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Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel star in Ridley Scott's first motion picture, The Duellists. Two officers in Napoleon's army violently confront each other in a series of duels. The duels begin as a reaction to a minor incident and escalate into a consuming passion that rules the lives of both men for a period of 30 years. Based on Joseph Conrad's story, The Duellists explores themes of obsession, honor and violence. (From the Shout Factory synopsis)

 Duellists, The
I've always considered myself a Ridley Scott fan, but I've never taken the time to seek out his debut, The Duellists. Had I ever come across the DVD in stores that might have changed, but now thanks to Shout Factory it is easily attainable. Like Ridley Scott films today, its much easier to love and appreciate the technical qualities of The Duellists than the characters or the storytelling. This is an absolutely gorgeous film. In the audio commentary track Scott mentions that some critics complained about it being too beautiful. Barry Lyndon, which also featured dueling, immediately comes to mind early on in the film. Scott openly admits that he was inspired by Kubrick's stylistic choices. He pulls off the style with seemingly little effort. There is heavy use of gradients and darkened edges of the picture. This technique was common in the 70's and 80's, and I can't figure out if I just hate it on an aesthetic level or if I've seen one-too-many Instagram pictures with a vignette effect on them. Once the duels heat up there are a lot more close-ups with quick cuts and motions that pit you right in the middle of the duels with great effect. It seems Scott was a virtuoso with the camera from the very start, and its difficult not to be impressed with how good The Duellists looks when you consider its age and budget constraints.

While I was smitten with the look of the film, I can't say as much for the story and characters. Saying a movie has "style over substance" seems too easy, and I hate that go-to because sometimes I'm very much okay with that formula. But it has been a long standing critique toward Ridley Scott and his debut was no exception. Carradine and Keitel bring decent performances to the picture, but the characters of D'Hubert and Feraud were still a mystery to me when the credits rolled. The tag line reads: "Fencing is a science. Loving is a passion. Duelling is an obsession." The science of fencing has made it onto the screen, but the obsession that drove these men is never explored. The movie briskly moves from one duel to the next over a span of years. It is never boring, but all of the characters emotions and the tensions of their violent competition are frustratingly inaccessible. We never spend any time learning of Feraud's personal life, but D'Hubert's hackneyed romance plot lines occasionally break up the fights. I'm probably whining more than I should. As a pageant for shifting Napoleonic period detail and exciting swordplay, the movie excels. When you put it in the proper context (budget, year it was made, directorial debut), The Duellists is an enormously impressive feat. It shows the early promise of a master who went on to make two of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time in the next five years.

 Duellists, The

Video


Shout Factory delivers with this reasonably strong 1080p transfer. The only other Shout Factory title I've reviewed so far was The Portrait of a Lady, and the video here looks very similar. The 1977 film shows its age, and there are plenty of scratch marks and specks on this transfer to remind you of that fact, but the level of detail is befitting of an HD presentation. Grain is inconsistent, sometimes looking very sharp. At other times, the picture has a much murkier look to it, lacking in finer details. The inconsistencies seem more a result of age than any digital sharpening or noise reduction techniques. It looks much better in motion than it does when viewing a single screen cap. Frank Tidy's cinematography consists of mostly natural lighting and sometimes nearly monochromatic sun-drenched rooms. These stylistic choices don't make for the sharpest transition to the digital medium, but they are certainly gorgeous and this is the best the movie is bound to look on a home format.

The back of the box erroneously lists the aspect ratio as 2.35:1. Instead, the Blu-ray has a 1.78:1 aspect. I'm not certain if the aspect ratio was opened up from the intended 1.85:1, or if it was cropped, and I wish I had the original Paramount DVD in 1.85:1 for comparison, but I don't. Either way, its not nearly as jarring as a 2.35:1 aspect would've been.

Audio


This Blu-ray of the The Duellists comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, but there is also a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track present on the disc that is not listed on the back of the box. I watched the film with the 5.1 mix, and while the sound quality certainly demonstrates the age of the movie, there are some small delights to be found in this mix. The comically loud swooshes of a sabre missing its target, or the shrill clang when two blades meet rest high above the rest of the mix in terms of volume. Dialogue doesn't sound particularly crisp, but it is easy enough to make out and the volume levels are never a problem. The sound space really only opens up when Howard Blake's subtle score takes the foreground, and even then I barely noticed any activity in the rear channels. The stereo mix would likely serve a film of this age just as well.

 Duellists, The

Extras


Aside from an interview, these extras appear to be ported over from previous releases of the film. There is no inclusion of Scott's first short film, Boy and Bicycle, which was present on the Paramount DVD. Extras for this release kick off with the Audio Commentary with Ridley Scott. It's a treat. Scott is always great at talking consistently throughout a commentary track without much down time. He spends a large portion of this track talking about how they achieved certain shots on location, and how he created certain effects with their very limited budget (about $900,000 he says). His history working in commercials comes up quite a bit, as he adapted many of the techniques he learned when shooting The Duellists. From the sound of it, he enjoyed the filming process a great deal, but editing a full length film was the real challenge of the picture. He also talks a lot about the history of the era. Scott didn't know it when he started this project, but Joseph Conrad's story was actually inspired by two real men. The one Harvey Keitel's Feraud is based on was from the French town where they filmed a large portion of the movie. Scott does a lot of reminiscing and isn't always in the moment when it comes to a particular scene, but this is a great technical commentary and devoted Ridley Scott fans should find it well worth a listen.

 Duellists, The
There is an Audio Commentary and Isolated Score by Howard Blake. This track is very technical, as you might imagine. There aren't any real surprises here. Blake talks about how he produced certain sounds and what his intentions were with different musical queues. It alternates between the isolated score and his commentary without any intersections. There's some long stretches of silence in between. If you're a sound engineer then this could very well be a fascinating listen, but I personally didn't find it very involving. Duelling Directors: Ridley Scott and Kevin Reynolds (HD, 29:10) is encoded in HD but appears to have been made at standard resolution. There isn't much "dueling" happening in this featurette. It's Reynolds and Scott watching parts of The Duellists together and talking about the film. Reynolds does a lot of praising while bouncing questions off of Scott. It's a good special feature and hearing more of Scott's input is never a bad thing, but there isn't a ton of information here that wasn't in the commentary track.

Interview with Keith Carradine (HD, 24:59) is another feature encoded in a HD format, but appears to be a ported over from a SD source. This is a long interview with Keith Carradine that appears to have been filmed pretty recently. It may have existed on a previous DVD release, but I couldn't find it when searching online. Carradine shares a lot of memories about working on the film and has nothing but nice things to say about everyone involved. He also takes the time to talk about the class differences, wardrobe choices, and the dueling ethics of the era portrayed in the film. It's very informative, and Carradine has a pleasant sincerity that makes him very easy to listen to.

 Duellists, The

Overall


I could gripe further about how little I cared for the story and characters in The Duellists, but I'd be undercutting what an astonishing directorial debut it is from a director that has always been praised for his form above all else. And what lovely form he shows here. Everything from the lush, painterly photography to the smallest wardrobe details is a treat to the eye, and thanks to this Shout Factory release the film looks great on a home format. It looks and sounds better than ever. Most of the extras are ported from previous releases, but the commentary from Ridley Scott is great and the others are well worth a look.

 Duellists, The
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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