Ridley Scott's The Duellists is a kind of movie people are often reluctant to give praise it deserves. I mean, how could they? It comes out as unremarkable, to say the least, lacking the importance of Alien, revolutionary impact of Blade Runner or sweeping scope of Gladiator. It's a small movie really, with notable litterary background (Joseph Conrad's short story) and a simple premisse which shouldn't engage us throughout the entire course of the picture, yet somehow it never shows intention of letting us go.
A period piece set during Napoleonic Wars (and occasional outbursts of piece), it is completely structured around the relation of two soldiers from his army. Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) is a duel junky, who, I had a feeling, counts these honorable encounters into his daily routine (indeed, he fights two of them in less than 24 hours). When Lieutenant Armand d'Huber (Keith Carradine) comes to arrest him for one of these adventures, they end up fighting in Feraud's back yard. And few months after that. And few years after that. In fact, they do it over and over for the entire 16 years the story evolves.
To put the most obvious quality of this film as simply as I can: it is a beauty to look at, to that extent that, in some other case, it would feel like a distraction. That's impossible here. What could the scenery distracts us from? What is the point of the story, some higher purpose Scott is aiming at here? I don't know. There are fragments, for sure, like trying to compare the futiity of these people's behavior (esspetialy Feraud's) with what Napoleon tried to do. Indeed, the final defeat of his matches with the fall of The Emperor. You can also start questioning yourself about the value of human life, as their duels became more and more of a public event. But you don't have to do that. With his obsession to keep the authenticity of the time period, in look, feel and the mannerisms, carefully choregraphed fight sequences and faboulosly looking costumes, Scott and his associates have created a visual masterpiece which works beyond that only if you want it to.
Actors act accordingly, never sinking much into their characters. Feraud is kind of a demonic figure and we know, after few minutes of watching Keitel's performance, that he will remain like that until the end. Caradine, on the other hand, keeps us at a distance. He has some thing he calles honor, that is to say his own perception of it, and doesn't show interest of letting us in at any moment. Yet, like everything else in this movie, they are pleasent to wach. Keitel is not psyhotic, he's menacing and we take him seriously. Carradin's detachment gives him a note of a flawed hero we can root for. His presence here is so strong that I never regreted Keitel's limited amount of screen time.
Even in this first picture, Scott showed some of the paths his work will take. The machismo is there alright, but the picture is from the POV of the one who, in a more romanticised Swashbuckler, would be called a coward or a hypocrite. Or better yet, he wouldn't have a place in a film like that at all. Scott did his job job in a sense that he brought that guy on the screen in a way that convinced us he is always more intriguing than your standard hero.