This was Ridley Scott’s directorial debut back in 1977. A stylish historical drama adapted from Joseph Conrad’s short story The Duel (1908). Let’s do this!
As a debut, it was remarkably assured—it shows all the cinematographic brilliance Scott went on to become famous for.
The topic is also quite fantastic. Two men locked in an absurd battle of honour during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).
And, yes, this is based off a true story. We’ll get to that later but, briefly, it’s adapted from the duels between Pierre Dupont de l’Étang and François Fournier-Sarlovèze.
The film starts in Strasbourg in 1800, obsessive Bonapartist and duellist Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) of the 7th Hussars stabs the city mayor’s nephew during an intense duel.
The mayor, naturally furious, demands from Brigadier-General Treillard to put Feraud under house arrest.
Treillard sends Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) of the 3rd Hussars to do so.
d’Hubert attempts to arrest the duellist politely, finding the man during a gathering at notable local lady Madame de Lionne’s house.
Escorted back to his home, Feraud immediately takes this as a severe insult upon his person and challenges d’Hubert to a duel.
As d’Hubert puts it to Feraud.
”I believe you are really quite a madman.”
And that really sets the tone for the rest of the film, driven entirely by Feraud’s manic sense of honour.
d’Hubert essentially wins the duel, but finds himself lumped into a long-term battle that drags on for the next 16 years.
The Duellists moves on to document six other of the pair’s duels, the next being six months later in Augsburg. During this, d’Hubert is severely wounded early on in the battle.
The film’s use of dark humour is evident here, as the duel is briefly interrupted before the start as one of them needs to sneeze.
Later the same year, after d’Hubert gets some fencing lessons, he and Feraud have a bloody fight that leaves them both collapsed on the floor.
Subsequent battles ensue between various stages during the Napoleonic wars. For example in 1806, when the pair is serving in Lübeck of Germany.
And then in 1812 during Napoleon’s disastrous trek through Russia.
On this occasion, the pair puts the matter on hold and they instead work together to defeat some Russian Cossacks.
Scott also takes some time to explore the lives of the two men. After the Russian incident, in 1815, we discover more about d’Hubert and his life plans.
He eventually marries whilst recovering from a leg wound. Earlier in the film, we find Feraud is also already married.
Whilst love peppers the onslaught, the overriding theme here is of honour. Chiefly with Feraud’s maddening desire to fulfill his concept of it.
And despite his better judgement, d’Hubert finds himself dragged along through it all. That is until 1816 in Paris.
There, battling it out with pistols in a forest, Feraud officially loses. Spared his life, he’s ordered to stay away forevermore as he is essentially already a dead man.
The film closes with d’Hubert enjoying his family life, between scenes of Feraud walking amongst the French countryside seemingly in exile.
Scott uses some of the final shots to reference Napoleon’s exile by the British—there are various paintings from the time showing the former emperor alone, standing forlorn against a sweeping landscape.
And that’s your film! As a debut, it’s great entertainment. Due to the low budget, Scott refrained from any particularly dramatic war scenes.
Instead, the focus is very much on the duelling and passage of time.
Keitel and Carradine work very well together, with the former on particularly fine form.
The only slight issue we have with the film is their use of American accents. It’s supposed to be set in Napoleonic era France.
Yet everyone walks around speaking in English. There was a similar niggle with that in Amadeus (1984), but it doesn’t ruin the film. It would have just worked better with French actors speaking in French.
Asides from that, it’s a strangely charming movie about two men locked in a battle of honour. And if anything, it simply evokes a long-gone era rather magnificently.
No big surprise, then, that Ridley Scott went on to be one of the 20th century’s leading directors.
The Duellists’ Production
Scott had previously worked on TV commercials, but for his debut he had a mere $900,000 budget to play around with.
A lot of the film was shot in Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne, although the Moscow scenes were actually shot in Scotland.
William Hobbs was responsible for the fight choreography, which is still praised for its realism.
The two lead actors underwent training (as you’d expect) to ensure they could convincingly do the whole fencing thing.
The True Story of Pierre Dupont de l’Étang and François Fournier-Sarlovèze
Right, as we mentioned above the film is based off this true story. The pair was part of France’s Grande Armée.
Feraud was adapted from François Fournier-Sarlovèze (1773-1827), whose erratic behaviour led him to be dubbed:
“The worst subject of the Grande Armée.”
d’Hubert was adapted from Pierre Dupont de l’Étang (1765-1840). As in the film, he had to deliver a “disagreeable” message to Fournier-Sarlovèze.
The result? Fournier-Sarlovèze took out his frustrations on the messenger, although lost the first duel and demanded a rematch.
The first duel was in 1794 and then, over the next 19 years, they apparently fought around 30 rematches.
As this turned into such an intense rivalry, the pair actually drew up a contract dictating the terms of their duels.
For example, if they were within a certain amount of miles of each other, they’d have a duel. No excuses.
The fact they went this far with their rules and regulations suggests neither of them really wanted to kill the other.
However, honour was at stake. And in the days of duelling, the practice led to around 500 deaths a year as “En garde!” got the better of people’s egos.
In Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880), he actively mocked the French’s fondness for duelling:
“Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold. M. Paul de Cassagnac, the most inveterate of the French duelists, had suffered so often in this way that he is at last a confirmed invalid; and the best physician in Paris has expressed the opinion that if he goes on dueling for fifteen or twenty years more—unless he forms the habit of fighting in a comfortable room where damps and droughts cannot intrude—he will eventually endanger his life.”
Elsewhere in the world, the practice had become a thing of the past.
But duelling did carry on into the early 20th century in France and was a common sight on the streets of Paris. Behold!
However, the French government eventually began to see the pointlessness of it and outlawed the practice.
The last recorded French duel was in Paris back in April 1967. Between who? Two politicians unable to debate the life out of a topic.
Gaston Deferre, the mayor of Marseille, was attempting to give a talk. However, René Ribière (the deputy of Val d’Oise) was constantly interrupting him.
This led Deferre to shout at Ribière:
“Mais taisez-vous donc, abruti!”—”But shut up, you idiot!”
Ribière was so incensed by this he challenged Deffere to a duel. And the guy agreed.
Apparently, President Charles de Gaulle sent orders to have the duel cancelled (as the custom had fallen well out of favour even in France by then), but it still went ahead anyway.
It lasted for four minutes and was then called off. Ribière was also due to be married the day after… perhaps some restraint was in order, mate?
Anyway, back to our two intrepid real-life heroes from The Duellists—Pierre Dupont de l’Étang and François Fournier-Sarlovèze.
What of them? Well, in their final duel l’Étang bested his rival.
Then he demanded he be left alone for good. And it only took 19 years. Well worth the effort, eh, lads?
It’s so far removed from our modern lives now it all may seem ridiculously silly.
But it was just one of the customs of the time and everyone was used to it. Annoyed by someone? Challenge them to a duel.
The idea wasn’t to kill your rival, just best them in swordplay and wits to have a bit of an ego boost about things.
Understand?! Good. Otherwise… en garde!