THE DUELLISTS (Ridley Scott, 1977)

by Paul Rowlands

Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Christina Raines, Robert Stephens, Tom Conti. 100 minutes.

Ridley Scott is famous for directing ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982) and GLADIATOR (2000), all big-budget, epic films. After he switched from making science-fiction and fantasy to more literally grounded pictures, he established a reputation for being one of the most versatile directors in the business, alternating films like the feminist road-movie THELMA AND LOUISE (1991) with historical epics like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) and the aforementioned GLADIATOR. His debut film, THE DUELLISTS, is unlike anything in his canon and is one of his least-remembered films. Yet, it's actually one of his best pictures.

It's worth noting that Scott was already a self-made man with tons of filmmaking experience behind him even before he shot his first feature. After graduating from the Royal College of Art, he won a scholarship with Time Life Magazine in New York, worked briefly in magazines, and then edited documentaries for D.A. Pennebaker (DON'T LOOK BACK, 1967) and Richard Leacock. He then worked in the art department of the BBC before moving to directing TV (adapting Kubrick's PATHS OF GLORY for his test TV episode to graduate from the BBC directing program). Dissatisfied with TV directing, Scott moved into advertising, finding it more creatively rewarding and lucrative. In 1967 he formed Ridley Scott Associates, which eventually became one of the most successful advertising businesses in the country, and in a decade he estimates he produced over two thousand commercials, most notably for clients such as Apple (the famous '1984' commercial), Hovis, Chanel and Levi's. He even managed to persuade his brother Tony to join RSA on the promise he would quickly make a million dollars, which he successfully earned.

In short time, Scott was focused on becoming a film director. THE DUELLISTS (1977) was his fifth attempt to get a film off the ground. The first was a low-budget heist thriller script he wrote called 'Running in Place' in 1971. It was to have starred Michael York. After that he collaborated with writer John Edwards on a medieval-set horror script, 'Castle X'. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) producer Robert Stigwood bought the script as a vehicle for The Bee Gees (!) but eventually pulled out.

Scott then developed two screenplays with writer Gerald Vaughan-Hughes. One was entitled 'The Gunpowder Plot' and based on the famous Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament in 1605, and the other was a drama about 'Indian' Capwell, a real-life 17th century paleontologist in America. Both amounted to nothing, and Scott became interested in a fascinating (public domain) Joseph Conrad short story called 'The Duel' (known as 'A Point of Honor' in the US, and included in 'A Set of Six'). This would eventually become the source for his first feature.

It tells the story of two 19th century French Hussar regiment soldiers who maintain a mutual hatred over the course of fifteen years, meeting each other by chance and fighting bloody duels across the backdrop of Napoleon's spectacular rise and fall. (Scott's love of Conrad is also evident in the naming of the ship in 1979's ALIEN as Nostromo, also the title of a 1904 Conrad novel.) A script was written and retitled THE DUELLISTS, and was briefly developed with French TV company Technicinol (who finally saw it as too expensive) and then rejected by Hallmark's TV division.

Paramount Pictures head David Picker met British producer (and later brief head of Columbia Pictures) David Puttnam at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Puttnam was there there with ex-advertising man Alan Parker's debut BUGSY MALONE (1976), and told him he was interested in financing further pictures with British directors. Puttnam signed on as a producer for both THE DUELLISTS and 'The Gunpowder Plot', and Picker agreed to greenlight the former film, because at a budget of $1.2m, it was $800, 000 cheaper than the latter project.

THE DUELLISTS was originally meant to star Michael York ('Running in Place') and Oliver Reed (whose final film was Scott's GLADIATOR in 2000) in the lead roles. Both men had played similar roles in Richard Lester's THE THREE MUSKETEERS: THE QUEEN'S DIAMONDS (1973) and THE FOUR MUSKETEERS: MILADY'S REVENGE (1974). In the end, financiers preferred American actors and from a final list of four actors, Scott chose the soft-spoken, gentle-natured Keith Carradine (Robert Altman's THIEVES LIKE US, 1974 and NASHVILLE, 1975) and the intense New Yorker Harvey Keitel (Scorsese's MEAN STREETS, 1973 and TAXI DRIVER, 1976). Scott had seen them in Alan Rudolph's WELCOME TO L.A. (1977) whilst it was being edited. The film was almost delayed for six months because Carradine had just enjoyed a hit with 'I'm Easy' (from the NASHVILLE soundtrack) and wanted to go on tour. Keitel apparently had to be won over by Scott before he signed up. The actor was finally convinced by the attractive proposition of 2 1/2 months in France, delicious food and fine cigars! Both men are odd casting for French gentleman regiment soldiers but their different acting styles and personas make them convincing adversaries and hint at class differences too. Scott also had a completely extraneous narration from Stacy Keach (another American) forced upon him, the beginning of a long history of troublesome and sometimes disastrous meddling from studio executives.

For his first film, Scott was as ambitious as he would ever become. Despite the low budget, THE DUELLISTS never looks like an inexpensive production. He manages to naturalistically and beautifully recreate the world of a 19th century France on the cusp of change. Stanley Kubrick's BARRY LYNDON (1975) is an obvious and acknowledged influence upon the elegant look of the picture, with similarly framed scenes, candlelit photography and shots that evoke paintings but employ zoom cameras. (Cinematographer Frank Tidy had lensed over a thousand commercials with Scott up to this point.) Granted, corners did have to be cut and some of the make-up effects are perhaps not the best. On the other hand, we are talking about a film more than three decades old. An older, wiser Scott would not have slightly overstylised the film and would have let the locations and characters breathe and do the work. THE DUELLISTS marked the arrival of a major visual stylist upon the movie scene, and the 2,000 odd commercials he had made put him in good stead. There's a confidence and experience behind the camera that belies the film's debut status.

The film deals with the depths obsession, revenge and the pursuit of honour can take a man, tying it in with various Scott pictures over the years. The memory of, for example, Maximus (Russell Crowe)'s poignant, righteous revenge in GLADIATOR (2000) makes Keitel's 'point of honor' all the more fascinating because it is a reversal. Keitel's Feraud pursues Carradine's D'Hubert over a decade and a half simply because he feels slighted by him, not allowing the fact that D'Hubert was simply a messenger (Feraud has seriously injured the Mayor's nephew in a duel). For Feraud honour is the most important thing a man has. But Feraud is simply a weak and stupid man, who would pursue a feud for 15 years simply because of a bruised ego, all the time refusing to acknowledge the pathological silliness of his actions. Maximus's obsessive revenge runs much deeper and is selfless. He wants to avenge the honour of his brutally slain family and is prepared to sacrifice his life in order to do so. He achieves redemption and his family's honour is returned, whereas Feraud simply has to give up after his life is spared by D'Hubert. Interestingly, during production, the crew ran into people on a French location who claimed that the Conrad story had been based on a true story that had appeared in a newspaper, concerning the death of a French Napoleon Army officer in a duel that had ended a long-standing feud.

THE DUELLISTS is not only fascinating for what it already showed of the Scott we would later know, but also because of how different it is from his future films. It's an epic, but a very focussed, minimalistic, highly specific one about two characters. Whilst epics like GLADIATOR (2000) and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) would also focus on either one or a small number of characters, in THE DUELLISTS only D'Hubert and Feraud really get a look in. Even so, Tom Conti (as D'Hubert's friend) probably steals the film despite his few scenes with his charismatic and good-humoured performance. Albert Finney's brief participation was acquired through Scott agreeing to pay him with a crate of wine! (Fittingly his second film with Scott many years later, 2006's A GOOD YEAR, has him as a wine-lover.) It's also a surprisingly erotic film at times, and Diana Quick's cleavage should probably have gotten it's own billing! Worth noting is the strength of the few female characters in the film, a quality that would become more prevalent from his next film onwards. Also in the cast are Edward Fox, Robert Stephens and in only his second film, Pete Postlethwaite (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, 1995 and ALIEN 3, 1992).

The duel scenes are thrillingly, brutally filmed and appear very realistic. The actors (especially Keitel) really went for it in the scenes and it shows, the power of the scenes magnified by Scott's decision to use real sabers hooked up to batteries and emitting sparks when making contact. Nearly two decades later Michael Caton-Jones's ROB ROY (1995) would feature similar scenes and THE DUELLISTS was most probably a direct influence. Certainly, Kevin Reynolds's version of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (2002) was acknowledged by the director (whose 2006 TRISTAN AND ISOLDE Scott produced) as an influence upon his film. The naturalistic nature of the photography is also something that sets the film apart from future films. Whilst over-stylised and very cinematic, the use of only real locations makes it a film that very much takes part in the real world, striking a memorable balance. Scott's future work, even when set in real-life, would always favour the cinematic (the artificial) over the natural, and attracting various criticism over time, who found him a director favouring 'style over substance' (a narrow-minded observation if there ever was one). 

Despite the Cannes win and some good reviews, THE DUELLISTS was barely released in theatres and indeed, only seven prints were ever made for the American release. Over the years its cult has grown, but it remained out of circulation until it's recent DVD release. Hopefully it's reputation will continue to grow as it is genuinely one of his most important and well-realised films, and contrary to some film scholars, proves that right from the start there was a thread of themes beginning. It also proved that he could take what in other hands might have been a stuffy, stilted historical drama and make it accessible, modern and fresh. This ability was obviously noticed by industry people like Alan Ladd Jr at 20th-Century Fox who thought he would make an ideal director for a new sci-fi horror film in the works. It would later be titled ALIEN and the rest is history.

NB: Scott's young sons Jake and Luke Scott appear in the film. Both are directors now. Associate producer Ivor Powell had worked with Scott as an assistant director at RSA. They had met when they both worked on a TV commercial for the BBC. He also worked on Scott's two following films ALIEN (1979) and BLADE RUNNER (1982). Producer David Puttnam would later criticise Scott's willingness to go into production without strong enough scripts.

The film is available on a Paramount DVD in an excellent edition, featuring a Scott commentary, director Kevin Reynolds (ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, 1991) interviewing Scott, Scott's first short film BOY AND BICYCLE, isolated Howard Shore score with commentary, storyboard comparisons, photo and poster galleries, and the trailer.

THE DUELLISTS DVD commentary and special features.
RIDLEY SCOTT (Virgin Film series) by James Clarke, Virgin, 2002

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film. 

No comments: