“The duelist demands satisfaction. Honor for him is an appetite.”
The Duellists, the feature directorial debut by Ridley Scott, plays on Turner Classic Movies on Saturday, November 7. Adapted from a short story by Joseph Conrad and starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as army officers in Napoleonic France bound together in a series of duels that have long lost any sense of meaning or honor (if indeed there ever was any), it’s a gorgeous debut and still one of his best films. I recently contributed an essay on the film to the TCM website on the film.
While The Duellists is Ridley Scott’s first feature, he had over twenty years experience behind the camera in short form filmmaking. He made his debut with the student film Boy and Bicycle in 1965 and went on to direct episodic television and form his own commercial production company with his brother, Tony Scott. By 1977 he had, by his own rough count, “made about 2,000 commercials” and was eager to make the leap into features. Having already seen a handful of feature projects collapse, he turned to stories in the public domain and found this story by Conrad, a sketch that was inspired by a true story. With a budget of under $1 million (tiny for a period piece, even by 1977 standards), Scott put his production acumen to work to suggest a scope he couldn’t actually show on screen and created an astoundingly lush, visually sumptuous canvas. Interiors are bathed in the golden light of candlelight and nostalgia, like a period painting in motion, while exteriors are wrapped in fog and mist. “People don’t realize how overcast can help,” Scott explained in an interview years later. “That’s why films shot in England, Ireland or Scotland look so beautiful. It’s raining all the time.”
With no budget to build sets, Scott shot The Duellists completely on location in France, England and the Scottish Highlands. He scouted existing structures for his sets and turned countrysides into verdant visions of the past as viewed through the haze of idealization. With no budget for an army of extras, battle scenes were suggested in isolated details — a few men in uniform seen from the inside of an officer’s tent in the field, a dead soldier frozen in the winter of Napoleon’s failed Russian campaign — and street scenes carefully blocked to show mere slivers of the city where a few extras could stand in for the bustling crowds. New York Times critic Vincent Canby praised it as a film of “almost indescribable beauty, of landscapes at dawn, of over-crowded, murky interiors, of underlit hallways and brilliantly sunlit gardens.”
Read the complete feature here.