Duellists, The (1977)

The Duellists (1977), directed by Ridley Scott.

During the tempestuous years of Napoleonic France (the emperor was in, then out, then in, then out again) two cavalry officers fight a series of duels in a life-long grudge match. There is no cause, no point to it: just rage and outraged honor by a touchy rising "man of the people" who has singled out an aristocrat as his enemy.

They use various weapons, the scariest being no-kidding meat cleaver sabers. It's exhausting just holding and swinging them.

Scott's first feature film (he'd done between one and two thousand commercials) is a remarkably fine production made for $900,000 (some of it his own money), a shoestring budget for a costume picture. They built no sets, but tried to be meticulous in costumes, hair and fighting techniques. He says he was much influenced by the then recent Barry Lyndon (1975), but this is shorter, faster and with more action.

Keith Carradine uses a affected, lightly posh accent I find distracting, but get past that he is fine as a brave man caught up in a pointless vendetta he finds maddening. He is terrified by the prospect of the duels, but "honor" drives him on. He has a different code than the other officers: it requires him to secretly save the life of his enemy when he is scheduled to be executed.

Harvey Keitel of Brooklyn had never held a sword or been on a horse before and this actually helps his performance. In Napoleon's time many men of the peasantry rose to high position, which would not have been allowed in the old order. Keitel's officer in not suave or polished, but is instead driven by resentment and testosterone. Focus and rage replaces experience and early training. His "honor" is fighting. I'm glad I didn't know this guy.

Scott's first choice was Michael York and Oliver Reed but he couldn't afford them. The studio gave him a list of actors and Carradine and Keitel were the only ones that made sense.

Many other familiar faces from British cinema.

The story is by Joseph Conrad, inspired by true events where the men fought 30 duels over 19 years.

Available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory. The director provides a typically fascinating commentary track and there is a combined isolated score and commentary by composer Howard Blake.