Customer Reviews: The Duellists
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on December 15, 2002
Based on Joseph Conrad's book "The Duel", the true story of a 30-year feud between two Napoleonic cavalry officers, "The Duellists" was Ridley Scott's first major film. Starring Keith Carradine as the pompous D'Hubert and a particularly menacing Harvey Keitel as Feraud, the film climbs inside the minds of two men for whom honor is more important than life itself.
The two antagonists begin their series of bloody encounters when D'Hubert is ordered by his commanding general to arrest Feraud for wounding the local mayor's nephew in a duel. Feraud, in a hopelessly irrational state, challenges D'Hubert to a duel, which is carried out more or less on the spot. D'Hubert comes off slightly better in the initial encounter, which only serves to fuel Feraud's rage, and the course of the film is set.
The cinematography of this film, shot by Frank Tidy, is almost beyond comparison. The previous versions on VHS simply looked muddy and rather washed out. The colors lacked any real saturation, rendering Feraud's bottle-green dolman black and it almost looked like a poor quality black and white in some scenes, especially those set in Napoleon's abortive Russian campaign.
The DVD transfer, by contrast, is staggeringly beautiful and releases colors, which I did not realize existed in the original. I am, by coincidence, a professional cameraman and I rate this as the best shot film I have ever seen. The only criticism I have is a somewhat inconsistent use of graduated filters, which, whilst they were probably quite innovative for their day, don't always work well. Grads are always a problem and any film made since will tend to suffer the same way. A very minor point.
The costumes and settings; mostly in The Dordogne, make the film not only totally authentic but defy the viewer to believe that it was made on a shoestring budget. The visual splendour challenges any modern filmaker to create the same effect without spending a vault full of money to achieve it. That is only part of the appeal of the film.
The acting performances, particularly by Keitel, want for nothing. The scene with Feraud standing on a cliff overlooking the river valley, taken in context, makes you realise that his life and pretensions to honor have been for nothing. His mania for revenge has cost him everything. Melded to the other performances with superlative skill by Ridley Scott, this film is a masterpiece and has now gone from a film I liked a lot to one which is now firmly wedged in my top ten. Like as not, it will stay there for a long time.
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on June 25, 1999
Ridley Scott made this film in the mid-70's prior to going into the big time with such hits as "Alien." While obtaining film making experience by making commercials, he learned to visually pack an image and do so with exciting details. "The Duelist" was made on a shoe string, but looks like it cost 10-20 times as much. Every dollar is on the screen. The sets and costumes are excellent. The camera style--dramatic and romantic-- often captures scenes that looked like they have been painted by David, a major French painter of that period. Exteriors show period chateaus in early morning light under blue skies, while the interiors are bathed in candle light. The sword play is wonderfully visualized as both men fight each other in a series of duels over many years. Both Carradine and Keitel are excellent as two officers serving under Napoleon that must live by a code--no matter how that severe code of honor affects their lives in war or peace time. This excellent action film is a jewel. See it. Hopefully, it will come on DVD soon.
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VINE VOICEon October 12, 2003
Director Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Alien) made his directorial debut with this overlooked gem - THE DUELLISTS, based on a story by Joseph Conrad. Released in 1977, the movie didn't make much of an impact in the US, although it was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes and won Scott the coveted Best First Work at that festival.
The movie chronicles the long-lasting feud between two French officers, the hot-headed Feraud (played by Harvey Keitel) and the more even-keeled D'Hubbert (played by Keith Carradine), during the Napoleonic wars. The feud has murky beginnings, but it lasts for decades due to the lead characters' desires to avoid losing their "honor." As they cross paths during various parts of their lives, they duel.
The duel scenes are well-filmed and add a great deal of excitement to the plot. The main story is also interesting, as the men's duels forge an unlikely relationship between them. The lead actors do a passable job in their roles, although they seem out of place amongst the largely British supporting players; Keitel actually seems more at place in the film, despite his eastern accent. Finally, the cinematography is stunning, and it's one of the most beautiful looking films of its period; the look of the film is a bit like "Barry Lyndon," although the tone is warmer. Overall, this film is an intriguing part of the Ridley Scott canon; it stands among his best works and one of the most overlooked films of the 70s.
DVD extras: director's commentary with Ridley Scott, and director Keith Reynolds also interviews Scott.
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on May 27, 1998
Ridley Scott's first theatrical release, "The Duellists", is a thought-provoking exploration of the rivalry between two officers in Napoleon's army. The plot is taken from the Joseph Conrad short story, "The Duel", in which two French officers face each other in a series of duels over 15 years. Keith Carradine plays Lt. Armand d'Hubert, a Hussar of Napoleon's cavalry, who is sent on a routine errand to arrest Lt. Gabriel Ferraud (played by Harvey Keitel), for having wounded a man in a duel. Upon hearing of his arrest, Ferraud challenges d'Hubert to a duel, which both survive. Although d'Hubert is reluctant to fight, and though forbidden by his commanding general to confront Ferraud while the army is at war, he cannot avoid the other man's challenges. What was merely a perceived insult on Ferraud's part becomes a matter of honor. In early 19th century military fashion, the duel was an acceptable, if unsanctioned, way of defending one's reputation. D'Hubert, too, seems drawn to the violent encounters, as a way of setting the record straight (if not for Ferraud, at least for the troop). Both men are portrayed as loyal and able soldiers. D'Hubert is laid-back, cautious yet brave, his loyalty to Napoleon tempered by realism. Ferraud is touchy, combative, fanatical. Even after the Emperor's final defeat he remains sure of his devotion. In the final chapter of the film we see d'Hubert settled in quiet married domesticity (and security in the restored King Louis XVIII's army), while Ferraud languishes in obscurity as an outdated Bonapartite. The two men (now generals) will meet for a final time. The outcome is intriguing, and it follows Conrad's story to a melancholy end.
Film reviewers have often criticized Scott's films as having tons of atmosphere but not much meat in the plot or emotional punch at the end. I would say that anyone who is a fan of Ridley Scott films ("Alien", "Blade Runner", "1492" or even "White Squall") should see "The ! Duellists" to find where Scott gets his stunning and unique visual style. The supporting cast, mostly English, does a fine job: Tom Conti as d'Hubert's surgeon friend, Diana Quick as his lover, Robert Stephens as the general, and Albert Finney as a cunning commissar. I rate it a 9 for intellectual vigor and beautiful scenes. END
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on October 12, 2001
This stunning film is incredibly beautiful to watch; the scenary, script, and actors are wonderful. This is a highly intelligent piece of work, so many films are sheer pap, driven by special effects, and soundtrack franchises; in contrast the Duellists is a work of art which has a great integrity.
Apart from a great personal interest in history, I am an experienced fencer with foil, epee and sabre and this film contains the most brutally accurate swordplay I have ever seen. As other reviewers pointed out, this is no Errol Flynn picture. It confronts romantic notions with some stark truths. I find it hard to watch the sabre duel in the cellar which lays bare the result of carving human meat with edged steel.
The historical realism of The Duellists is spot on down to the smallest details of Napoleonic campaigning. The horrible scenes set in the Russian snows vividly bring home something of the agony in 1812.
I find this a very subtle film, posing questions for each viewer to answer in their own way. The actors do not parade convenient 20th Century attitudes; the pain of D'Hubert's mistress is deeply poignant.
If anyone enjoyed this film I strongly suggest reading Joseph Conrad's short story The Duel. Ridley Scott remains virtually 90% faithful to Joseph Conrad, but the ending of the original story has one subtle embellishment the film does not develop.
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on September 5, 2003
Ridley Scott has a fine eye. Many of his films are not my favorites because of their high-concept stories, but visually, few directors can touch Scott's sense of space, time, and composition. This little-seen gem is comparable only to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece "Barry Lyndon" in its attempt to create the ambient light and sense of place of the late 1700's -early 1800's.
Based on a story by Joseph Conrad, chosen because the rights had lapsed, the film concerns two French hussar officers, one of whom, played with republican fervor by Harvey Keitel, is quick to anger and to duel. His nemesis is the aristocratic officer played by Robert Carradine, who doesn't understand why Keitel hates him so much. The film follows their careers in the Napoleonic wars over the course of fifteen years, from the early triumphs of l'Emporer in Lubeck, to the disaster of Russia, and the return of the Bourbon's. Despite their long-standing animosity, Carradine even saves Keitel from the guillotine, for which he his repayed with disdain and aggression.
This story is episodic, and there are many loose ends, but who cares? This is one of the most astonishing films ever made in its meticulousness, it's bravery (not cow-towing to hi-key filmic conventions), it's invention (a budget of only $900,000 dollars?!) and in the totally successful vision the filmmakers put up on the screen. Films costing 10 times as much or more are not so riviting as this film.
Scott did have to compromise; he wished for Michael York and Oliver Reed, but the financiers wanted American actors. Even though Carradine is occasionally weak, Keitel is intense throughout.
The Duellist is one of my favorite films. The DVD transfer is immaculate and the special features give us interviews with Ridley Scott, and the film's composers notes on his musical choices.
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on December 16, 2002
I came across this little known film purely by chance when I stopped over at a local Blockbuster. I watched the VHS version and was immediately taken by the film's stunning visual effects, or lack thereof. More precisely, with only 900,000 pounds, a paltry budget even by 1970's standards, Ridley Scott delivered sumptuous colors and visual frames that captured beautiful landscapes of French (and Scottish) countryside in winter months.
Now, I have a DVD edition and am even more impressed. Usually, when old films are transferred to digital format, films studios often do a poor job. However, the widescreen, special collector's edition, is masterfully transferred; no hairlines that you find in the VHS version. Colors are even more rich and precise; the DVD edition delivers deep and soothing amber tones that is missing in the VHS version. Furthermore, the DVD include commentaries by both Ridely Scoot, Kevin Reynolds, and Howard Baker (soundtrack/scores). In particular, Scott's commentary is like a case study of film-making that even film students would find very useful.
Kevin Reynolds describes the making of the Duellist as "seredipitous," and he is right. Despite the financial limitation that plague the production, the film, by chance of nature and Scott's brilliance, is a masterpiece. This is a lesson that Hollywood should take to heart: that pouring money into a film doesn't guarantee great film-making.
As a fan of Napoleonic War history, I hope that another masterpiece, Waterloo, is released in DVD with the same kind of attention and care as the Duellist. A big applause to Paramount for doing just to a masterpiece.
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VINE VOICEon April 15, 1999
Ridley Scott's first major motion picture, and on my lists of favorites. Unfortunately, I never saw "The Duellists" in the theaters, but I do get an inkling of what it must have been like. Everytime I've viewed this film, I've shaken my head in awe at the majesty of the scenery. It makes films known for their cinematography to pale in comparison. As far as the story goes, it's a good one about two soldiers during the Napoleon era who after a disagreement, fight duel after duel with each other throughout their military careers with no resolution (neither soldier dies during the duels). I disagree with most people's view of the two lead actors (Carradine and Keitel). I think both did a fine job, especially Carradine. There is a scene where he is preparing for battle against Keitel and is on horseback. We see his whole body shiver uncontrollably and his teeth chatter for several seconds. It's a wonderful moment. I have no problems giving this film 9 out of 10. It's a visual masterpiece.
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on September 28, 2000
"The Duellists" is, in my opinion, Ridley Scott's best film. I liked "Blade Runner" a lot when I was younger, but now it seems the only thing that really knocks me out about it is Rutger Hauer's towering performance. The fabulously romantic love scene between Sean Young and Harrison Ford excluded, the level of 'purity' or cinematic poetry in "Blade Runner" doesn't really take off until Hauer makes his dynamic appearance. I loved "1492: Conquest of Paradise" when I caught it in its full glory in the theatres, and thought Depardieu's 'miscasting' was paradoxically GENIUS CASTING because it provided a certain humorous element to the film, thus adding a highly enjoyable level of camp to an already fantastic film. But NO FILM I've ever seen loses as much from not being shown on the big-screen; the ONLY PLACE to see 1492 is on a HUGE screen, not on your TV. "The Duellists" is much less handicapped in this respect, it doesn't really deal with huge panoramic vistas like sailing ships on a sea, just a couple of guys in beautifully authentic and pristine French locations clanging their swords viciously.
"The Duellists" follows the lives of two officers in Napoleon's army, played by Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine, through a period of some 20 years. Early on, Keitel is insulted by the way Carradine addresses him in a famous Lady's drawing room and demands satisfaction in a duel. Carradine agrees and proceeds to whip him. Not only does Keitel not give up and let it end there, but he continues to hold a grudge for years, forcing Carradine into more duels every time they meet, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, until things come to a final head in a climactic duel on Carradine's estate, after he's retired as a General! That's basically it, as far as a conventional "plot" is concerned. But the WAY IT IS HANDLED is PURE POETRY and speaks volumes that no conventional plot could ever speak. Scott allows room for the viewer's imagination to actively participate in his 'period' film and that's what those who don't like the film REFUSE TO DO (because they've been conditioned to judge a film by its more superficial 'plot' elements and dismiss it).
The acting is first rate, the attention to period detail ABSOLUTELY AWE-INSPIRING (on a Barry Lyndon level), the locations gorgeously photographed--you literally feel like you've entered the early 19th century and can smell its odors. As for the DUELS themselves, they're some of the greatest sequences I've ever seen in any film, and certainly the best and most authentic 'swordfighting' ever put on film (Keitel and Carradine must've spent months with fencing instructors). Last but not passed, the highly poignant themes Ridley weaves into this gothic-sword masterpiece (without any trace of heavy-handedness) about 'the absurdity of conceit' and the lengths men will go to to protect their 'honor,' are anything but trivial, they're timeless and universal (and always ripe for some reversal).
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on March 21, 2006
I first saw this film in 1978, just after it was first released. A Canns Award winner in 1977, it was no big success here in the U.S., but it was an underground successs at least.

I was a competitive fencer for nearly 20 years and a lifelong recreational fencer, who has also done some theatrical work. I was nearing the height of my competitive career when this film was released. I knew former national champions, Olympic team members and trained with them and many others. Everyone agreed that this film portrays dueling, which fencing is based on, more accurately than any other film before or since- including "By the Sword."

Willliam Hobbs, the fight director in this film and a former competitive fencer from Australia, makes a cameo appearence in the scene of the second encounter where D'Hubert is practicing with him in the background as Faraud rides up. (Hobbs shows up in all his films somewhere - check out Polanski's Macbeath). Hobbs has many films to his credit and at least was a top if not the top fight director in the 70s and 80s. I think this is his best work since it shows dueling most realistically. How do I know? Trust me, I know. Fencers tend to be intolerant of nonsense. But one may also consult Aldo Nadi's book on fencing and read his description of a real duel he fought in the 1920s.

Based on a short story by Joseph Conrad who wrote on a real series of duels between two antagonists that began during the Napleonic Wars, The Duellists is informative and beautiful. The calvary duel is particularly so as it is realistic. We can imagine the feelings of a man who has no wish to be repeatedly drawn into duels by a nemises who will not let him be. It is glimse into the Western tradition of chivalric honor and the ancient rule of trial by combat that makes this film so fascinating.

Supported by a wonderful caste of British character actors, Americans Keith Carrdine and Harvey Keitel are only slightly out of place. Keitel moreso with his Brooklyn accent. Regardless Keitel overcomes this with a convincing portrayal of a hotheaded zealot, unreasoning in his pursuit of his self created foe. A great line offered up by a doctor describing him to D'Hubert after their first encounter "The enemies of reason have a certain blind look. He has that look, don't you think?"

A great film for a rainy afternoon.
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