The Duellists (1977) Directed by Ridley Scott. Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney (100 min).

Scott’s first feature (his 2nd, Alien) was adapted from a Joseph Conrad short story about two Napoleonic soldiers and their 15 years of enmity. Gorgeously shot in authentic locations, it won the 1977 Best Debut Film at Cannes, “…indescribable beauty, of landscapes at dawn, of over-crowded, murky interiors, of underlit hallways and brilliantly sunlit gardens…It’s marvelous” (NY Times).

We think of the films of the 1970s as radically modern, with grimy locations, everyman heroes and casual speech, far removed from the glamorous illusions of studio era Hollywood.  But, it was also a chance to experience history in a different way.  Costumes might be dirty or torn, actresses wearing minimal make up and scenes lit by available light.  The Duellists has Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine, more at home in Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman films, to provide a provocative glimpse into the past.

Ridley Scott is now a big Hollywood director.  His most famous films, Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise and Gladiator have brought him wealth, fame and three Oscar nominations.  This film, although praised in its initial release did not do well at the box office, and fell into obscurity, it is the least viewed of all of his films (Swartz 3).

Ridley Scott worked in advertising for 15 years before The Duellists, he’s made at least 2000 ad films in his career.  His 1973 tv spot for Hovis Bread was such a big hit in the UK that it  inspired  sequels to the tale of the little delivery boy on his bike with a basket full of freshly baked loaves. He did the first commercial for Apple Mackintosh computers, shown during the Super Bowl, which evokes images of 1984 and then literally smashes them.  The $900,000 budget for this commercial was equal to that of his first feature.

He was hoping that a successful run of ad films would be a pathway to feature film making, but it didn’t work out that way, and he decided to ”put his hands in his own pocket.”  He wanted source material in the public domain, so he wouldn’t have to pay for it, and after a try at getting a film about Guy Fawkes’ 1605 plot to blow up the House of Lords failed to materialize, he worked with screenwriter Gerald Vaughan-Hughes to adapt a 1908 Joseph Conrad story.  Paramount eventually agreed to a budget of $900,000, but then balked at the plan to film in France during the rainy autumn, and Scott waived his director’s fee and guaranteed the completion bond himself.  “You have to be the person who is the reason for making the movie” he said (Parrill 3).

Conrad, whose most well-known work is Heart of Darkness, said he the story “arose from a ten-line paragraph in a small provincial journal published in the South of France.”  The story, supposedly true, of two officers in Napoleon’s army “who had fought a series of duels in midst of great wars and on some feeble pretext” allowed Scott to tell a story of historical sweep, with a contemporary subtext, without the big budget battles and other expensive fol de rol which dominates his more recent, effects-heavy filmmaking.  Conrad’s intention was to highlight differences of geographical region, social class and rank between his protagonists.  Scott’s casting follows through with the author’s intent. Carradine, a tall, golden California actor seems considerably more refined than Keitel, a short, dark-haired native of Brooklyn. Sometimes, a duel must be postponed because honor demands both participants be of the same rank, and military promotions occasionally upset the balance.  But, Scott concerns himself with larger questions of the absurdity of male honor both in the personal domain, and the geo-political.

He filmed for 56 days in Sarlat, a town in the Dordogne region of France. After a disagreement with the cinematographer, Scott took over the camera, himself, as he had during his many advertising films.

The costumes are the first film work by Tom Rand, who began his costuming career on stage, for the BBC and in advertising, where he likely met Ridley Scott.  In The Duellists “We decided to choose the most contrasting colors of two different regiments; the first to illustrate the cool aristocratic character of one man, the second to show the hot-blooded temperament of the other” (  Because this is a low budget film, it seems likely that all the clothes were rented from costume houses, rather than made especially for the film, which, especially in the case of military uniforms, can be quite expensive.  But, the military men are such dandies, and their absurd (to modern eyes) uniforms are a visual highlight of the film. The women’s clothes are simple, but beautiful. The richness of the film’s historical wardrobe is a reflection on Rand’s skill as a costumer. He was nominated for an Oscar for The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and his most recent film is the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo.  Currently, he has concentrated on designing for the London stage.

William B. Parrill, in his critical work on Scott says, “Unlike any of Scott’s later films, which are pure Hollywood in genre and treatment, The Duellists has an art house tang” (Perrill 33) which is damning with faint praise, if I ever heard it.  Although both of his stars are American, the rest of the casting was done in Scott’s native Britain.  Albert Finney appeared in the film without a fee, although he was given a framed check for 25 pounds, with the notation “Break glass in case of dire need.”

“There is a temptation in period dramas for the actors to become remote from what they are doing, simply because the clothes, language and some of the attitudes are so different from those of today. There is a tendency to overplay or lapse into unnatural gesturing. I suppose you could call it camp. But Carradine and Keitel avoid all that. They move and speak and make what they are doing seem utterly natural and comfortable. They are like real people, almost contemporary people, and after all human behaviour hasn’t changed that much in 200 years or so. They feel genuine, and because of that you can suspend your disbelief and allow the sense of danger and jeopardy to creep in” says director of The Count of Monte Cristo, Kevin Reynolds (

After the screening at the North Carolina Museum of Art, one audience member asked me a question I could not answer, why was Scott so determined to make this particular movie? Was there something personal in his background that motivated him? All I could do was speculate. The film was made after the Viet Nam War, and globally people were debating the necessity for conflict. The duels that are fought throughout the film are not just pointless, but the reason for them changes over the years, as the original slight is misremembered or purposefully altered. There are so many conflicts, on both small and large scale, for which the outsider says, “Why don’t they just stop fighting?” That, sadly, seems constant throughout human history.

Scott deliberated constructed The Duellists to look like a Western, in particular evoking the end of John Ford’s The Searchers.  It was released only in NYC and LA, and the film did little business.  Paramount only made seven prints. But, it did boost Scott’s chance for a Hollywood career.  His next film, Alien, was filmed in the UK, but it was backed by 20th Century Fox with a budget ten times that of The Duellists, so that prize at the Cannes Film Festival was worth something, anyway. Since the fizzle of its initial release, it has become somewhat of a cult film, as a clear precedent in themes and characters for many of his later films. One critic called it, “an essential Ridley Scott film, of economical and powerful storytelling…a quiet classic” (Raw 100).

The Films of Ridley Scott by Richard A. Schwartz, Ridley Scott: A Critical Filmography by William B. Parrill, Ridley Scott Interviews edited by Laurence F. Knapp and Andrea F. Kulas, The Ridley Scott Encyclopedia by Lawrence Raw,