Monday, 6 February 2012

The Duellists

The Duellists is a 1977 historical drama film that was Ridley Scott's first feature film as a director. It won the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. The basis of the screenplay is the Joseph Conrad short story The Duel (titled Point of Honor in the U.S.) published in A Set of Six.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the film tells the story of two French Hussar officers, Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel). A misunderstanding between them over an initially minor incident becomes a quarrel that turns into a bitter, long-drawn out feud over the following fifteen years, interwoven with the larger conflict that provides its backdrop. At the beginning, Féraud jealously guards his honour and repeatedly demands satisfaction anew when a duelling encounter ends inconclusively; he aggressively pursues every opportunity to locate and duel with his foe.

As the story progresses, d'Hubert also finds himself caught up in the contest. He is unable to refuse Féraud's repeated challenges to duel or to walk away because of the rigid code of honour. The feud persists through the different campaigns of the Napoleonic war, and on into the period of the Bourbon restoration which follows. When the story begins, both men are lieutenants, and over time both rise through the ranks to reach the rank of General.

At times, Feraud and d'Hubert meet but are of different military rank, which due to army regulations prevents them from duelling, but whenever both are of the same rank and in the same place, Feraud immediately issues a challenge. Each comes close to fatally wounding the other, d'Hubert being critically wounded in a duel with small swords, Féraud later being slashed in a joust on horseback with cavalry sabres and both of them nearly killing each other in an inconclusive combat with heavy sabres inside a barn. Years later, they meet again during the retreat from Moscow and another duel (this time with pistols) almost takes place - but on this occasion they put their personal feud aside since the two must act together to survive when they are attacked by Cossacks.

After the fall of Napoleon, d'Hubert marries and becomes a respected member of the restored aristocracy and a General of Brigade in the new French Army, while Féraud is an embittered member of the anti-monarchist party. Poor and despised, he rejoins Napoleon after the Emperor escapes from Elba (while d'Hubert refuses to take part in Napoleon's return), but his hopes are dashed after the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon's final exile to St. Helena. Feraud is forced to live under supervised conditions in a country village; he does not know that d'Hubert, by interceding with Minister Joseph Fouché, was responsible for Feraud's not being executed for being "a rabid Bonapartist". The feud continues however and Feraud tracks d'Hubert down and challenges him, although he no longer truly remembers, or has conveniently altered, the reason for the perceived injury to his honour.

The final duel is a pursuit through a ruin with each of the protagonists armed with a pair of duelling pistols. When Féraud misses his second shot, d'Hubert immediately seizes the initiative and corners Féraud at gunpoint. Féraud is completely defenceless, with no hope of escape. However, instead of firing, d'Hubert coldly informs Féraud that he has decided to spare his life – on condition that, since according to the rules of single combat Feraud's life now belongs to d'Hubert, Féraud conducts himself in future as a "dead" person and must never have any further contact whatsoever with d'Hubert ever again. Féraud has no choice but to submit to these terms and he departs from the scene. The film ends showing d'Hubert happily married and expecting his first child and Féraud contemplating the fact that he can no longer pursue the obsession which has consumed him for so many years.

By Joseph Conrad

"It remains for me only now to mention The Duel, the longest story in the book. That story attained the dignity of publication all by itself in a small illustrated volume, under the title, "The Point of Honour." That was many years ago. It has been since reinstated in its proper place, which is the place it occupies in this volume, in all the subsequent editions of my work. Its pedigree is extremely simple. It springs from a ten-line paragraph in a small provincial paper published in the South of France. That paragraph, occasioned by a duel with a fatal ending between two well-known Parisian personalities, referred for some reason or other to the "well-known fact" of two officers in Napoleon's Grand Army having fought a series of duels in the midst of great wars and on some futile pretext. The pretext was never disclosed. I had therefore to invent it; and I think that, given the character of the two officers which I had to invent, too, I have made it sufficiently convincing by the mere force of its absurdity. The truth is that in my mind the story is nothing but a serious and even earnest attempt at a bit of historical fiction. I had heard in my boyhood a good deal of the great Napoleonic legend. I had a genuine feeling that I would find myself at home in it, and The Duel is the result of that feeling, or, if the reader prefers, of that presumption. Personally I have no qualms of conscience about this piece of work. The story might have been better told of course. All one's work might have been better done; but this is the sort of reflection a worker must put aside courageously if he doesn't mean every one of his conceptions to remain for ever a private vision, an evanescent reverie. How many of those visions have I seen vanish in my time! This one, however, has remained, a testimony, if you like, to my courage or a proof of my rashness. What I care to remember best is the testimony of some French readers who volunteered the opinion that in those hundred pages or so I had managed to render "wonderfully" the spirit of the whole epoch. Exaggeration of kindness no doubt; but even so I hug it still to my breast, because in truth that is exactly what I was trying to capture in my small net: the Spirit of the Epoch—never purely militarist in the long clash of arms, youthful, almost childlike in its exaltation of sentiment—naively heroic in its faith."


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