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Paramount Studios presents
The Duellists (1977)

Feraud: Can you fight?
D'Hubert: I see no reason whatever for us to fight.
Feraud: What reason would you like? Shall I spit in your face? Shall I cut a chunk out of your backside? Or would that be too ridiculous?

- Harvey Keitel, Keith Carradine

Review By: Brian Calhoun  
Published: January 08, 2003

Stars: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel
Other Stars: Albert Finney, Edward Fox, Cristina Raines, Robert Stephens, Tom Conti
Director: Ridley Scott

MPAA Rating: PG for violence
Run Time: 01h:40m:25s
Release Date: December 03, 2002
UPC: 097360897548
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- BB+B A-

DVD Review

With cinematic feats including Blade Runner, Alien, Black Hawk Down and Gladiator, director Ridley Scott has created some of the most visually triumphant films of the past 25 years. Based on such an impressive career, I expected visual elegance from Scott's first feature film, but I was unprepared for the artistic magnificence of The Duellists. While hampered by a somewhat dull and monotonous story, the luxurious cinematography proves to be as visually awe-inspiring as any Ridley Scott film.

Based on a story by Heart of Darkness author Joseph Conrad, The Duellists follows the lives of Lt. D'Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Lt. Feraud (Harvey Keitel), two officers in Napoleon's army who confront one another through a series of duels. Their violent obsession begins when D'Hubert informs Feraud that he is under arrest for fatally wounding the son of an important Major during a duel. Feraud perceives D'Hubert's message as a personal insult and attempts to salvage his honor by demanding a duel with D'Hubert. This minor incident heightens into an animosity that draws out over the course of the Napoleonic wars. Through the years, D'Hubert and Feraud continue to cross paths, each encounter resulting in a brutal confrontation with swords or pistols.

The plot is as simple as it sounds, consisting mostly of one duel after another. Keitel and Carradine exude charisma in the leading roles, though each of them is reduced to little more than pawns in what is ultimately an exercise in visual pageantry. These characters have an allure that fueled my desire to learn more of their internal and external struggles, yet I was given little insight into what has truly driven their combative tendencies for so long. More dialogue between D'Hubert and Feraud could have added depth to their relationship, but instead, their meetings are merely limited to dueling.

In the wrong hands, a story like this could have been nothing more than a passionless series of violent acts, but Ridley Scott breathes life into the subject matter with his technical prowess. He composes his shots much like a painter would construct a painting, the sweeping locales serving as his canvas and the camera his paintbrush. Whether encircling the vast terrain or confined to dimly lit interiors, every shot is a work of art enhanced by Scott's keen eye for detail; I truly believed that I was gazing upon locations and costumes from the early 1800s. The use of light and shadow is an masterful display of cinematography; much like Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, many scenes take place in candlelit rooms. Though Scott was not able to achieve what Kubrick had and acquire special lenses allowing him to actually shoot by candlelight, he and cinematographer Frank Tidy have admirably recreated the illusion of a room decorated by the light of a candle.

Though The Duellists was allotted a budget of merely $900,000, Ridley Scott utilized his experience and savvy as a commercial director to create a picture that looks much more expensive. While not a particularly engrossing story, it is easy to forgive the lack of substance in light of the eye-dazzling visuals. Awarded "Best Debut Film" at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, this is an impressive technical accomplishment that marks the roots of a true visionary.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: The 1.85:1 anamorphic image transfer beautifully retains the cinematic splendor of the visuals. The overall aesthetic is clean and smooth with a soothing touch of film grain. Color saturation is rendered well throughout, though fleshtones occasionally appear slightly red. While this may seem an overly dark picture, black level and shadow detail are remarkably accurate and this is a tasteful representation of the shadowy cinematography. Film artifacts are occasionally present though never irritating, while video artifacts are negligible. The one glaring distraction that undermines this transfer is the presence of edge enhancement, which is terribly vexing at times. Otherwise, this is an excellent representation of Ridley Scott's bold vision.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrenchyes
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is an excellent remastering effort. While most of the soundtrack stays locked in the center channel, the surrounds provide gentle ambiance with the enveloping sounds of wind and other natural elements. Fidelity is quite natural throughout; the appropriately shrill sounds of clanking swords greatly heighten the sense of realism. Occasionally, I noticed a strident characteristic when the actors raised their voices, but this minor distortion was never bothersome.

Also included is a stereo track, though I found the 5.1 mix an improvement in both creativity and fidelity.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Isolated Music Score with remote access
1 Documentaries
Storyboard
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by director Ridley Scott; composer Howard Blake
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:57m:37s

Extra Extras:
  1. Boy and Bicycle: Ridley Scott's First Short Film
  2. Photo Gallery
Extras Review: While not the type of month-long excursion one may find from more recent releases, The Duellists offers a fine collection of special features that serve as a wonderful complement to the film. First, we have the fantastic feature-length commentary from Ridley Scott. I have always found Scott's commentaries to be masterful, and this is no exception. He speaks with wit and intelligence, covering an array of topics that includes his hardships as a first time feature director, how he overcame these obstacles, the details of Conrad's story, the cinematography, the performances, and a myriad of fascinating technical information. Anyone who is interested in the filmmaking process will find value in this commentary.

The second feature-length commentary by composer Howard Blake is equally fascinating. Blake is quite verbose about his approach to scoring the film, offering detailed comments that will prove invaluable to aspiring film composers or anyone interested in the art of music. During musical passages, an isolated score replaces Blake's commentary. At first, I was a bit disappointed to find that the score is only presented in 2.0 audio, but it is quite strong and breathes expansively across the soundstage. The isolated score also offers unused music cues, several of which I feel would have better suited the finished film. Like two special features in one, this commentary/isolated score is a fantastic feature that I would like to find on many more DVDs.

Next, is Duelling Directors: Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds. A cut above the typical, dreary promotional piece, this segment finds director Kevin Reynolds conducting a question and answer session with his longtime idol, Ridley Scott. As I listened to their conversation, I was taken by what an excellent idea it is to feature an interview between two filmmakers. The two speak each other's language and are able to extract information from one another that average interviewers never could. Unsurprisingly, their conversation leans towards the technical aspects of the feature, but never does their discussion become trite or boring. Complete with 1977 interviews and candid behind-the-scenes footage, this addition is more than just a unique Q & A, it is a wonderful documentary as well.

Also included is a brief storyboard section. The viewer is given the option to use the remote control angle button to switch between Ridley Scott's original storyboards and the storyboard-to-film comparisons. I would like to have seen more scene-specific storyboards, but instead, this is a quick montage of incomplete scenes that follows the progression of the film. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable storyboard section enhanced by Howard Blake's fine musical score.

The next feature is perhaps the most admirable inclusion of the bunch. Boy and Bicycle: Ridley Scott's First Short Film is the complete 25-minute version of Scott's enthusiastic debut. While the story is nothing more than a boy, his bicycle, and his thoughts, one can clearly see the brilliance of Scott's visual style through this collection of beautiful, often haunting images. Boy and Bicycle is an excellent opportunity to delve deeper into the roots of a great filmmaker, and serves as a perfect complement to Scott's first feature film.

The photo and poster galleries section contains four very brief collections of photos. Included are actors' portraits, shots from the film, behind-the-scenes stills and international posters. Though I do not typically enjoy photo galleries, this one is particularly disappointing due to its brevity.

Rounding out the special features is the theatrical trailer. Presented in anamorphic widescreen, this is a deftly edited trailer that suits the film nicely.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

Until recently, The Duellists was only available in scant quantities of shoddy looking VHS tapes. Now on DVD with an excellent film-like transfer, we are given a chance to recognize and appreciate the beginnings of a fantastic director whose visual flair is as impressive in his feature debut as it is in his later films. A gorgeous but somewhat tiresome film that still deserves a high recommendation.

 


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