What are the two best duels in the history of cinema? Your mileage may vary. We all have our own favorites. For me they would have to be the trial by combat in Anthony Mann’s medieval epic El Cid, and the final duel in Stanley Kubrick’s 18th-Century costume drama Barry Lyndon. They are both so masterfully done, and yet so different, that a comparison between them will shed light on two great directors, and two great films.
No duel in film can quite match the famous trial by combat between Charleton Heston’s Don Rodrigo, the champion of the King of Castile, and Don Martin, the champion of the King of Aragon. Earlier in the film, Rodrigo had spared the lives of two Muslim Emirs he had taken prisoner. For that act of mercy and patriotism — he wants to unite Christian and civilized Muslim Spain against Islamic fundamentalism — he was given the title El Cid. He was also branded a traitor. After he kills Count Gormaz, his would-be father-in-law and one of his accusers, he not only wins the hatred of his fiancee Donna Ximena — it’s never a good idea to kill your girlfriend’s father —he deprives Castile of its best knight. It’s at that moment that the King of Aragon decides to press his claim to the disputed city of Callahora.
Aragon’s champion, Don Martin, is a legendary knight who’s already killed 27 other men in single combat. Rodrigo, even though he killed Count Gormaz, is still young and relatively untested. The Castilian court doesn’t trust him. Maybe he killed Gormaz by treachery. But Ferdinand, the King, also recognizes that Cid, who’s been accused of treason, has the right to clear his name, and so accepts his petition. The stage is set. If Cid kills Don Martin, he proves himself an innocent man. The city of Callahora goes to Castile, and Cid becomes Ferdinand’s champion. If Don Martin wins, however, then Callahora goes to the King of Aragon. Cid is proven a traitor. His family’s reputation is ruined, and he presumably goes to hell.
We find ourselves in front of the City of Callahora, the real Castle Belmonte in Spain, an imposing structure that dominates many miles of farmland from atop a commanding hill. The trial by combat is part of an elaborate ritual. Both Kings are there with their full compliments of lords, ladies, and men at arms. If Cid is a traitor for sparing the lives of two Muslims, then what is Donna Ximena, Sophia Loren, after she gives her colors to Don Martin, and expresses her desire that he kill Cid, her one time fiancee? Is she also a traitor? No. It’s her right as a witness to the trial by combat to bless whomever she feels is worthy of her support. Ferdinand’s daughter, Donna Urraca, a haughty, regal Geneviève Page, in turn, gives her colors to Rodrigo.
What follows is a clash between two big, strong, athletic men on horseback with lances, then broadswords. Cid, a religious man, believes that whoever is right with God will win the duel, but it’s also clear that the trial will be decided on the individual merits of the two champions, on their courage and on the strength of their arms. The elaborate ritual, the complex rules, the stately pageantry, is all designed to “let the best man win.” It’s a relentless, brutal fight to the death. Don Martin unhorses Cid, but, as he moves in for the kill, Cid knocks him off his mount and brings him crashing to the ground. There’s no room for error. Don Martin has his sword out so fast Cid has no time, even to raise his arm. Eventually, through sheer skill and tenacity, Rodrigo maneuvers Don Martin out of his initial momentum. The camera angles, the facial expressions of the lords and ladies of Aragon and Castile, the score by Miklós Rózsa, the clanging of the swords, are all so engaging that we become involved in a semi-mythical, semi-fictionalized joust that took place centuries ago. We are transported back in time to a grand, romantic medieval Spain that never quite existed, but which looks like history written in light.
The two duels that bracket Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon are an entirely different affair.
As the film opens, Redmond Barry, a young Irishman played by Ryan O’Neal, is courting his cousin Nora Brady. Nora, in turn, is being courted by Captain John Quin, a rich and cowardly English gentleman played by Leonard Rossiter. Barry demands “satisfaction.” Seconds are named. They meet, armed with pistols, in a quiet field. Barry, apparently, kills Quin, but no. It’s all a setup. The pistols have been loaded with blanks. Nora’s father, who’s deeply in debt, needs Quin’s money, and Quin, terrified by Barry, agrees to “play dead.” Barry is given 20 crowns and hustled off to Dublin. Like a modern day conservative, he believes he’s proven himself the best man. He’s not. The game has been rigged in his favor.
Years later, after working his way into high-society as a professional gambler, and into a marriage with the beautiful Lady Lyndon, Redmond Barry’s bad character finally catches up with him. He’s no El Cid, no pure-hearted knight willing to give up everything for God and country. He’s a mean-spirited little spendthrift who cheats on his wife, drinks himself into a stupor, and squanders her fortune. Eventually, he’s ostracized by polite society after he assaults Lord Bullingdon, Lady Lyndon’s son by her first husband, at a concert. Lord Bullingdon, now grown into a young adult, challenges his step father to a duel. They meet in an abandoned church. What follows is 5 minutes of cinema so full of tension that we can barely stand it.
It’s also a comic masterpiece. The elaborate ritual of the trial by combat in El Cid was designed to strip away anything that would have gotten in the way of either knight’s strength and courage. The second duel in Barry Lyndon brings two small men down to each other’s low level. Redmond Barry is physically stronger than Lord Bullingdon, who’s a sallow faced, effeminate little mama’s boy, but he’s no better a man. Barry would have clobbered Bullingdon had it been a duel with rapiers, but a stylized ritual with pistols neutralizes his strength and courage. Lord Bullingdon gets the first shot. He’s so incompetent,he fires the pistol into the ground by mistake. Barry gets the second shot. Bullingdon is white with terror. He throws up. But Barry spares him. He also fires into the ground. It’s probably the only generous thing he’s done in the film’s three hours. He won’t kill his wife’s child, but he’s miscalculated. Bullingdon has no intention of letting bygones be bygones. He raises his pistol and takes aim. Then he shoots Redmond Barry in the leg, crushing the bone and the artery. Barry loses the leg. He goes back to Ireland to live out the rest of his days in poverty and obscurity.
Kubrick makes it clear that Barry goes back to Ireland because of his debt, not because of the amputated leg. While the pistols this time aren’t loaded with blanks, the game is still rigged. Lord Bullingdon restores the old order, sends the upstart Barry back home, not because of his own abilities, but because Barry’s luck had simply run out. Barry had been put in a lose lose situation, kill his wife’s first born, or fire into the ground. He takes his chances on Bullingdon’s generosity and loses. If Rodrigo and Don Martin fight each other to the death without a trace of personal animosity, these two men hate each other to the bone. Lord Bullingdon finally gets in a lucky shot. He also gives his victim a pension after it’s all over.
What would have happened if Lord Bullingdon had also fired into the ground? Things probably wouldn’t have been much different. Barry would have either gone to debtor’s prison, or his rotten character would have caught up with him in the end. Lord Bullingdon, it must be remembered, only acts after Barry has already been shunned by aristocratic society. His own personal animosity means nothing. He’s nothing more than the aristocratic old order’s bumbling tool. Had it not been Lord Bullingdon, it would have been somebody else. The film, significantly, ends in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, Perhaps Kubrick is telling us that even revolution is meaningless. After all, the rising bourgeoisie in the form of Redmond Barry has already proven itself no better than the aristocratic old order in the form of Lord Bullingdon.
“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled,” the final title card says. “Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.”
Perhaps Kubrick’s fatalism, his tendency to put all his characters under a microscope like bugs, is reactionary. Kubrick was certainly no liberal, as his earlier film, A Clockwork Orange, demonstrated. He admired violent little pricks like Alex and his droogs for their own sake. Freedom, for Kubrick, was the freedom to rape women, and beat up old men, just for kicks. But is Anthony Mann necessarily more progressive than Kubrick? Perhaps not. Mann, unlike Kubrick, was no reactionary, but El Cid is anything but liberal. Indeed, there’s a reason Francisco Franco allowed Mann to film in Spain and wound up using the film as part of a campaign to increase tourism. Mann’s Don Rodrigo, El Cid, is a noble, honorable, pure-hearted knight in shining armor, but therein lies the problem. The Castilian royal family in Mann’s film is thoroughly corrupt. Cid should just declare himself king, unite Spain behind him, and drive out the invading Muslim fundamentalists. He doesn’t. Like Franco himself, he lets the Spanish royal family stay on as puppets, even though he’s obviously the great man of destiny who saves his country from the invader. Perhaps Franco saw himself in Spain’s legendary knight of the Reconquista, and Mann’s ode to Spain’s greatest hero as unintentional fascist propaganda that validated his own brutal dictatorship. El Cid is certainly open to that interpretation. Great men, even when noble, generous, and self-sacrificing, are always problematic.