Ridley Scott revisited: The Duellists, an assured debut

Ridley Scott directs The Duellists
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Ahead of Napoleon’s release, we take a look back at Ridley Scott’s career to date, beginning with his 1977 feature debut, The Duellists.

If Napoleon turns out to be Ridley Scott’s final film, it would provide a remarkable level of symmetry to his 1977 debut The Duellists, set as it is during the same Napoleonic era of French warmongering and chivalry.

Napoleon won’t be Scott’s final film, though at least if he has anything to do with it: at 86 years old, it’s fair to say Sir Ridley is a indefatigable directorial presence. At an age when most men are tottering around old people’s homes, Scott is still making cinematic epics like he’s 39 all over again.

The Duellists kickstarted a career that has ebbed and flowed over five decades; today he’s rightly regarded as one of the great British directors.

Even by Scott’s standards, The Duellists is a remarkable way to kickstart a career. Few directors are able to produce such a lush, visually arresting and well-cast film as their first effort. Scott immediately marks out his penchant for wide yet intimate filmmaking. The level of detail isn’t quite to the degree we would see in his second feature, 1979’s Alien, but still: The Duellists saw him emerge with his directing style almost fully formed.

Scott’s reputation for no-nonsense statements and organised, methodical direction are perhaps a result of his upbringing in the North East of England in a military family. His father was a colonel and Royal Engineer in World War Two – Ridley was born two years before the conflict began. Though his younger brother Tony would join Ridley in the film business, and enjoy a similar level of success, his elder brother Frank joined the Merchant Navy. Throw in a powerful mother who raised her children while his father was often absent, and you have the recipe for a formidable environment in which to grow up.

ridley scott directs The Duellists

‘Fancing is a science’ in 1977’s The Duellists. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

This perhaps partly explains why Scott was drawn to an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella The Duel as his first feature, geared as it is around a military ecosystem built of deference, paeans to honour and a rapidly changing social and cultural environment, buffeted by the spectre of war. Growing up on Teeside, Ridley saw workers toiling in chilly, mechanical environments while his own artistic career burgeoned; he enrolled in art colleges first in West Hartlepool and later the Royal College of Art in London.

By the 1960s, Scott was working in television, his first credit an episode of popular police drama Z-Cars called Errors of Judgement. Through the remainder of the decade, Scott gained further credits on popular TV series such as Adam Adamant Lives!, The Informer and The Troubleshooters. He also directed adverts for television – around 2,000 of them – including a staple of British households in Hovis’ ‘The Boy on the Bike’, replete with the famous Hovis theme (actually Dvorak’s ‘New World’ symphony with a brass rearrangement). Cinema, nevertheless, remained where he wanted to be.

“I knew I wanted to be a director when I was about eight,” Scott told The Guardian in 2007, “but I didn’t know how on earth I’d get there. Where did they come from? Did they land from Mars? I figured that by getting to be an art director I was halfway along the route, and once I became one I was staring at the reality of these insecure, four-packs-a-day, jugs-of-water-and-beer guys called ‘director’. Not all of them were very good, but one or two of them were brilliant.”

His grand-uncle, Dixon Scott, became a pioneer of cinema distribution in the North East and helped found Tyneside Cinema, still active to this day. Scott isn’t sure whether he ever met him, but as he told the Newcastle Chronicle: “He started off with a little hand cart, going around the colliery districts with slide shows.”

Keith Carradine as Armand d’Hubert. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

In the early 1970s, Scott formed a production company with his brother Tony called Ridley Scott Associates, through which he worked on many of his commercials, often for major brands such as Chanel No. 5 or Apple. It turned ‘RSA’ into a major player in TV advertising, and provided Scott with the platform needed to start his feature career.

Screenwriter Gerald Vaughan-Hughes had already written an adaptation of The Duel when Scott approached him to develop a script based around Guy Fawkes and the 5th November gunpowder plot of 1605. Scott subsequently bought the screenplay, working with producer David Puttnam to put together the financing with Paramount. The timing was relatively fortuitous; the 1970s saw the evolution of the ‘auteur’ director (much as Scott doesn’t care for the term) as the New Hollywood movement rose out of the old studio system. New directors like Scott had opportunities to tackle historical or less financially bankable ideas than they would following the game-changing moment of Star Wars, released the same year as The Duellists.

It’s easy to see why Paramount might have been interested. The Duellists recalls The Beguiled in many placesDon Siegel’s strange Civil War drama starring Clint Eastwood from 1971, and it holds an enormous debt to Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 drama set in a similar era to The Duellists. Scott has been open about attempting to replicate the latter film’s style.

The Duellists has a distinctly Barry Lyndon-like artfulness to its cinematography, with Scott making the most of his French filming locations. There’s also a huge amount of period detail in sets and costumes – amusingly, Stacy Keach’s narrator even starts one of the film’s chapters by remarking how time has seen military fashions change.

Harvey Keitel and an incredible moustache as Gabriel Feraud. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Scott’s film is a touch darker and grittier, though, reflective of the viciousness of a world built on masculine bravado. We see Napoleonic soldiers seeking validation, driven by honour, and two men bound by a pact that spans almost two decades – one that spirals completely out of control. Keith Carradine is D’Hubert, a soldier dispatched to place Harvey Keitel’s firebrand Feraud, who’s under arrest for almost killing the nephew of the mayor of Strasbourg in a duel. His offence at D’Hubert’s actions sees him offer the challenge of a duel, which repeats across fifteen years and an array of countries as both men are buffeted by the Napoleonic winds.

Despite both men flanked by fine character actors such as Robert Stephens or Albert Finney (in an enjoyable cameo, arranged by then girlfriend and co-star Diana Quick), Scott enjoyed the approach both of his lead actors took, even though he initially envisaged Oliver Reed and Michael York as Feraud and D’Hubert respectively. As director Kevin Reynolds, discussing the film with The Telegraph, said of them:

There is a temptation in period dramas for the actors to become remote from what they are doing, simply because the clothes, language and some of the attitudes are so different from those of today. There is a tendency to overplay or lapse into unnatural gesturing. I suppose you could call it camp. But Carradine and Keitel avoid all that. They move and speak and make what they are doing seem utterly natural and comfortable. They are like real people, almost contemporary people, and after all human behaviour hasn’t changed that much in 200 years or so. They feel genuine, and because of that you can suspend your disbelief and allow the sense of danger and jeopardy to creep in. The Duellists does feel real, and there is a great deal of jeopardy and tension built into each of the conflicts.

Though Keitel was perhaps the bigger star at the time, having struck a chord in various Martin Scorsese films since his 1967 debut Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, Carradine (notable himself in several Robert Altman films since 1971’s McCabe And Mrs Miller) carries the piece as the put-upon D’Hubert, pushed down a road of continual duelling by Feraud’s bullishness and his refusal to accept defeat. Feraud can undoubtedly be seen as a small-scale analogue of Napoleon himself (never seen here but always hovering over proceedings): the small, petty man who refuses to let go of his quarry until he’s exiled from the game, forced to live out his days a shadow of his former self. Scott’s final shot underscores this.

Ridley Scott directs The Duellists.

Ridley Scott sought to recreate the painterly lighting and cinematography in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, released two years before The Duellists. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

The Duellists begins Scott’s interest in vain, bitter men who seek power and control – totally oblivious, it seems, to their shortcomings. Take Commodus in Gladiator, Mason Verger in Hannibal, or Jacques de Gris in The Last Duel (a film that also shares DNA with this one). The list goes on. Scott seems fascinated by men who are checked by their own hubris, often by strong and commanding women around them. D’Hubert – drawn more into Feraud’s orbit than he might care to admit – is warned by his former mistress Laura that this obsession will see him killed one day. She serves as an avatar for the kind of strength and level-headedness Scott saw in his own mother, who made a lasting impression.

“My ma really was my father, because my dad was always not there,” Ridley told The Telegraph in 2003. “He was a workaholic, so everything was dealing with Ma – Ma laid down the law, Ma was very strong. We were just turned loose during the mornings and afternoons, but she’d give you hell if you weren’t back in time for meals. I must have really looked up to her.”

The lack of a father figure in the household also perhaps accounts for Scott focusing on driven, distant men such as D’Hubert and Feraud (and in Napoleon, Bonaparte himself) as he tries to explore obsession and how it intersects with power. The Duellists might concern two men who are incidental in the grand scheme of Napoleonic geopolitics, but they aptly represent a broader world of honour-based, chivalric pride. Scott’s film suggests these to be extremes. As the narrator opens the film says, the duellists possess “an eccentric kind of hunger.” That seems appropriate.

Scott will no doubt bring that hunger to Napoleon as he examines the man himself, taking much of Kubrick’s unrealised vision for his epic take on the man developed in the 1970s. We can trace such a fascination back to The Duellists, to the beginning of his feature career; a film that won critical praise from such luminaries as Vincent Canby and Pauline Kael, not to mention the Palme d’Or at Cannes. How many debut filmmakers pull that off with their first movie?

The Duellists suggested we had something special with Ridley Scott. He would go on to solidify that in his next film, taking audiences into a space where no one can hear you scream.

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