[Originally published in Argus (Seattle), 1978]
“The Duel” is one of the most mysterious stories Joseph Conrad ever wrote. Ostensibly based in fact, it recounts the bizarre involvement of two career officers in Napoleon’s Grande Armée who, in the first year of the Little Corporal’s reign, become adversaries in a private quarrel no other man—and perhaps only one of the participants—understands.
Feraud, low-born, impetuous, wholly committed to his emperor and a relentless code of honor, consecrates his every energy to defending both. In battle a tiger, off the field of armies he moves from one duel, one test of strength, to another. D’Hubert is a career officer by aristocratic avocation; he meets both advancement and setback with an air of ironical amusement, an aesthete’s sense of form.
Their initial combat is forced upon D’Hubert. Almost accidentally, he emerges from it the victor, and sends his personal surgeon to tend Feraud’s wounds. Feraud demands a rematch, wounds D’Hubert this time, but refuses to call it even. To his annoyance and eventually his horror, D’Hubert realizes that the man intends to pursue the matter to the death.
And so it goes each time fate throws them together—for nearly two decades: from the cosmopolitan coziness of German billets to the icy retreat from Moscow; through the collapse of two Napoleonic regimes, to the dawn of what ought to be D’Hubert’s easy middle age as a country gentleman and doting husband.
This enigmatic tale, missing from most contemporary anthologies of Conrad’s work, provides the basis of an extraordinary film, The Duellists, written by Gerald Vaughn-Hughes and directed by Ridley Scott. It created a sensation at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival exactly one full year ago, but its American distributor has only now got round to releasing it. Indeed, they haven’t so much released it as absentmindedly permitted it to wander off on its own.
The name Ridley Scott meant nothing to me, but I have awaited the film with considerable interest and curiosity since I first heard that someone intended to cast Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel in a period swashbuckler. On the face of it, no two actors would seem less likely to make themselves convincingly at home in such territory. Carradine, the gangling Cowboy of McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the amatory predator of Nashville, the night-prowling rich-kid-as-quester in Welcome to L.A. Keitel, the quixotic sinner of Mean Streets, the country-boy lover revealed as sadistic philanderer in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Two emblematic denizens of the fiercely contemporary worlds of Altman and Scorsese.
And indeed, neither speaks Vaughn-Hughes’s nicely arch prose—as Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood spoke treason—“fluently.” To do that, Scott has enlisted the likes of Alan Webb, Albert Finney, Robert Stephens, and Tom Conti, acting to the hilt a gallery of brilliant cameos. Yet astonishingly, and most winningly, the stars’ want of period aptness redounds to singular advantage. The volatile Feraud is, after all, a character temperamentally similar to others Keitel has played. The actor’s visible concentration on holding himself spring-taut inside a French officer’s brocade or a duellist’s puffy blouse translates into a palpable expression of the tension, the militant self-awareness of every move this son of a blacksmith makes in sustaining the role of a gentleman.
Carradine’s D’Hubert is more of a problem. The story is told mostly from his point of view, which means Keitel’s Feraud enjoys the privilege of appearing darkly on the horizon from time to time and riveting us with his percussive gestures. D’Hubert must be seen walking, talking, worrying, conferring with his superiors and brother officers, making love.
There is no shame in the fact that Keith Carradine can never be anything but a 20th-century American. A great deal of the charm of The Duellists has to do with the ways Ridley Scott enables Carradine to get away with pretending to be a 19th-century Frenchman (which is to say, in English-language cinema, an Englishman).
Crowding close, Scott’s camera catches the plebe tautness with which D’Hubert disposes his face, between preposterous braids, when submitting to the criticisms of his general; later, those same braids are spread in a display of hippielike hedonism as he enjoys a private moment with a lady of the garrison. In longer view Scott cherishes, with droll solemnity, the way the formidable headgear of a Hussar further elongates Carradine’s lanky, Gary Cooper frame as it moves deliberately through a selfconsciously recreated corner of a period town.
There is something of Richard Lester, the Lester of the Musketeers films, in this strategy. Though Scott never has recourse to the buffoonery of those films, like Lester he gets to take an anachronistic genre seriously through witty acknowledgment that he and we necessarily bring a modern sensibility to it.
In a scene with no counterpart in Conrad, D’Hubert lies dazed in a steaming tub after Feraud has wounded him. He is discussing matters of the utmost seriousness with his mistress—and his voice is growing more and more pinched with the need to sneeze. “Don’t sneeze!” she pleads; then, desperately, “Describe honor.” “Honor is … indescribable!” he all but weeps, and the sneeze comes, rending his wounded side. To be at the mercy of that sneeze is finally no less absurd or terrifying than to be at the mercy of the implacable, irrational Feraud.
I have delayed mentioning till now—because I could have gone on about it to the exclusion of all else—that The Duellists is one of the most strikingly pictorial movies ever made. The director of the rich, lustrous cinematography is Frank Tidy—again, a name with no other referent for me—but the motive force behind the visual style is clearly Ridley Scott. In fact, Scott is credited as camera operator, and when one reads this in the end titles, the information feels gratifyingly right; this is indeed a film the director had his hands on.
There is nothing his camera cannot do: lunge over the shoulder of a charging swordsman, whirl through the smoky nocturne of carouse on the eve of battle, catching the finite tics of decision or indecision as the trajectories of scenes and lives change in an instant. It discloses pristine, color-saturated landscapes that we might have thought, in this polluted world, could exist only in a novelist’s imagination. And the visual extravagance has nothing of the film-school showoff about it. It is nothing less than a cinematic equivalent of Conrad’s dense, darkly sensuous prose. When at the end the world literally pivots between darkness and light on the grim, Napoleonic silhouette of Feraud, it serves as both the definitive visualization of Conrad’s metaphysical mystery and the certification that a major film artist has arrived.
Copyright © 1978 by Richard T. Jameson