Before Ridley Scott became a household name with films such as Alien or Blade Runner, he first directed The Duellists, a superb historical drama built around the conflict between two French soldiers in the time of Napoleon. Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) matches up against the obsessive Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) in a series of duels over many years, set against the backdrop of Napoleon waging war across Europe. It’s an intelligent, wistful movie that ruminates on the nature of honor and personal conflict, backed by Ridley Scott’s masterful direction. The script was originally based off a short story by Joseph Conrad.
Duelling was once an honored tradition amongst a certain class of gentlemen to settle disputes, often to the death. The Duellists’ main focus is really the story of Armand d’Hubert, a solider of the French army that gets into a minor dispute with another French soldier, an unthinking brute by the name of Gabriel Feraud. It’s the year 1800 in Strasbourg and Feraud challenges Armand to a duel over a minor misunderstanding, which Armand is honor-bound to accept as a gentleman. Each man survives this initial skirmish, but they continue to duel over the years, each losing something precious in the process. The series of duels wrecks the life of Armand, as it drives away the woman he loves and leaves him to cope with severe injuries.
Feraud is the clear aggressor in the duels, at least in the beginning, constantly pushing to duel Armand as their paths cross over the years. The senseless feud seems perpetuated by nothing more than a ridiculous idea of honor, wrapped up in personal pride and vengeance. It is here where the movie gets more contemplative, as Armand is a careful, tempered man that gets thrust repeatedly into a war he has no interest in waging, even though he’s obligated to defend his honor from Feraud due to the customs of his time and place.
The script is a lean, taut story that manages to convincingly portray both lead characters, leaving little time for other developments outside their little world of personal strife and discord. Napoleon’s France provides a perfect setting, as the personal conflict at the heart of the movie dovetails nicely with the two French soldiers’ lives as they rise in rank from lowly soldiers to high-ranking officers. The cast gives sublime performances, down to the small cameos by respected actors like Albert Finney. The plot is nicely-paced between the periodic and vicious duels, as Armand tries to make sense of it all between each narrow escape from death. The swordplay is realistic and convincing, as the choreography of the duelling is firmly grounded in historical reality.
The Duellists is a thinking man’s historical-action movie which marked Ridley Scott as a major creative force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. While duelling may have fallen out of favor, this movie has important things to say about honor and obsession that are still relevant today.
Licensed from Paramount Pictures, Shout Factory has given The Duellists a moderately strong video presentation. Running slightly north of 100 minutes on a BD-50, the main feature is encoded in AVC at an average video bitrate of 29.56 Mbps. The transfer is pleasingly film-like with a notable lack of digital processing, though the film elements are not in perfect condition.
Frank Tidy’s cinematography favors natural interior lighting in The Duellists, producing a veritable forest of dark shadows and light when the action moves inside. The 1.78:1-framed movie excels in the wider exterior scenes and long-range shots, producing a suitable contrast and modest sense of depth. The picture is somewhat soft and ranges in resolution from stunning to very ordinary.
A few contrast issues do appear in those darkened interior scenes, where the lack of available light leads to some degree of crushing in the black levels. Its detail is distinctly average, though this is largely due to a combination of the diffuse cinematography and the age of the transfer. There are no significant issues to the film print, though some very minor age-related wear makes its presence known.
Given its low-budget pedigree, though from a big-time director who would later make his mark on other films, The Duellists looks relatively pleasing on Blu-ray and shows a noticeable increase in resolution over DVD. The transfer does not look recent or from pristine film elements, but the lack of halos or notable grain problems indicates the transfer was not fundamentally manipulated to look like anything but the film stock it was shot on. No one will mistake this disc as a new visual benchmark for the format, but Ridley Scott’s fans will be quite satisfied by the overall improvement in clarity and definition.
Shout Factory has included a number of audio options on this disc, including the isolated score as an extra feature. The two main offerings are a 2.0 DTS-HD MA soundtrack and an expanded mix, in 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround. The Duellists was a fairly low-budget movie even by 1977’s standards, and the audio is merely satisfactory for today’s jaded home theater owners.
Dialogue is intelligible and the instrumental score, dominated by Classical music, is presented in a clean but fairly limited manner. There is a bit of harshness in the upper registers, which will fatigue some viewers that listen at reference levels. The clang of sabres used in the duels ring out across the room, as the two men battle it out to the death.
The surround mix is strongly conservative by today’s audio standards and does not greatly expand the soundstage beyond the initial stereo soundtrack. Either audio option works perfectly fine and is quite serviceable for a movie of this caliber. English subtitles are offered as an option, which display in a white font.
Shout Factory has graced this special edition of The Duellists with a completely-new interview with Keith Carradine, not to mention a number of older extra features originally produced for the DVD version many years ago. It’s a strong batch of extras in this day and age of stripped-down catalog releases on Blu-ray.
Audio Commentary by Ridley Scott – A sharp, lucid commentary by Ridley Scott on his first feature film. It delves into his thoughts and feelings on any number of topics, from production minutiae to the movie’s financial underpinnings. A top-notch listening experience for film lovers, by one of the medium’s modern masters.
Audio Commentary and Isolated Score by Howard Blake – The film’s composer shares his feelings on the music of The Duellists, between silent sections when the score goes quiet. Largely comprised of new Classical music that evokes the sound of the film’s historical period, the early Nineteenth-Century, Blake’s comments will mainly interest devoted music listeners.
Duelling Directors (29:09 in upscaled 1080i) – A fascinating featurette, as noted director Kevin Reynolds interviews and discusses the film with Ridley Scott. One of the best extras of its kind, as Reynolds is a huge fan of The Duellists and knows the film inside and out in directing his questions to Scott. It’s two Hollywood professionals sharing an easygoing conversation about a film they both clearly love.
The Story Of The Duellists (24:59 in 1080i) – A recent and in-depth interview with the film’s principal star, Keith Carradine. He reminisces about his experience on the movie with ease, giving thoughtful answers about various subjects found in the movie. Another easy featurette to recommend for The Duellists‘ fans.
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