Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ridley Scott's The Duellists, 1977

I have always been a Blade Runner (1982) fan, from the day it was released, even before it reached cult status. So coming away from the restored print of The Duellists tonight, Ridley Scott's first feature made five years prior to Blade Runner, I couldn't work out why I had never seen this gem of a film. It really is one of those sumptuous cinematic worlds I could happily live inside of for the rest of my life. It is apparently always juxtaposed with Kubrik's Barry Lyndon (1975), mainly because Scott cites the film as an influence. The two are period pieces set in the first half of the nineteenth century, both are overflowing with breathtaking cinematography, feature sword fights, and they converge in their concern for the codes and mores of European society. But the similarities don't go so much deeper. At least there is another way to see The Duellists: Ridley Scott at his very best before he becomes infected by the razzle-dazzle of special effects and the narrative demands of the Hollywood box office.

This is the opening scene of the film - how divine is that?

There is something about the 1970s that enables this film to be as sumptuous and extraordinary as it is. The use of lighting, color and costume, the choreography of the sword fights, the focus on the gradual unfolding of what my students would call, “the point” of the film, are all carefully crafted so that I see them quite clearly as belonging to a pre-digital age. The glorious use of lighting is at its best when it measures the tensions between the individual and private world in contrast with the soft focus glow of the French countryside. The cinematography is superb when it follows the dueling soldiers in their bloody game of honor, and is as naturalist as the cinema has ever allowed. And all of these effects tinge the film with some nostalgia for a 1970s way of making films. Even the slowly unfolding narrative in which action is not as important as the almost phenomenological interrogation of what is honor for the soldiers is a thing of the past. Just as I did when I recently saw a restored print of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), I came away from The Duellists lamenting that “they just don’t make films like that any more.”  

The film’s narrative is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story, The Duel, about two French soldiers who spend fifteen years doing battle over what was originally a very minor incident. The two French Hussar officers, Armand d'Hubert and Gabriel Féraud’s conflict is the vehicle for Scott’s discourse on honor, what is honor, and a reflection on the way that honor becomes the jailer of d’Hubert for years and years as he obeys Féraud’s unexplained hunger for violence and revenge. D’hubert is shown to be an otherwise reasonable man, a good officer and a loyal, but reserved officer of the Emporer’s army. He cannot refuse the challenge to duel as he must obey the code of the army in which he fights. Thus the impetus of Scott’s film is, at heart, humanist. And it reminded me of the humanist motivation of Blade Runner. All Roy Batty and his fellow cyborgs want is “more life, damn it”. And at the end of Blade Runner, Roy lets Deckard go in a gesture not so different from D’Hubert and Féraud’s confrontation at the end their film: like d’Hubert, Batty isn’t interested in killing, he is interested in living a life of freedom from the conditions that enslave him. 

"I want more life, damn it" Blade Runner, 1982
Ultimately, if Blade Runner is a better film, it is at least in part because Scott doesn't attempt to reach into what for him are the netherworlds of historical drama. The Duellists makes that familiar, and unsuccessful, Scott move that we saw in Robin Hood (2010) and films such as Gladiator (2000) where he gestures towards a broader political or historical comment through placing his humanist concerns against an historical background. And as was the case with the Roman Empire, and again in 13th Century England, the representation of Napoleonic France in The Duellists is never enough to be convincing, and too much to be easily set aside. All in all? Ridley Scott should stick to the future and somehow make films in which the possibilities of light sensitive film itself matters. This is an impossible ask, but diving into the gloriously rich cinematic experience of The Duellists did remind me of why Scott's later films are never quite satisfying.

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