This costume drama from director Ridley Scott perfectly captures the atmosphere of the early 19th century during the Napoleonic wars.
Young French Hussar Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) is obliged to fight a duel with his fellow officer, Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) in Strasbourg in 1801, the year Napoleon comes to power.
Both fail to kill each other and Feraud – ill-bred, venomous and full of hate – refuses to let the affair rest. The aristocratic and educated D’Hubert, meanwhile, is honour-bound. He doesn’t want to fight but continues to rise to the challenges.
The feud continues throughout the wars and even survives the ordeal of the Russian campaign. There are five duels of varying duration: four with sabres – including one to the point of exhaustion and collapse, and a quickie on horseback – and a final duel where they resort to pistols.
Their duels attain a certain notoriety and the men of D’Hubert and Feraud’s regiments start to bet on the outcome, making the feud a matter of regimental honour.
Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel are both superb as the duellists, setting the standard of the whole production.
There are plenty of fight scenes effectively staged by fight expert William Hobbs, and Ridley Scott – in his cinematic directorial debut – uses the camera to create many scenes reminiscent of 18th and 19th-century paintings.
The cinematography is sumptuous: misty forests at dawn, farmhouses and chateaus burnished by the sun, the rain-soaked hills of the Perigord, and the eerily luminous blues and greys of the Russian front are superb – and the interiors are elegantly composed tableaux.
The film – which won the Critics Prize at Cannes in 1977 – is based on a story by Joseph Conrad which drew inspiration from the true story of two French officers (François Louis Fournier and Pierre Dupont) who engaged in 17 duels over two decades.
Meg Wynn Owen
Mme. de Lionne
William Morgan Sheppard