Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney
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Ridley Scott’s wide and varied career has a great many films which people talk of often, but his first film – the Palme d’Or-nominated, and Best First Work-winning, The Duellists – is quite unlike any of his others. A small-scale conflict between two men played out over decades with a vein of absurdity running throughout? Doesn’t sound like Gladiator, does it?
The aforementioned absurdity comes primarily through the central thesis of the film being how stupid men can be when they get their backs up. The relatively minor squabble that kicks the story off mutates through the years, becoming something both quietly funny and really rather depressing. Keith Carradine plays a character hobbled by notions of honour and rules, a man who is certainly up for a fight, but also wants reason to do so, finding less and less with Harvey Keitel’s character, as the piece goes on.
That he is forced to continue the fighting through necessity, given his role in the army, has a tang of silliness that brings Dr Strangelove to mind at times – these are men who should really know better behaving like schoolchildren, beholden to stupid rules and refusing to allow the other ground.
This aspect of Carradine’s character cools as the film goes on, his character growing tired of Keitel’s constant rekindling of the feud, the conflicts becoming increasingly grand as audiences convene – and, in the final confrontation, taking place over a large piece of land, as the two men stalk each other. Carradine wears this all well, the years taking away his character’s youthful hot head and replacing it with a more placid, empathetic presence.
Keitel, on the other hand, is pure ego unleashed. Constantly refusing to give ground and fighting over things increasingly in the rear-view mirror, his character struts around in preparation for the fight like a caged tiger, an unsatisfied rage manifesting itself into something really quite horrible. Keitel doesn’t get much to do, but his presence is harrowing.
Scott’s flair for the visual is obviously evident here also. Gorgeous locations and alternating warm/freezing cinematography by Frank Tidy balance to show Europe’s world of the have and have-nots stand out. One of the duels on horseback uses violent flashbacks to disorientating effect, taking you inside the characters’ heads and making you spin. The climax is also a quiet, atmospheric joy.
The film is not perfect, however. A principal love interest, played by Diana Quick, is given increasingly short shrift as the film goes on and her replacement (Christina Raines) gets less to do later – Scott’s flair for strong female characters is not evident here.
It is easy to see why the director would be in demand after The Duellists’ Cannes screening 39 years ago. This is a sprawling but well paced journey through a very silly conflict, which benefits from two very strong lead performances and a good bit of technical know-how from Scott.