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The Duellists - Special Collector's Edition

Reviewed by: David Litton
Genre: Drama
Video: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, French Dolby Digital 1.0 mono
Language: English, French
Subtitle: English
Length: 100 min
Rating: PG
Release Date: 12/3/2002
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Commentary: Director Ridley Scott/ Composer Howard Blake
Documentaries: None
Featurettes: "Dueling Directors" with director Ridley Scott & Kevin Reynolds
Filmography/Biography: None
Interviews: See Above
Trailers/TV Spots: Trailor
Alternate/Deleted Scenes: None
Music Video: None
Other: Photo Gallery with behind the scenes productions/ Poster & Movie Stills/ Storyboards
Cast and Crew: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Cristina Raines
Screenplay by: Written by: Gerald Vaughan-Hughes
Produced by: David Puttnam
Directed By: Ridley Scott
Music: Howard Blake
The Review:

"This story is about an eccentric kind of hunger," comes the opening narration of "The Duellists," a serious period drama that takes a more reserved approach to what dozens of other films have bastardized for cheap thrills since the dawn of moviemaking: the duel. Normally, we're treated to a sequence in which two men are either A) swordfighting for five minutes or so until one man dies, or B) taking ten steps away from one another before turning around and taking a shot. This movie, however, handles more than just the logistics of the event itself: as the film will tell you, honor is like a drug for the duelist who demands satisfaction. ***

The film is based on a true story as well as a story written by Joseph Conrad; it tells of two officers under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte's army during his rule in France in the early 1800's. Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), the older of the two, is seen in the opening engaging in a duel with an unknown man; he wins, and later celebrates his victory in the company of the wealthy. Enter Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine), the officer assigned to Feraud's arrest; apparently, the mayor of Strasbourg didn't find it particularly in his favor that his nephew happened to be the slain party of the early morning swordfight. ***

d'Hubert later removes Feraud from his entertainment and attempts to make the arrest; Feraud is insulted and becomes enraged, and engages d'Hubert in a duel. d'Hubert leaves his mark and exits, but old wounds and a fractured ego don't heal easily. Something besides Feraud's forearm has been injured: it's as if his very pride has been taken from him with one single cut, his very essence stripped from his soul. He must have satisfaction: it becomes a constant, a factor that never leaves his mind for the next fifteen years of his life. ***

The rest of the film is a series of political and social changes for the two men: the fall of Napoleon, the rise of Louis the XVIII, d'Hubert's marriage to a woman with whom he conceives a child, all bring about vast differences in their lives between the past and present. Still, there remains that riff between the two, that irrepressible desire in Feraud to attain his justice, and that yearning in d'Hubert to simply end it once and for all. The various thematic elements involving honor, obsession, and violence come into play throughout the film, as well as the constant questions of who will win out in the end, or who will become the better man by showing a capability of granting mercy. You see, honor doesn't necessarily mean murder. ***

All of this is handled extremely well by Scott, who guides the proceedings with a steady hand on the tiller of authenticity. The period setting is meticulously crafted with exquisite details in sets, costumes, and props, bringing 19th-century Europe to life with striking beauty. The duel sequences retain a high factor of intensity about them, making for quite a few instances in which holding your breath is a prerequisite. Keitel and Carradine, despite their lapses in accent, give strong performances fueled by authentic representations of rage, internal conflict, and adherence to honor. "The Duellists" may have gone by without much of a ruckus, but it stands as proof that Scott was a director of great talent, vision, and ability from the very beginning.

Image and Sound

The 1.85:1 image transfer for "The Duellists" is a nice presentation that should satisfy fans of the long-awaited release. For starters, the picture has been cleaned up exquisitely from the previous VHS versions, and looks just great. Grain and dirt a virtually a memory, while there is very little noise within the image to provide distractions. Colors are appropriately drained in some cases, while very vibrant and well-saturated in others; the balance between the two mediums is excellent. Contrast is also in fine shape and is complimented by solid blacks throughout. Edges are sharp most of the time, with some softer appearances in some of the darker interior scenes and some of the underlit exterior scenes. Other than that, this transfer is a winner. ***

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track earns points for its cleanliness and expansive use of the front end. Dialogue sounds terrific and is nicely centered, while many of the sound effects are also commendably blemish-free. The surrounds become engaged for the score and the occasional sound effect, such a scene which takes place in a tent on a rainy night, or the windy, snowy mountains of Russia, which can be heard all around. Deep bass is minimal, but not really needed much, so it doesn't matter. A worthy presentation, if altogether not as impressive as other audio tracks.

The Extras

The isolated score, presented in 2.0 surround, is dotted here and there with commentary from the composer, Howard Blake, who is a man of little words from what we have on the DVD. His technique is to wait until the musical cue is finished before he begins his discussion, which is actually admirable, because you don't have to struggle to hear one or the other. Blake basically introduces the themes as well as their origins, and his inspirations for the music. Overall, not a bad shot. ***

The featurette "Dueling Directors" is an interview with Ridley Scott conducted by fellow director Kevin Reynolds, who happens to be a big fan of "The Duellists." It's basically the development of the movie from page to screen, spliced with some footage from the movie, and even a vintage 1977 interview with screenwriter Gerald Vaughan-Hughes. There is also footage of Scott accepting the award for "Best Debut Film" at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Scott also talks about staging the duel challenges, and keeping the dramatic impact of the scene intact. ***

Then we move on to the storyboards, which are presented both in storyboard-only format, and in split-screen format (always a plus). And then we have an interesting presentation of Scott's first short film, called "Boy and Bicycle," shot in black and white. Purely an experimental piece, but like many of these types of films, it's interesting to try and point out the various stylistic influences that have stayed with Scott as a director throughout the years. ***

Closing out the disc is a photo gallery with behind-the-scenes, production, poster and movie stills, and a theatrical trailer.

Commentary The feature commentary with Ridley Scott is an engaging conversation with the director about his various techniques and methods of crafting his first movie. He refers a great deal to his career as a television commercial director here, pointing out that his experience in that field helped him to position some of the fight scenes the way they appear. He also discusses things like the casting, the short filming schedule of six weeks, trying to find a studio that would fund the film, and the production as a learning experience for him and his crew. Anyone who enjoys commentaries will not want to pass this one up.
Final Words: Here we have yet another fine special edition from Paramount. "The Duellists" isn't as full of goodies as some of the previous releases before it ("Sunset Boulevard" comes to mind), but it still has some weight just the same.

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December 13, 2002