The Last Duel: the final days of big-budget blockbuster drama in cinemas?

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With audiences deserting Ridley Scott’s historical drama, just how many more challenges can the non-franchise, star-powered drama, endure?.

 As is often the case when several big cinematic releases crowd the schedule, there will always be a casualty. After all, people have finite amounts of time and money, and though we’d love to support every project we feel some degree of interest in, it simply isn’t possible. There have been some big films out these last couple of weeks: the greatly-anticipated release of No Time To Die, along with Halloween Kills, the obligatory comic book movie in the form of Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Ridley Scott’s historical drama, The Last Duel.

 Each of these films is a heavy-hitter in its own right: Bond is simply Bond, whilst Halloween Kills is the second instalment in a popular and modern reprisal of the beloved horror franchise, not to mention that it is also has that powerful seasonal pull. There’s a theory doing the rounds at the moment that horror is booming because it’s the only film genre where audiences can escape to a reality that makes our seem palatable, and if the packed screening I found himself in on Saturday night was anything to go by, it might just hold water.

Both films have done brisk business so far with Kills in particular exceeding expectations. Let There Be Carnage is raking in the cash too, with its PG-13 rating in the US (it’s been certified as a 15 here in the UK) meaning that the film – like its predecessor – is available to a wide audience in the US. What’s more, it’s attracted that audience in droves, hoovering up a very impressive $160m in the US alone, contributing towards a current total of $283m, with plenty of territories yet to screen the film.


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 Which brings us to The Last Duel.

As we reported earlier this week, Ridley Scott’s lavish historical drama is currently the odd film out, with audiences snubbing the movie in favour of the alternatives mentioned above. At the time of writing, The Last Duel has grossed under $5m in the US and has made just $9m worldwide. Whilst it’s worth recognising that it is very early in the film’s lifespan to declare it a flop (and we certainly aren’t going to be stating that here), it is fair to say that the film certainly hasn’t found its audience yet. One of the real questions here is whether the film is going to be given the chance to do so. As a remnant of the pre-Disney era when 20th Century Studios was good old 20th Century Fox, Disney has no great stake in the performance of The Last Duel, a feeling that can be summed up by the general lack of marketing for the film.

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 Along with The Last Duel’s general lack of visibility, Disney has not been shy in the past to simply write films off as failures when their fate was very much still in the balance. John Carter suffered a very public and very swift write-down, essentially consigning the film to failure before it had even caught the attention of the moviegoing public, whilst the release debacle surrounding The New Mutants killed off all but the most hardcore interest in the film, long before its release. With its quarterly earnings call coming up in just a couple of weeks, Disney will most likely be using the failure of The Last Duel to justify its decision to not market the film, using the sort of backwards logic that Hollywood can sometimes specialise in.

What should be said is that The Last Duel is a very good film, with traditional Hollywood sensibilities. It tells a dramatic story and features a talented, starry quartet, all of whom put in very good work. Its narrative structure riffs nicely on Kurosawa’s Rashomon, telling the same event from multiple perspectives, a refreshing approach for such a big-budget film whilst still not taking too much of a stylistic risk for fear of leaving audiences behind.

Lastly, it is beautiful. The Last Duel is compellingly cinematic, from its bone-crunching battle sequences to its artfully-rendered wide shots of castles and keeps. It’s 14th Century France rendered majestically on the largest of canvases, blood and squalor juxtaposed beautifully with widescreen vistas and Middle Ages grandeur.

Simply put, it is one of director Ridley Scott’s best films for a long time, (and this is coming from somebody who found plenty to like in the much-maligned Alien: Covenant). For me, even Scott’s weaker films have something to recommend them, but The Last Duel is one of his strongest efforts in the last decade, which makes it all the more of a shame that its box-office performance is so woeful. Disney seems, though, pretty uninterested in marketing the film. Instead, The Last Duel feels likely to pop up on Disney Plus in double quick time, fodder for the steaming platform’s endless thirst for ‘content’. If nothing else, at least it will give the film an opportunity to be seen by a wide audience, which is no less than it deserves, but I’d still suggest The Last Duel deserves better.

Here in the UK, cinemas have their part to play in the film’s poor performance too. The logic in giving more screens to films with a higher profile is clear, but despite the film screening three times a day during the week, my local multiplex removed a third showing from the weekend schedule in favour of extra showings of Venom: Let There Be Carnage. Again, that’s understandable, as multiplexes have to make commercial decisions (and Venom 2 is a lot, lot shorter). But there comes a point where cinematic compromise must be called into question.

For example, some of those extra showings of Let There Be Carnage were in the ScreenX format, where the screen wraps around the auditorium to form a 270º viewing experience. However, if you’ve seen Let There Be Carnage, you’ll be aware that the film is presented in the traditional academy format of 1.85.1, rather than the more popular widescreen format of 2.39:1 that most films, (including the first Venom) are shot in.

Whilst the aspect ratio works well in a standard screening (I can’t be the only one that agreed with Zack Synder’s view that superheroes should be presented in a ‘taller’ format due to their mythic nature), it simply doesn’t work in the ScreenX format as two black bars break the 270º screen, breaking immersion in an unsightly fashion. Getting back to The Last Duel then, it seems unfair that a film (with the greatest of respect to Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die) that is the most cinematic of the ones we’ve mentioned above, finds itself losing out on screens to movies being presented in ‘cinema-averse’ formats. All before ending up being watched by the majority of audiences on a smaller TV screen, losing much of its grandeur in the process.


For me, the question is here is one of responsibility. Of Disney’s responsibility to give the films that it’s inherited the platform that they truly deserve. Of exhibitors’ responsibilities to present films in the formats the filmmakers intended rather than shoehorning movies onto screens on which they have no place for an extra few quid.

 And then there’s us, of course, and our responsibility as audiences, to support the craft of cinema, when and where we are able to, in the cinema.

Whilst appreciating that all parties involved face difficulties in these trying times, without these considerations, films like The Last Duel will – to borrow a motif from Blade Runner, one of Ridley Scott’s most cinematically-beautiful films – become nothing more than a unicorn. Those rarest of creatures, half-glimpsed, half-imagined in moments of reverie, but impossible to find.

And that would be a tragedy indeed.

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