Film 45: The Duellists
My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor.
It was Tim’s choice and we watched Wild Bill. It was another disappointing Western biopic. Watch the first season of Deadwood instead and be a lot, lot happier.
Despite my lack of enjoyment of Wild Bill, it had a stonking cast who’re in an awful lot of stuff I either should have seen or want to see. Narrowing it down to just five was heartbreaking enough.
Southern Comfort (1981)
Whilst Walter Hill isn’t in my good books for directing Wild Bill, this looks plucky and was made a lot closer to the brilliant The Warriors.
The Contender (2000)
I was less sure about this one than some of the others, but while trying to narrow the list down I watched a trailer, and it suddenly rocketed up the rankings. Gary Oldman looks brilliant in it, add Susan Sarandon, Sam Elliot and Jeff Bridges to the mix and it’s a goddamn party.
Silent Running (1972)
Mark Kermode bangs on about this a lot in his film reviews and blogs, so it seems like a bit of an oversight that I’ve not seen it. 70s sci fi, Bruce Dern, cute little robots, what’s not to like?
This is a Robert Altman film, and having already covered M*A*S*H and The Player in the CRFC, both of which are excellent, it seems like a sensible choice.
The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott’s first film, and the one he made directly before Alien. Another one where I was intrigued by the premise, but hooked by the trailer. So hooked, in fact, that it gazumped Silent Running and became my choice.
Keith Carradine played Buffalo Bill in Wild Bill and he’s one of the two leads in The Duellists. He’s someone who has sort of come out of the blue in the last decade or so for me – in the likes of Dexter, Deadwood (playing Wild Bill this time) and the Fargo TV series. I’ve been more aware of his brother, David, from Kill Bill and Deathrace 2000 so it was a nice surprise to go through Keith’s filmography and find loads of tempting stuff spanning multiple decades. I imagine we’ll get back to more of it soon.
The Duellists and me
I hadn’t heard of it at all, but the premise is great – two soldiers in Napoleon’s army have a disagreement and fight a series of duels over the next 16 years. Ridley Scott isn’t a man who can do no wrong, but there is absolutely no arguing with Alien’s brilliance. None. And this is the film that he made in the build up to it, so close to the peak of his powers, some might say. I have hopes…
A small feud between two Napoleonic officers evolves into a decades-long series of duels. 7.5 stars.
My hopes were well-founded.
Lovely long shots of misty fields with duel combatants warming up while cows and sheep look on? Tick.
Period-accurate clothes, haircuts and fighting styles (apparently – it’s certainly the only excuse for the haircuts)? Tick.
Pete Postlethwaite playing a barber with no lines? Tick.
Here’s an interesting thing, though. The film is about two Frenchmen in Napoleon’s army. Pretty much all the characters are French. Almost all the actors are English, and using English accents. So far so consistent. The two leads, Keith Carradine as the calm, sensible d’Hubert and Harvey Keitel’s permanently furious Feraud, have American accents. That’s liveable withable. Every now and then D’Hubert shouts ‘La’, though. As in ‘There’, but in French. It’s a puzzling choice, but not exactly the end of the world.
The sword duels are wonderfully choreographed, with bursts of sudden violence, sudden politeness and long moments of weighing up moves. It reminded me of the wonderful duel in Zatoichi. Then there’s a mounted duel and hide-and-seek pistol duel too just in case sword aren’t exciting enough.
The whole thing is a brilliant study in the rules of honour, and how bloody ridiculous they are/were. It’s based on a Joseph Conrad book, which in turn was based on reality. The names have been changed though – take note Wild Bill (I’m still bitter about that). In the film there are five or six duels. In reality there were around 30. And neither of them died. They were either incredibly equally matched duellists, or awful.
One of my favourites of our film club so far. That Ridley Scott is one to watch – you heard it here first.
Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel are in a fair old bit between them, but the supporting cast is chock full of notable British thesps like Edward Fox and Alun Armstrong. It’s going to be Tim’s choice and I think I’ve destroyed him with options once more!