main characters wind up fighting their duel over years, not non-stop but intermittently as they cannot come to a satisfying end to their conflict. D'Hubert would be happier without this intrusion into both his career and his home life every few months or so, yet for Feraud this is his whole life, no matter how pointless it has turned.
If it had any point in the first place aside from some misplaced sense of honour that the soldiers adhere to, and one which is treated rather cynically by this tale. Taken from a Joseph Conrad short story, in truth it was self-conscious in its aims to live up to the legacy of not only that writer but the artists who had captured the period, but the theme that the thing sustaining these two fighters through their lives was the existence of the other as an antagonist was a strong one, and helped through a second half which began to drag as we worked out that there was not much more to this pair's existence than that. Rendering them as men out of time against this backdrop were the American accents of the stars.
Scott assembled an impressive batch of British thesps in support, all of whom seem to comment wryly on the duellists as if what they were getting up to all these years is not something they would consider as a useful way to spend their time, and Carradine in particular came across as a man following in the wake of whatever you wanted to term his circumstances: call it fate or folly. Keitel, although awarded less screen time, was so vivid in his obsession you treated Feraud as dangerous enough to be a man to be reckoned with, if only because it was possible his notions of personal respect that he demanded had sent him quite round the bend. The manner in which this was resolved may not be what you expect, and even then you feel it's not really over, but the tone of carrying on a vendetta because you need something, anything to fill your existence no matter how futile it actually is was a powerful one, and a grim one should the sleek visuals not have distracted you. Music by Howard Blake.
Talented, prolific British director whose background in set design and advertising always brings a stylised, visually stunning sheen to often mainstream projects. Scott made his debut in 1977 with the unusual The Duellists, but it was with his next two films - now-classic sci-fi thrillers Alien and Blade Runner - that he really made his mark. Slick fantasy Legend and excellent thriller Someone to Watch Over Me followed, while Thelma and Louise proved one of the most talked-about films of 1991. However, his subsequent movies - the mega-budget flop 1492, GI Jane and the hopeless White Squall failed to satisfy critics or find audiences.
Scott bounced back to the A-list in 2000 with the Oscar-winning epic Gladiator, and since then has had big hits with uneven Hannibal, savage war drama Black Hawk Down and his Robin Hood update. Prometheus, tentatively sold as a spin-off from Alien, created a huge buzz in 2012, then a lot of indignation. His Cormac McCarthy-penned thriller The Counselor didn't even get the buzz, flopping badly then turning cult movie. Exodus: Gods and Kings was a controversial Biblical epic, but a success at the box office, as was sci-fi survival tale The Martian. Alien Covenant was the second in his sci-fi prequel trilogy, but did not go down well with fans. Brother to the more commercial, less cerebral Tony Scott.