Five years before he made Blade Runner, Ridley Scott made a film that looked not to an imaginary future, but to the past. While rarely seen today, the Duellists is, perhaps, the better movie. Like Bladerunner, The Duellists looks great. In its meticulous attention to detail and the decision to shoot mainly shortly before and after sunset and sunrise, it closely resembles Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven. But The Duellists has two things neither Days of Bladerunner nor Days of Heaven do, Joseph Conrad and Havey Keitel.
“It’s a poor hussar who lives past 30,” Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s great cavalry, commander once said. In spite of his New York accent, Harvey Keitel embodies Conrad’s Gabriel Feraud. Perhaps even because of his Brooklyn roots, Keitel understands what an honor based culture is all about. Like Tommy DaVito in Goodfellas, he will fight anybody, anywhere, for any reason. “I have no reason to fight you,” his long time rival, the proper staff officer Armand d’Hubert says as Feraud tries to provoke him into drawing his sword. “What reason would you like,” Feraud responds. “Should I spit in your face?”
If Keitel plays Feraud as a bit of a gangster, then Keith Carradine does his best to play d’Hubert as a proper gentleman. Carradine is not the actor Keitel is. It is in fact, a little difficult to figure out what kind of accent he’s going for. It’s not exactly an American accent. It’s not exactly a British accent. It sounds more like the overly proper way a foreigner would speak English after learning it at a university. But, if we don’t exactly admire the way Carradine builds the character, we certainly understand the character’s motivations.
If Keitel’s Feraud embodies the romantic side of Napoleonic France, then Carradine’s d’Hubert is a good example of why Napoleon was able to hold onto power for 15 years. d’Hubert, like Feraud, is a man of honor. Unlike Feraud, he’s a gentlemen. But he’s also an upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. Like Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth, Armand d’Hubert prospers during the long Napoleonic wars. A humble staff officer at the beginning, by the close,he’s part of the restored aristocracy, complete with a beautiful royalist wife half his age, a château, and a commission in the King’s army.
The strength of Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Duel” is how he expresses the meaning of the Napoleonic wars, of 15 years of European history, through the conflict between two French officers. Why does Feraud hate d’Hubert so much? Why does he pursue the quarrel year after year, maintaining it even during the hellish retreat of Napoleon’s Grande Armee from Moscow? Conrad understands narrative compression. The Duel is no War and Peace but, like Tolstoy, Conrad dramatizes Napoleon’s reign as French dictator. Only, instead of 500,000 words, he does it in under 20,000. Ridley Scott’s film is one of those rare examples where the movie is probably just as good as the book. With the help of the Russian army and 20,000 extras, Sergei Bondarchuk managed to re stage the whole Battle of Waterloo. But he captured little of its drama or its meaning.
Ridley Scott had a fraction of the budget Bondarchuk did. But he gets the French Revolution in a way Bondarchuk didn’t. When Ferauld refuses to drink brandy from d’Hubert’s flask, even surrounded by cossacks in the middle of a Russian blizzard, we can understand exactly what happened on 18 Brumaire, 1799. The French ruling class, unable to defeat the Revolution, instead diverted it into the army. Permanent revolution became a permanent war of conquest. Instead of storming the Bastille, Ferauld would be storming the royalist coalition’s lines at Austerlitz and Jena. The French people would get their drama and pageantry. The French bourgeoisie would get the spoils.
Feraud understands. Keitel and Carradine do a credible job of portraying the progression of their two French hussars from hot blooded men in their 20s to weary veterans in their 40s. But in Ferauld’s case, his fire never quite leaves him, even as his body matures. He’s every bit the combative jerk he was in 1815 as we was in 1799. Carradine, on the other hand, has had enough. But how to settle down in his château with his young wife and his millions without giving up his honor? The cause of their first duel was d’Hubert’s insulting Ferauld in front of a woman in an aristocrat salon. But now, just before Napoleon’s Hundred Days, Ferauld has re imagined it as an insult to the emperor. d’Hubert became a royalist out of convenience. Ferauld now imagines him as a secret royalist all along. They fight one last duel. d’Hubert defeats Ferauld but spares his life. “I will not attempt to live up to your sense of honor, anymore,” he writes his long term rival, “but to mine.”
The French aristocracy, therefore, has been saved. But we, like Joseph Conrad, know what it means as Ferauld, in the last minutes of The Duellists, gets older and older but never finds peace with himself. 1830, 1848, and 1871 all lie ahead.