Ridley Scott’s accomplished first feature, The Duellists, was said to take inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s similarly lush and meticulous period piece Barry Lyndon, which was produced two years before and also features a prominent duel. But the absurdist core of the film owes something to another Kubrick classic, 1957’s Paths Of Glory, a stark anti-war drama that exposes, to tragic effect, the destructive codes of honor that imprison men in service. While Paths Of Glory is about the abuses of the powerful, who make random examples out of soldiers who refuse a suicidal order in World War I, their persecution is a farce that’s enforced by military hierarchy and dictates that cannot be penetrated by justice or common sense. The Duellists may not be as grave, but the decades-long battle between two men in Napoleon’s army has the same wry regard of an inexplicable situation. These men have no good reason to fight, but a misplaced sense of honor compels them.
Cast without regard to nationality, Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel don’t bother with accents as two French officers who come into perpetual conflict in 1800. As with Paths Of Glory, it’s the meddling of muckety-mucks that causes the problem. A hot-tempered duellist who takes on all comers, Keitel makes the unwitting mistake of running a sword through the mayor’s son, and the higher-ups want him arrested for it. Carradine is given the orders to track down Keitel and bring him in, but Keitel doesn’t take kindly to the request and tries to kill the messenger. Both men escape their first duel injured but unbowed, and despite Carradine’s wishes to put an end to their conflict, they fight off and on over the years—in fencing matches, on horseback, and finally with pistols at dawn.
The duels between these two men consume their lives, but the key point of The Duellists is how much passion yields to protocol. When Carradine considers how to avoid his relentless foe, there’s always the option to put some distance between them, but in the army, he cannot be challenged if he outranks Keitel and they cannot fight if the country is at war, which Napoleon generally obliges. Scott doesn’t play it often as overt comedy, but the violence in the film is fundamentally irrational, and it naturally calls to mind other irrational excuses for violence on a much larger scale. Wars have been triggered for less.
Key features: The Blu-ray version of the film restores the majestic color that ’70s stock doesn’t always preserve that well. The other features are all substantive, including a Scott commentary track, a second commentary track with composer Howard Blake (who talks about more than his music, rest assured), a half-hour conversation between Scott and fellow director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves), and a new interview with Carradine.