Who else could start a career with a film like the Duellists? With Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant on the near horizon, now seems as good a time as any to talk about it. Instead of taking the usual route of making a low budget comedy or a lean mean crime flick, Ridley Scott, in what would become his trademark go-big-or-go-home way, did the complete opposite. He made a period piece.
The Duellists, unlike most historical films and particularly Ridley Scott’s later work, is lean. It’s a rare breed for a number of reasons but perhaps most of all for the fact that it’s a period piece that manages to run only around one hundred minutes long. Adapted from a novella by Joseph Conrad, which was itself loosely based on true events, it’s a small story on a large canvas, following two men, played by Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine, as they duel repeatedly over the span of 15 years, driven by the bloodthirsty obsession of Keitel’s Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud. The Duellists makes the case for why perhaps we should be adapting more short stories and novellas rather than cutting down doorstop sized novels like we do a dozen times a year.
Rather than worrying about how to cut down John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to a tight two hours, Ridley Scott and screenwriter Gerald Vaughan-Hughes only have to worry about a measly 30,000 words. Why the shorter works of great writers are so often overlooked by film producers I don’t know. Lack of name recognition maybe? Whatever the reason, they almost always seem to provide the better result. Whether you’re talking about the Burt Lancaster version from 1946, or the 1964 version directed by Don Siegel, The Killers is a far better Hemingway adaptation than 1957’s Farewell to Arms. After all, Apocalypse Now, king of the Vietnam War epics, was of course adapted from Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.
Starring two Americans as soldiers in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Duellists does away with the already tired by 1977 cliché of giving their leads English accents regardless of who they’re meant to be portraying. That said, neither of them seem too concerned with hiding their country of origin. At most, the two adopt a flat homogenized American accent that, to Hollywood raised ears, might well be as universal a sound as one could get. Similar to Milos Forman’s adaptation of Amadeus, having a period piece where the characters all speak like they came from the modern day United States seems odd once you put your mind to it. But, as was the case with me, if no one points it out to you both films establish themselves with such confidence and at least the appearance of realism that you may never notice. Anyway, what would be more appropriate for a 19th Century Frenchman to sound like: an American or an Englishman?
This goes to the core of what makes this film so remarkable. Like Ridley Scott himself, this film stands so sure of itself, so full of confidence, that you have no choice but to place your trust in it. There are plenty of ways you could pick it apart. The film’s riddled with continuity errors, some scenes you could mark with a texta the exact position of the fog machine, and the first duel ends with a man getting skewered with a saber using the tried and true practical effect of “hold it under your arm and wail in pain”, the exact same way kids in their backyard would… albeit with a little more fake blood. The Duellists doesn’t worry about lettings its weaknesses show, however minor they may be, and that’s to its credit. Like all great films, to the Duellists the story comes first.