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The Duellists
Special Collector's Edition

review by Zach B.

 

 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 100 minutes

Starring: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Edward Fox, Cristina Raines, Robert Stephens, Albery Finney

Screenplay by: Gerald Vaughan-Hughes
Based on the Story by: Joseph Conrad

Directed by: Ridley Scott

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $24.99

Features: Audio Commentary with Ridley Scott, Audio Commentary with Composer Howard Blake with Isolated Score, Dueling Directors: Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds Featurette, Boy and Bicycle: Ridley Scott's First Short Film, Storyboards, Photo and Poster Galleries, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Mono, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (14 Scenes)

Released: December 3rd, 2002

 

 

When we think of the great director Ridley Scott, what films do we think of? The first "Alien," that's for sure. The overrated "Gladiator"? You bet. What about "Thelma and Louise" and "Black Hawk Down"? What about the less memorable ones? "Legend" surely might ring a bell, but what about "White Squall," "1492: Conquest Of Paradise" or "Someone To Watch Over Me"? But of course, we have "The Duellists." I'm sure a lot of you are saying "HUH!?" when I mention this film, and you have no reason to feel ashamed. I guess "The Duellists" does rank as one of the more obscure Scott films given all the commercial success the man has had. Still, it is truly a very important film for the man: it is his first and certainly one of his better ones.

The film is a historical piece, set during the Napoleonic age and based on the story by the great author Joseph Conrad. The plot follows two officers in Napolean's army, Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) and Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine). During a span of nearly three decades, the two battle it out in a series of duels after both men take a certain offense after a little, even somewhat ludicrous conversation. From time on, things get aggressive between the two as they each try to prove themselves for their own egotistical reasons.

"The Duellists" was not very successful when it was released, despite some strong kudos and the 1977 Best Debut Film award it garnered for Scott at the Cannes Film Festival (which was unaminous). Still, I think time has treated the film well and like a great deal of Scott's work, it is very strong. What I find so fascinating about "The Duellists" is actually Scott. This was the first film he directed (after several television directing jobs in the 1960s), but when watching it, you'd think he was a seasoned veteran when it comes to filmmaking.

It's not the fact that Scott paces the story pretty well, even during the few somewhat murky portions. It's not even the gorgeous visuals that give the movie so much artistic beauty and metaphorical beauty, a trademark that Scott would become known for (let alone how impressive it is in how he shows this mark off throughout his first film). No, it's not the interesting way the actors seemed to be directed or even how the always intriguing, always gripping fight scenes are shot.

It really is none of that. It's how Scott handles the themes and finds meaning, giving the educated viewer the message without being too direct or too passive. He finds the right balance in how one's sense of what is righteous and how one's own obsession, as well as ego, can take on such a strong lifespan. In truth, a lot of us can relate to the story and what is being said: we shouldn't hold grudges for such long periods of time, especially over such meaningless things. I'm sure we all wish we can patch things up with some people over stupid things, even if what we have done or what they have done is beyong repair. Some things simply aren't meant to be dragged out and aren't meant to go so deep, it's just that our own egos and attitudes for our own pride tend to bring it on. This is a lesson we all must learn, but sadly, you would probably be surprised how many people in this world haven't exactly gotten it in full yet.

Gerald Vaughan-Hughes' screenplay, based on Joseph Conard's story "The Duel," is pretty good. There is a constant passage of time and a narrator keeps the audience up to date (which I liked), but there are times when I felt the story was a bit too free flowing and got a bit off track. It's not that the loose elements feel like filler, as most of them are pretty satisfying. It just made me wonder what could have been offered in place of what Hughes conjured up, perhaps there could have been more substance or some alternate focus. Also, I thought some of the dialogue could have been cleaned up a bit and also retain some constance.

The film also features some excellent performances. It is like lightning between Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. Keitel is reliable like always and gives quite a demeaning strength, while Carradine has some fine poise. Supporting performances from the likes of Roberty Stephens, Edward Fox and Cristina Raines are very nice, while "special guest star" Albert Finney fits things well. In all, "The Duellists" is a mark of a one-of-a-kind director which certainly showed much promise. And of course, that director did more than prove himself and make his mark.

 

The visual beauty of "The Duellists" is captured in a marvelous fashion on this transfer, but it is not without its little flaws. Given the film's age, I suppose scratches, blemishes and dirt pieces are given. They pop up here and there, and aren't too distracting. The flaw that is noticable are edge halos and shimmering, which are featured a good deal throughout the movie unfortuantly. Everything else though is quite pleasing. Detail is very strong, while fleshtones and color saturation look just right. The color saturation is very bold and gives a good feel to your eyes when you watch the film. The transfer is also slightly soft, but in all, it is pretty nice.

 

I actually enjoyed the 5.1 remix for "The Duellists," even if it feels just a tad bit artificial. Dynamic range is pretty strong, but I would have liked fidelity to be a little bit higher. Still, the surrounds pack quite a nice punch be it the echoes of those speaking against the hollow walls, the various animal sounds, the bustling of people and of course, the duels themselves with the swords clashing and clanking (and don't forget the grunts of people too). The surrounds do enrapture you, while the powerful score from Howard Blake also does its job well. Dialogue is clear and easy to hear, and nothing gets lots in all the shuffle. This is one of the more impressive 5.1 remixes I have heard as of late, so many of you should not be disappointed. Also included is a French mono track, an English Dolby Surround track, English closed captions through your television and English subtitles.

 

Another one of Paramount's Special Collector's Edition, there extras here are quite insightful and interesting as they are sure to offer a lot to those who are interested. As one might expect, there is an Audio Commentary with Director Ridley Scott. Like always, Scott delivers one great session that is sure to please fans of his work and the film itself. Scott touches on exactly what I wanted to him to talk about: his experience of directing his first feature. He goes right into it, explaining why he felt he was ready to make a movie (after quite a bit of trying) and how he more or less ended up starting up his career. The film cost $900,000 to make, which Scott says at the time was low budget. Scott talks about the process of making the movie, the challenges he faced throughout, the screenplay, his interpertation of the main story, the actors and so many more details. This is as good as commentaries get in my opinion, so by the end of it if you choose to listen, you should be an expert on "The Duellists." Another interesting, fascinating and always insightful track by Scott. Don't miss it.

The Audio Commentary with Composer Howard Blake with Isolated Score is also pretty fantastic. Blake's score for the film is nothing short of excellent, and watching the film with just the score I actually felt some added emotion, as if this movie was almost playing like some pseudo-silent film. One the music cues end, Blake speaks and he speaks quite passionately. He talks about the tone he went for creating the compositions, what was recorded and the kinds of instruments he was looking for. This isn't a track for the casual fan, but if you love movie scores and music itself (and have some knowledge in the area), then you'll certainly get a lot out of this. Very, very well done.

The feautrette Duelling Directors: Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds lasts an impressive 29 minutes and is even presented in anamorphic widescreen. You'd think by the title it'd involve some competition between the directors, but it's actually a very conversation between the two. Reynolds introduces and explains that "The Duellists" was a major influence on him as a filmmaker. The two sit drinking tea and watching the film on a television. While it certainly is interesting, some of it does overlap with the commentary track on the DVD (Scott even does contradict himself several times). I guess if you don't have the time to listen to the fine commentary, than this covers some major points such as the origins of the project, the story, techniques, an audience perspective and how the film was marketed. Stills, storyboards, behind the scenes footage, clips from the movie, press footage and footage of screenwriter Hughes talking about the film are dispensed throughout. The featurette is a very nice, casual conversation between two talents but covers a ton of ground in the filmmaking process and points out what makes "The Duellists" so good. It's well edited, well shot and just well put together. Even though Scott offers a load of information here, Reynolds passion for film and "The Duellists" seem to have no limits as he comes across quite articulate and insightful as well. Like all the features on the disc, this is not to be missed. Just wonderful.

Another goodie on the DVD is Boy And Bicycle: Ridley Scott's First Short Film. And no, this isn't some little home movie Scott made when he was a wee lad. This lasts a good 26 minutes and is quite professional, once again showcasing Scott's raw talent and lyrical beauty. It is an interesting film that had some very nice quiet moments, and is certainly an excellent bonus to this stellar package. It's in full frame, but I wish Scott did some kind of introduction to it or something.

Ridley Scott is certainly known for storyboarding his shots, usually personally doing them. Using your angle button in the Storyboards feature, you can look at Scott's storyboards or alternate a split screen between the boards and the final scenes in a very classy montage played agains a fine piano score. This lasts a few seconds under four minutes.

Last but not least we have great Photo and Poster Galleries, divided into "Portraits," "From The Film," "Behind The Scenes" and "International Posters." There is also the original Theatrical Trailer in anamorphic widescreen (it's quite an illustrious trailer actually). Oh, and the menus are superb, capturing a nice touch of elegance, so do enjoy those.

 

You might not have heard of it, but "The Duellists" is certainly a wonderful debut film from cinema legend Ridley Scott and twenty-five years later, it still is a pretty remarkable picture. This DVD release is certainly quite "satisfying," with a nice transfer, strong 5.1 remix and a bevy of supplements that do live up to Paramount's Special Collector's Edition title. It's worth a rental if you're a curious, but if you're a Scott fan, it's an obvious must see. In either case, this does rank as one of Paramount's strongest releases for the year 2002.