Director Ridley Scott made an impressive debut with his first feature-length film 'The Duellists.' The story is based on Joseph Conrad's "The Duel," which is available to read online, which in turn was based on the real-life duels between French Hussar officers Dupont and Fournier-Sarlovèze, and tells a tale of love and obsession in the time of Napoleon.
Opening in Strasbourg 1800, as Napoleon becomes ruler of France, the film begins with a duel between Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) of the 7th Hussars and a man he nearly kills. That man turns out to be the nephew of the mayor. To quell matters, Lieutenant Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine) of the 3rd Hussars is sent to arrest him. Feraud doesn't understand what he has done wrong and becomes so incensed about being embarrassed in front of the woman he is with that he challenges d'Hubert to a duel, which is never completed.
The story jumps ahead to the next year. D'Hubert has gone on about his life, but Feraud seeks him out, finding the matter of dishonor unresolved between them. After another unfinished duel, d'Hubert trains as a swordsman. Scott cuts to their third duel in progress. It's a savage battle. Both men are very bloodied but their equal skills and mutual exhaustion lead to a draw.
Feraud's obsession with d'Hubert is relentless. French military law puts an immediate halt to the dueling when d'Hubert is promoted. Five years pass before they become equals again, and Feraud seeks another encounter, this time on horseback. However, there's more to their relationship than meets the eye. While stationed together at the Russian front during an intense winter in 1812, d'Hubert is the only soldier willing to go out on patrol with Feraud. A few years later, d'Hubert has the opportunity to rid himself of Feraud but chooses not to. What's going on when a man chooses another's life over his own?
'The Duellists' succeeds on a number of levels. Aside from a satisfying conclusion, the story is compelling because it is ripe with interpretations. Are we seeing a battle between the id and superego? Are we seeing two men in love expressing it the only way they can? The two lead actors deliver captivating performances that are open to meaning as well.
Scott's trademark of outstanding cinematography, in part thanks to the execution of cinematographer Frank Tidy and his team, as well as impeccable production design is already on display. I had a few quibbles with the jerky handheld shots during duels, and with the use of distracting filters that cut through frames, but other than Orson Welles with 'Citizen Kane,' I am hard-pressed to think of another director whose debut was so visually spectacular. I factored this into my score for the movie itself.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Duellists' is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc housed inside a standard blue keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 2.35:1. The source was clean, but looked its age with a natural amount of grain and occasional faint marks, black lines, and white specks popping up.
Influenced by Stanley's Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon,' Scott wanted to be as authentic as he could in recreating the period. Shot mainly with natural light, exteriors offer solid hues of greens and browns in the countryside. Interiors also used daylight from windows and/or candles. He was fine with objects getting swallowed up by darkness or sunlight blowing out the shots, so shadow delineation is poor and brief moments of discoloration occur when sunlight beams directly into the camera.
Though soft focus occurs, I expect that is the appearance of the source rather than an encode issue. There is very good object detail seen through in places such as the texture of buildings, the uniforms, and the flakes of artificial snow. Scott also made use of smoke, fog, and haze to create atmosphere within scenes, but this causes a loss of clarity, sharpness, and depth. No major digital artifacts were seen.
The audio is available in English DTS-HD Master 5.1 and 2.0 and sounds free of hiss and crackle. Composer Howard Blake's score fills the surrounds and offers a nice bottom end for the LFE to deliver. The instruments also come across distinct. However, it sounds so good that it could have been done recently, a fact which clashes somewhat with the dialogue and effects, which still sound like they were done in 1977.
Dialogue is clear, but comes across flat when ADR is used. Swords ring out with a clang during the duels and Feraud's pistol roars like a cannon during the Russia segment. Objects like carriages can be heard passing across channels as they move through the city streets. Elements blend well together except when intentionally meant not to, such as the loud music of the Lubeck tavern drowning out some dialogue or the roaring Russian winds having more strength than d'Hubert weakened voice.
Recognized by the 1977 Cannes Film Festival as Best Debut Film, Ridley Scott's 'The Duellists' marks the beginning of a directing career that will be talked about for as long as people are talking about movies, and the reasons were apparent right from the beginning. Shout Factory's Blu-ray release offers a very satisfying presentation that I will certainly return to for repeat viewings. Highly recommended.