The Duellists (1977) Direceted by Ridley Scott
I once got into a fight at school. I was 13 or 14 years old, and a kid in the year above me kept picking on me, so one day we just started fighting. It was one of those crowd forming fights. The other guy was bigger than me and had obviously done this kind of fighting thing before. He kept landing punches on my head and I seem to remember not throwing any but just standing with my guard up. It seemed to last forever but I thought it important not to back down. Some prehistoric instinct told me if I stood up to this pummeling I would acquire some standing as someone who didn't go down easily. Eventually a teacher came and broke it up. The crowd dispersed and I was made to shake hands with my aggressor. The bully never picked on me again and I was deemed someone who doesn't go down easily and was never picked on again. Amongst the hard boys I'd crossed some weird line of idiotic honor because I'd stood my ground.
It's this weird sense of macho honor that is the focus of Scotts' first film The Duellists. Set during Napoleon's era, two French army officers begin a duelling contest over many years and different countries. Neither man really remembers the cause of the duel. The mysterious Feraud (Harvey Keitel) persists with the duel against D'Hubert as if it's his life long mission. His character is kept thin, his weird insistence on honor his only trait. D'Hubert, played by the excellent Keith Carradine is the focus of the picture and the protagonist whose view of the various duels we are presented with. For D'Hubert it is insanity to keep having these life threatening duels, yet that weird concept of honor keeps forcing him to go through with it.
The Duellists is an eccentric film. It shows that from the off Scott had an eye and the film is breathtaking in its beauty. The narrative is bare. Carradine has been an underused presence in pictures. Keitel just flexes his mustache.The likes of Robert Stephens, Edward Fox, Albert Finney and Diana Quick have small supporting roles. There is not much point to this film, yet it's strangely entertaining, these soldiers being the Rock Stars of their day. They strut their stuff in Scott's film. The Duellists is a slight but rewarding pleasure.
The question of honor appears to be a question of identity. Nick did not look like the same person I have gotten to know when I went to pick him up from surgery yesterday. He was dressed in hospital clothes and he couldn't walk properly. He said he had been stripped from honor. I think he may have been stripped bare from the markers of his identity. But then he made a joke. The same old stuff. I remembered who I was sitting with.
To Feraud (Keitel) duelling was all he had to identify himself with. His honor came from winning. At the end of The Duellists Feraud stands gazing into a sunrise over a flooding river. His life has been spared by the noble D'Hubert (Carradine) who chose to not shoot him in a pistol fight. D'Hubert's condition on saving his life was that from then on Feraud would respect D'Hubert's notion of honor. This ended the duel and rendered Feraud without a token to identify himself by.
Maybe he walked down from the cliff towards the sunrise and began to live life with new defining characteristics; that's what D'Hubert did when he married his raven haired wife and gave up being a soldier. Or maybe he disappeared.
For Nick it has been a pretty rapid return to his old defining characteristics: once he could urinate, the nurse gave him the OK to get dressed in his own green shirt and gray courduroy pants, then a ciggie outside the hospital. Today we are going to walk around our apartment building. BTW: The whole duelling business I found moronic.