Ridley Scott’s first feature film The Duellists (1977) is based on the Joseph Conrad short story “The Duel.” Feraud (Harvey Keitel) and D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), two French soldiers serving under Napoleon, become loyal enemies locked in a lifelong adversarial relationship. D’Hubert, eager to appease his superiors and advance his career, volunteers for a mission in which he obliviously humiliates Feraud. Both men are at fault: D’Hubert for his ambition, and Feraud for obsessively nursing his perpetual grievance. Their personal battles supersede French history, with even the reign and fall of Napoleon a mere backdrop to their personal feud.
The Duellists is respected for the historical authenticity of its French military uniforms and depictions of period wartime conduct, but Keitel and Carradine’s flat American accents threaten to undo its achievements in verisimilitude. Luckily, the important bits, the duels, are staged silently. Scott, with his background in advertising, films everything beautifully, although one does catch glimpses of the occasional lamp and smoke machine. The landscapes during the final duel are especially breathtaking.
I’ve seen hardly any of Carradine’s movies, but I do have great respect for his brilliant portrayal of one of America’s first celebrities, Wild Bill Hickok, in the HBO series Deadwood. And Keitel gets to show off his serious muscles in a gratuitous arm-wrestling sequence.