Film Deep Focus: The Duellists

Story posted January 14, 2022 in Arts & Entertainment by Jon Mead.

Before Ridley Scott directed “The Last Duel”, there came “The Duellists”, a historical drama that would truly challenge and paint a different picture of the many romanticized theatrical depictions of sword fighting common throughout modern-day cinema.

Known for other notable works such as “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator” and “The Martian,” Scott made his directorial debut back in 1977 with the release of “The Duellists.”

The film became a classic, a hit amongst critics and audiences alike, starring well-known actors Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine.

Set in 19th century Napoleonic France, the plot is based on the short story “The Duel” by Joseph Conrad, following high-ranking French officers, Gabriel Féraud and Armand d’Hubert.

Feraud throughout the film is depicted as a ferocious and obsessive duelist. This is exemplified in the story’s introduction with the deep-seated Bonapartist facing off against the nephew of the Mayor of Strasbourg.

What really makes this movie so amazing is how realistic the sword fighting sequences were created. No theatrics and no twirling of the swords.

Scott introduces the viewer to feelings of increased tension and anxiety as either opponent could likely meet a gruesome end by being impaled. Feraud’s opponent loses his balance and composure as he’s slashed in the hand.

The lieutenant stabs him in the chest and walks away callously. But he is subsequently punished for his behavior.
D’Hubert is assigned to put Feraud under house arrest. Feraud takes offense, despite d'Hubert attempts to calm him, and the two engage in a duel that lasts over 16 years.

The duels start with Heavy Sabers, Small Swords, then on horseback and then with pistols, leaving audiences scratching their heads wondering if the two characters are going to start fighting with cannons next.

By the time they get to their third duel in 1806, the conflict reaches a point where all meaning and motivation for fighting is lost. Covered in blood and sweat- with d’Hubert even losing a chunk of skin from his shoulder- the outcome is a standstill.

One of the truest meanings and representations of the story is that of masculine escape in the “gentleman’s code of honor,” a long gone and outdated philosophy that even begins to fade during the period in which the film takes place.

Keitel and Carradine's characters perfectly contrast each other. Feraud has a more brash and direct personality, compared to d’Hubert who is far more diplomatic, noble and less willing to fight, an amazing performance by both actors.

The lush, gorgeous landscapes, the atmosphere and architecture are amazing feats on Scott’s part, often being compared to the scenery of “Barry Lyndon,” another period piece directed by Stanley Kubrick. Even the gloomier parts of the film are beautifully shot.

Overall, “The Duellists” is both well-written and visually stunning. Although at some points the movie can be a little dry, it still leaves viewers on the edge of their seats, wondering who’s going to be victorious.

Viewers that are looking for a great historical film to watch or want to get into Scott’s earlier works, this is it.

Jon Mead is a third-year majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email

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