Notable Festivals: Cannes (Best First Film)
I’ll never forget the one time I saw director Ridley Scott in person. Like a frame from one of his movies, it has been seared into my mind. It was the spring of 2008, and I was interning on the Warner Brothers lot. I think I might’ve been on a coffee run for my bosses, or perhaps making my way to the commissary for lunch, and I noticed a large movement of people storming down the New York brownstone section of the backlot. At the head of the pack was Sir Ridley himself, chomping on a huge cigar as he famously does both on set and in interviews, commanding his aides and colleagues with a militaristic precision. In that moment, he was the very picture of the classical Hollywood director as visionary tyrant– for a young grunt like me, it was akin to seeing General Patton take the battlefield. I’d be forgiven for thinking that he was simply born this way, having glimpsed him in a moment of his most-realized self in action– it’s very easy to forget that, many decades ago, he too had been the young (ish) man waiting on the sidelines; hungrily searching for his opportunity to prove himself.
Unless you’ve got a famous last name, nobody’s going to simply “give” you the chance to make your film– you have to fight for it at every conceivable juncture, because no one else is going to. Scott learned this lesson the hard way, having spent many years cultivating an impressive body of commercial work that he hoped would attract the eye of Hollywood. But here he was, already forty years old and responsible for some of the most beloved commercials in British advertising history without having ever made a feature film. We tend to stigmatize commercial directors in relation to Hollywood filmmakers, having been conditioned over the years to regard advertising as a lesser form of moving image. One can only imagine, then, how much more defined that separation must have been in the 1970’s when Scott– a director with hundreds, if not one-thousand plus commercials to his credit– could only make the jump to features by sheer force of will. After four false starts and unproduced screenplays, Scott finally gained traction with an adaptation of a short story by Joseph Conrad titled “The Duel”. Not being much of a writer himself, Scott turned to Gerald Vaughan-Jones, a screenwriter whom he had collaborated with twenty years earlier on an unproduced script titled “The Gunpowder Plot” (1). Together, they fleshed out Conrad’s short story about the decades-long rivalry between two French officers and the contemptuous bond they forge through a series of duels, delivering the blueprint for what would become Scott’s first feature film: THE DUELLISTS (1977).
Despite its aspirations as an opulent and sweeping period piece, THE DUELLISTS is nevertheless a scrappy independent production– indeed, Scott was compelled to forego his own salary in order to make the most of the production’s relatively meager budget. Scott and company shot entirely on location, making full use of the picturesque backdrops and natural, diffused sunlight that surrounded them. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel headline the film as the eponymous duellists, d’Hubert and Feraud. The characters are well-suited towards simmering acrimony: d’Hubert is a rakish aristocrat who seems to effortlessly rise through the ranks by sheer charisma and the grace afforded him by his caste, while Feraud is an intensely stubborn and highly-skilled swordsman from a working class background. What begins as a minor tiff over d’Hubert’s delivery of bad news from the front grows over the years into a series of encounters driven by Feraud’s obsessive quest to see his humiliated honor satisfied. No matter how much d’Hubert tries to distance himself from this feud and set himself up for a leisurely life in post-Napoleonic France, he can’t help but repeatedly get drawn back into the fray by Feraud, a die-hard Bonapartist who sees his rival’s Royalist inclinations as the stuff of high treason. Scott stretches his limited budget by focusing almost entirely on his two leads, exaggerating the scope of their interior drama to compensate for the shortage of visual spectacle. However, the decades-spanning narrative provides ample opportunity for supporting performances by actors like Albert Finney, a young & undiscovered Pete Postlethwaite, and Gay Hamilton and Alan Webb of BARRY LYNDON (1975) fame.
Indeed, the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON hangs over the proceedings like a shadow or a spectre– a palpable presence that lingers in the corners of every frame. Similar artistic choices populate both films– lingering zooms, a stately orchestral score, and even an omniscient narrator (played here by American actor Stacy Keach). This being said, THE DUELLISTS stands on its own merits in regards to its cinematography– a testament more so to Scott’s eye as a visual stylist rather than first-time feature cinematographer Frank Tidy, whose performance Scott reportedly found to be so unsatisfactory that he handled camera operating duties himself for large swaths of the production. Originating on 35mm film in the 1.85:1, THE DUELLISTS’ cinematography uses BARRY LYNDON’s romantic images as a jumping-off point while infusing a visceral grit that shows the era as the sweaty, bloody, and filthy time that it really was. Scott’s considered compositions and earthy, tobacco color palette give the picture an identity all its own– one that points to the later hallmarks of Scott’s visual aesthetic with abundant instances of stylish silhouettes, handheld camerawork, blinding lens flares, and soft, romantically-gauzy highlights. THE DUELLISTS, like BARRY LYNDON, is also notable for its evocative use of natural light, especially in interior sequences that utilize a large key source like a window while foregoing any fill, letting the frame fall beautifully off into absolute darkness. This, of course, is how interiors would have naturally looked at the time, before the magic of electricity cast its widespread glow. While THE DUELLISTS’ inherent technical scrappiness is a product of its meager budget, Scott nevertheless turns this into an asset that gives his first film a street-level immediacy entirely different from BARRY LYNDON’s birds-eye view.
As a director prized primarily for his aesthetic flourishes, Scott admittedly possesses a limited set of thematic fascinations– only a few of which make an appearance in THE DUELLISTS. The film begins his career-long attraction to the armed forces and the spectacle of battle, a conceit that pops up again and again in films like GI JANE (1997), GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005). His affection for atmospheric, self-contained worldbuilding, owing to his background as an art director and designer, is by far the most dominant signature at play in THE DUELLISTS, with Scott fleshing out this bygone era with every scene while building to an appropriately-cinematic climax amidst the striking ruins of a castle. Another aspect of Scott’s artistic signature at play here is his approach to filmmaking as a family affair. He had already been successful in turning his younger brother Tony onto the profession via their joint venture with RSA, and THE DUELLISTS finds Scott installing that same love within his own sons, who were exposed to the craft by virtue of their cameos as d’Hubert’s cherubic children. Scott’s efforts here very much favor the technical over the thematic, but the result is a remarkably assured debut that would go on to win the award for Best First Film at Cannes in the wake of a glowing critical reception. With the success of THE DUELLISTS, Scott’s career in feature filmmaking was officially off to the races, placing him at the forefront of directors to watch– a position he would cement with his very next feature effort only two years later.
THE DUELLISTS is currently available as a high definition stream via Filmstruck.
Produced by: David Putnam
Written by: Gerald Vaughan-Hughes
Director of Photography: Frank Tidy
Production Designer: Peter J. Hampton
Edited by: Pamela Power
Music by: Howard Blake
- Scott, Ridley. The Duellists DVD Commentary