Have you ever wondered what Harvey Keitel would look like as a French Napoleonic soldier with schoolgirl platted pigtails? If so, look no further than Ridley Scott’s debut film.

Based upon Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Duel” – which, in turn, was inspired by a true story – The Duellists is set in the ranks of the French army during the Napoleonic wars. It is the tale of two soldiers – D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Feraud (Harvey Keitel) – whose courses cross repeatedly over fifteen years in a sequence of duels.

Feraud is mad, bad, and exceptionally dangerous to know. Much like Harvey Keitel. He is addicted to the thrill of the duel. However, we primarily follow D’Hubert, a much calmer, but determined individual, who honestly just has a lot better things to do than deal with an aggressive, raving Harvey Keitel out to kill him.

The film begins with Feraud taking part in a duel, for which the Army superiors must caution him. And it is D’Hubert who must bring that letter of caution to him. Feraud is so offended by this, that he threatens D’Hubert to a duel. This in turn begins a sequence of duels, neither of them ever quite killing the other.

Early on in the film, a big-wigged Tom Conti explains the ‘rules’ of the game, neatly laying out how D’Hubert will be able to avoid Feraud, and a duel to the death. Firstly, if they are in different places. Obviously. Secondly, a duel cannot happen if the two men are of different ranks in the army. That would be dishonourable. And finally, if the army itself is at war. That would effectively be self-mutilation for the French forces. And it is through these three provisos that Carradine attempts to keep Keitel at bay.

Fresh (baked) off the famous 1970s Hovis advert, this was a large-scale, grand project for Ridley Scott to undertake as a debut film. Much credit can go to producer David Puttnam, a great advocate of encouraging unknown British talent throughout his career, notably in his production of and promotion of ‘Chariots Of Fire’ (Hugh Hudson, 1981) and ‘Local Hero’ (Bill Forsyth, 1983). And Scott absolutely rises to the challenge. The film never appears to be out of his control at all, with great attention to detail and confidence in trying a variety of shots.

The duels – and particularly the sword fights – are fantastic. Long takes and solid clunks with every contact, give the impression of actual danger. Special efforts were even made to make the fights historically accurate, even at times they do like the ones from Woody Allen’s ‘Love And Death’ (1975).

Equally, the outdoor scenes are brilliantly shot, with beautiful pastoral landscapes. The Russian winter does appear bollock-freezingly cold. The sharp image and detail, combined with the period setting, are a clear indication that Scott was at least partly inspired by Barry Lyndon (1975), Stanley Kubrick’s film from two years prior.

The Duellists does contain many entertaining passages, and demonstrates in flashes of a sword-blade, Ridley Scott’s clear potential. But none of it is quite on the scale of joy as witnessing Harvey Keitel with pigtails.

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