The Duellists

The Duellists is a 1977 British historical drama film and the feature directorial debut of Ridley Scott. It won the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.[3] The basis of the screenplay is the Joseph Conrad short story "The Duel" (titled "Point of Honor" in the United States) published in A Set of Six.

The Duellists
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRidley Scott
Screenplay byGerald Vaughan-Hughes
Based onThe Duel
by Joseph Conrad
Produced byDavid Puttnam
StarringKeith Carradine
Harvey Keitel
Albert Finney
Tom Conti
CinematographyFrank Tidy
Edited byPamela Power
Music byHoward Blake
Enigma Productions
National Film Finance Consortium
Distributed byParamount Pictures (through Cinema International Corporation[1])
Release date
  • 31 August 1977 (1977-08-31) (France)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

A novelization of the film by Gordon Williams, which included historical contexts and slightly expanded the plot, was published by Fontana Books in Great Britain in 1977 and by Pocket Books (ISBN 0-671-81930-5) in the United States in 1978.


Strasbourg 1800Edit

The last duel takes place in a ruin, with each combatant equipped with two pistols.
Opening Duel with Mayor's Nephew/First Duel: Sabres

In Strasbourg in 1800, Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud of the French 7th Hussars, a fervent Bonapartist and obsessive duellist, nearly kills the nephew of the city's mayor in a sword duel. Under pressure from the mayor, Brigadier-General Treillard orders one of his staff officers, Lieutenant Armand d'Hubert of the 3rd Hussars, to locate Feraud and place him under house arrest. D'Hubert finds him at the house of Madame de Lionne, a prominent local lady, but when he delivers the order, Feraud takes it as a personal insult. Matters are made worse when Feraud demands of d'Hubert if he would "let them spit on Napoleon" and d'Hubert doesn't reply to Feraud's satisfaction. Upon their reaching his quarters, Feraud challenges d'Hubert to a duel. The result is inconclusive; d'Hubert slashes Feraud's forearm and causes him to fall backwards, hitting his head and knocking himself unconscious, but when d'Hubert goes to assist him he is attacked and facially scratched by Feraud's mistress. As a result of the fight, the general dismisses d'Hubert from his staff and returns him to active duty with his regiment.

Augsburg 1801Edit

Second Duel: Small Swords/Third Duel: Heavy Sabres

The war interrupts the quarrel and the two do not meet again until six months later in Augsburg in 1801. Feraud immediately challenges d'Hubert to another duel with small swords and seriously wounds him. While recovering, d'Hubert takes lessons from a fencing master and in the next duel (held in a cellar with heavy sabres), the two men fight each other to a bloody standstill. Soon afterwards, d'Hubert is relieved to learn he has been promoted to captain, as military discipline forbids officers of different ranks from duelling.

Lubeck 1806Edit

Fourth Duel: Sabres on Horseback

The action moves to 1806 when d'Hubert is serving in Lübeck. He is shocked to hear that the 7th Hussars have arrived in the city and that Feraud is now also a captain. Aware that in two weeks time he is to be promoted to major, d'Hubert attempts to slip away but is spotted by Feraud's perpetual second. Feraud challenges him to another duel, to be fought on horseback with sabres as "a compliment to the cavalry." The duel is attended by many personnel from the military, especially cavalry, and a breakfast party is held by the spectators on the side while observing the duel.

In the encounter, d'Hubert slashes Feraud's forehead; with blood flowing into his eyes, Feraud can no longer see to fight. D'Hubert considers himself the victor and leaves the field ebullient. Soon afterwards, Feraud's regiment is posted to Spain while d'Hubert remains stationed in Northern Europe.

Russia 1812Edit

Duel disrupted

Six years later, in 1812, the pair (both now colonels) chance upon each other during the French Army's retreat from Moscow, but are forced to cooperate after being separated from the main force. Russian Cossacks attack, forcing d'Hubert and Feraud to fight together instead of against each other. After they have driven off the enemy with their pistols, prompting d'Hubert to suggest (perhaps sarcastically) that their next duel be fought with pistols, d'Hubert offers Feraud a celebratory drink from his flask, but Feraud silently turns and walks away. Making his way back on his own, d'Hubert comes across Feraud's perpetual second, frozen to death in the snow.

Tours 1815Edit

Two years later, after Napoleon's exile to Elba, d'Hubert is now a brigadier-general recovering from a leg wound at the home of his sister Leonie in Tours. She introduces him to Adele, the niece of her neighbour, and the couple fall in love. A Bonapartist agent attempts to recruit d'Hubert as rumours of Napoleon's imminent return from exile abound, but d'Hubert refuses. When Feraud, now a Bonapartist brigadier-general, learns this, he declares he knew d'Hubert was a traitor and that he (d'Hubert) "never loved the Emperor", which was why he (Feraud) had originally challenged him.

Paris 1816Edit

Napoleon on Saint Helena by Franz Josef Sandmann.
Final Duel: Flintlock Pistols

After Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo, d'Hubert marries Adele and joins the army of Louis XVIII. Feraud is arrested and is expected to be executed for his part in the Hundred Days. Learning of this, d'Hubert calls upon the Minister of Police Joseph Fouché and persuades him to spare Feraud (with d'Hubert requesting that his part in the reprieve be kept secret). Feraud is paroled to live in a certain province under police supervision, while d'Hubert and Adele prepare for the birth of their first child.

After Feraud learns of d'Hubert's promotion in the new French Army, he sends two former officers to d'Hubert with a challenge for a flintlock pistol duel. Reluctantly, d'Hubert agrees to the terms. The two men meet in a ruined château on a wooded hill, entering the woods from opposite sides. However, Feraud is tricked into rapidly discharging both his pistols and d'Hubert catches him at point blank range. But instead of shooting him, d'Hubert says that the rules of single combat dictate that he now owns Feraud's life, and that from now on in all future dealings with d'Hubert Feraud must "conduct [himself] as a dead man". From that moment on, Feraud can never again challenge d'Hubert to a duel.

With that, d'Hubert returns to his life and happy marriage. The film ends with a solitary Feraud gazing at the horizon in silent contemplation as he faces ending his days in provincial exile, locked away like his beloved Emperor and unable to pursue the obsession of dueling that has consumed him for so many years. The scene references paintings of the former emperor in his South Atlantic exile[4] (e.g. Napoleon on Saint Helena by Franz Josef Sandmann).




The Duellists would mark the feature film debut of Ridley Scott who had previously worked making TV commercials.[5] Its visual style was influenced by Stanley Kubrick's 1975 historical drama Barry Lyndon.[6] Due to budgetary constraints, Scott decided to shoot the film in a series of tableaux to indicate chapters of the story.[7]


François Fournier-Sarlovèze, the basis for Feraud

Scott initially hired Gerald Vaughan-Hughes to write a story about Guy Fawkes and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot but when financing fell through,[8] Vaughan-Hughes adapted the screenplay from the 1907 novella The Duel by British-Polish writer Joseph Conrad.[9][10] The genesis of Conrad's story were the real duels during the Napoleonic era between two officers in France's Grande Armée, Pierre Dupont de l'Étang and François Fournier-Sarlovèze, who became D’Hubert and Feraud in The Duel.[11] In The Encyclopedia of the Sword, Nick Evangelista wrote:

As a young officer in Napoleon's Army, Dupont [l'Étang] was ordered to deliver a disagreeable message to a fellow officer, Fournier [Fournier-Sarlovèze], a rabid duellist. Fournier, taking out his subsequent rage on the messenger, challenged Dupont to a duel. This sparked a succession of encounters, waged with sword and pistol, that spanned decades. The contest was eventually resolved when Dupont was able to overcome Fournier in a pistol duel, forcing him to promise never to bother him again.[12]

The pair fought their first duel in 1794 from which Fournier-Sarlovèze - known as the “worst subject of the Grande Armée[11] - demanded a rematch. At least another 30 rematches then occurred over the next 19 years in which the two officers fought mounted and on foot with swords, sabres, and pistols. After l'Étang finally bested Fournier-Sarlovèze in a duel, he told him to leave him alone for good. Fournier-Sarlovèze died aged 53; l'Étang lived till he was 74.[11]

Although Vaughan-Hughes screenplay used many elements from The Duel, it created new scenes like the duels at the start and the end of the film and new characters.[13]


Many exteriors were shot in and around Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of France. The winter scenes set during the retreat from Moscow were shot in the Cairngorms of Scotland, near Aviemore. The final duel scene was filmed at the unrestored Château de Commarque.[14]

Critical receptionEdit

Media coverage of The Duellists in a Norwegian newspaper on 19 May 1978

The film holds a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 24 reviews, with an average score of 7.2/10 and the critical consensus: "Rich, stylized visuals work with effective performances in Ridley Scott's take on Joseph Conrad's Napoleonic story, resulting in an impressive feature film debut for the director."[15]

The film has been compared to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. In both films, duels play an essential role. In his commentary for the DVD release of his film Scott comments that he was trying to emulate the lush cinematography of Kubrick's film, which approached the naturalistic paintings of the era depicted.

Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote: "The movie, set during the Napoleonic Wars, uses its beauty much in the way that other movies use soundtrack music, to set mood, to complement scenes and even to contradict them. Sometimes it's all too much, yet the camerawork, which is by Frank Tidy, provides the Baroque style by which the movie operates on our senses, making the eccentric drama at first compelling and ultimately breathtaking."[16] Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, "'The Duellists' is an epic yarn; we sit back and observe it, and it's consistently entertaining—and eerily beautiful."[17] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "The story might have worked if there were an undercurrent of attractiveness to Keitel's loutish character. But he is an unwavering boor from start to finish, and his prowess with weapons is in no way redeeming."[18] Variety wrote that Ridley Scott "does have an eye for fine compositions, period recreation and arresting tableaus. But it is somewhat surface and too taken up with poses… it rarely illuminates the deeper human aspects of these two flailing men."[19] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the sword fights were "the best I've ever seen" and called the story "refreshingly different from standard film content."[20] Michael Webb of The Washington Post wrote, "The film has the pictorial beauty and rich period sense of 'Barry Lyndon,' but adds the narrative drive and passion that Kubrick's film lacked."[21] David Ansen of Newsweek wrote, "The best you can say about the film – the directing debut of Ridley Scott – is that it provides an unusually civilized experience in these days of movie barbarism… The worst that can be said is that Keitel and Carradine are so perversely cast as French hussars that, whenever they speak, the splendid illusion of nineteenth-century Europe is shattered."[22]

The film is lauded for its historically authentic portrayal of Napoleonic uniforms and military conduct, as well as its generally accurate early-19th-century fencing techniques as recreated by fight choreographer William Hobbs.[23][24] The military adviser was military historian Richard Holmes.

The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.[25]

Home mediaEdit

On 29 January 2013, Shout! Factory released the film on Blu-ray.[26] The release coincided with the publication of an essay on the film in a collection of scholarly essays on Ridley Scott.[27]


  1. ^ "The Duellists (1977)". BBFC. Retrieved 4 May 2021.
  2. ^ ""The Duellists"". Retrieved 16 November 2021.
  3. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Duellists". Retrieved 10 May 2009.
  4. ^ Barkman, Adam; Barkman, Ashley; Kang, Nancy, eds. (2013). The Culture and Philosophy of Ridley Scott. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 49. ISBN 9780739178720.
  5. ^ "Ridley Scott: British director and producer". Retrieved 26 October 2020.
  6. ^ "The Duellists: Ridley Scott". 26 October 2020.
  7. ^ William B. Parrill (2011). Ridley Scott: A Critical Filmography. McFarland. p. 35. ISBN 9780786485932.
  8. ^ Parrill, p.30
  9. ^ "Gerald Vaughan-Hughes". Retrieved 26 October 2020.
  10. ^ Flavio Gregori (Summer 2010). "Youthful Resentment, Bourgeois (Anti-)Heroism and Sublime Unrest: Conrad's 'The Duel' and Ridley Scott's "The Duellists"". South Atlantic Review. 75 (3): 109–129. JSTOR 41635636.
  11. ^ a b c Anders Linnard (28 September 2018). "The real men behind The Duellists".
  12. ^ Evangelista, Nick (1995). The Encyclopedia of the Sword. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. p. 187. ISBN 0-313-27896-2.
  13. ^ Parrill, pp.32-34
  14. ^ "Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations". Retrieved 26 October 2020.
  15. ^ "The Duellists (1977)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 23 December 2018.
  16. ^ Canby, Vincent (January 14, 1978). "New Movie, 'The Duellists,' Is Set During Napoleonic Wars". The New York Times. 10.
  17. ^ Kael, Pauline (January 23, 1978). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. 80.
  18. ^ Siskel, Gene (April 2, 1979). "'The Duellists': Pretty, but plot is a lost cause". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 7.
  19. ^ "Film Reviews: The Duellists". Variety. June 1, 1977. 17.
  20. ^ Champlin, Charles (January 27, 1978). "Taste of Steel in 'Duellists'". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1.
  21. ^ Webb, Michael (June 3, 1977). "Cannes Festival: A Case of Expecting the Worst—and Getting It". The Washington Post. B4.
  22. ^ Ansen, David (January 30, 1978). "Misfire". Newsweek. 55.
  23. ^ Barkman, Adam; Barkman, Ashley; Kang, Nancy (2013), "10. Celebrating Historical Accuracy in The Duellists", The Culture and Philosophy of Ridley Scott, Lexington Books, pp. 171–78.
  24. ^ "The Duellists: it takes two to tangle". The Guardian. 10 January 2016.
  25. ^ The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. The New York Times via Internet Archive. Published April 29, 2003. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
  26. ^ "The Duellists Blu-ray". Retrieved 5 February 2014.
  27. ^ "A Double-Edged Sword: Honor in The Duellists", in The Culture and Philosophy of Ridley Scott, eds. Adam Barkman, Ashley Barkman, and Jim McRae (Lexington Books, 2013), 45-60.

External linksEdit