The shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s languorous historical satire Barry Lyndon looms large over Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, a visually stunning adaptation of a lesser-known Joseph Conrad story about an ongoing duel between two French Hussar officers that spans the entire Napoleonic period (roughly 1800-1816). Kubrick’s palpable influence over the production tinges everything: the painterly compositions (and their attendant candle-based lighting schemes), the design team’s fastidious attention to period detail, the narrative emphasis on duels and matters of honor. Pointing out this debt isn’t to slight the considerable cinematic charms of Scott’s debut film, especially since The Duellists explores its own unique thematic terrain and limns its characters’ psychology with a perspicacity that’s all its own, merely to emphasize an inheritance the film’s director has never been particularly reticent about acknowledging.
Scott adroitly delineates and then suddenly shatters the serenity of the opening’s bucolic idyll—exquisitely composed shots of a peasant girl herding geese across verdant pasturelands—when the lass runs headlong into a scowling French soldier who’s guarding the perimeter of a duel wherein Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) skewers the local mayor’s son with a foil. (Dueling, we’re informed indirectly by subsequent events, was outlawed under Napoleonic law and so had to be carried out in secret.) The scene’s abrupt juxtaposition between the beauty of the natural world and the human capacity for bloody violence strikes a chord that resonates throughout The Duellists, from the harsh wintry desolation of the Grand Army’s retreat from Moscow, with its bleak vistas of French soldiers frozen into gruesome statuary by an icy death, to the rapturous final shot that finds Feraud standing alone atop a towering massif like an about-to-be-exiled Napoleon contemplating the French countryside laid out before him in all its pastoral splendor.
Feraud’s superiors send along aristocratic dandy Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) to place him under house arrest, but when d’Hubert makes the mistake of confronting him in the salon of Madame de Lionne (Jenny Runacre), Feraud responds to this supposed affront to his honor by challenging him to his very own duel, commencing a seemingly endless cycle of confrontation and pursuit that continues for over a decade. Ironically, near the end of the film, when a confederate asks Feraud about the source of his unyielding enmity for d’Hubert, he has basically forgotten the incident that initiated it all. Violence and revenge has become its own rationale. Scott and stunt choreographer William Hobbs vary techniques from duel to duel (heavy sabers in a rustic barn, horseback joust in a birch forest, pistols at dawn among ancient ruins), but they’re always careful to allow the altercations between Feraud and d’Hubert to carry an expressive charge, revealing a subtly fluctuating balance of power between the two men. Scott also employs some canny editing techniques during the bareback charge, turning it into a bravura existential flashback, but also carrying forward the relentless rhythm and momentum of the scene.
Because Scott is a visual stylist first and foremost, there aren’t a lot of explicit expository passages of the kind usually requisite in a historical pageant film. Although there’s an omniscient narrator (Stacy Keach) on hand, his function is primarily to mark the passage of time, not deliver the archly ironic quips that typify Kubrick’s use of a similar device in Barry Lyndon. Scott trusts in the multilayered expressivity of his imagery. Viewers are given precious little access to the two leads’ interiority, having to construe their thoughts and motivations from words and deeds. While this sort of visual sophistication doesn’t, in and of itself, negate some critics’ reduction of Scott’s aesthetics to the triumph of style over substance, it certainly shows that on the occasions when the filmmaker has found source material with narrative and themes strong enough to support his commercially honed aesthetic, he has turned out films that seamlessly, and with seeming effortlessness, conflate form and content.
Contrary to the Blu-ray case, The Duellists is not presented in a 2.35:1 Scope ratio, but rather in its OAR of 1.85:1. That caveat aside, the 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer looks extremely good, with impressive overall clarity, moderate density and detail (partially due to Scott and DP Frank Tidy’s lighting techniques), and colors that register strongly, though there are slight blemishes that crop up from time to time. Short of a complete restorative overhaul, this is as good as The Duellists is likely to look and, given its ravishing pictorial density, that’s quite striking indeed. The Blu-ray comes with two Master Audio tracks: 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo. Peripheral channels in the surround track don’t get an exhaustive workout; now and again, the more boisterous swordfights slip around to the rear channels, but that’s about it. Both tracks present the dialogue more or less clearly, and there are English subtitles for those who require them. There’s also an isolated score track that spotlights Howard Blake’s protean, pitch-perfect period compositions.
New to this Blu-ray package is a nearly half-hour-long interview with actor Keith Carradine, who articulately and enthusiastically recalls his experiences during the shoot. Carradine seems especially impressed with the painstaking lengths Scott and his costume and production designers went to in the name of scrupulous historical accuracy. Otherwise, the bulk of the extras were carried over from Paramount’s earlier Special Edition DVD. The "Duelling Directors" featurette finds Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds seated before a video display going over individual scenes and stylistic decisions in some depth. The featurette also includes an archival interview with screenwriter Gerald Vaughn-Hughes, on-set interview with Scott, and footage from the 1977 Cannes Film Festival where The Duellists took a prize for Best Debut. It’s a fascinating filmmaking master class in miniature. Equally interesting, if a bit on the dry and clinical side, is Scott’s detail-focused commentary track. Regrettably absent from the roster of extras that were on the DVD, however, is Scott’s early short film Boy and Bicycle, as well as the storyboard gallery and theatrical trailer. On the other hand (and for what it’s worth), there’s a reversible cover emblazoned with the original poster art.
An obsessively detailed chronicle of obsession, The Duellists gets a sumptuous Blu-ray transfer from Shout! Factory, along with a solid new supplement, as well as some choice carryovers from the earlier DVD, even though there are one or two lamentable absences here.