Way back in 1977, Ridley Scott made his auspicious debut with the expertly staged period movie The Duellists, the story of a series of duels fought between rival officers in Napoleon’s army. The reason for those duels? Twas a slight supposedly received by Harvey Keitel’s thin-skinned Gabriel Féraud from the aristocratic Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine).
Carradine is dogged throughout the years by the obsessive (and, truth be told, extremely irritating) Keitel, who can’t really recall why the feud began, but is obviously jealous of his opponent’s social ease and charm. The picture was based on a Joseph Conrad novella which had its origins in real life:
In The Encyclopedia of the Sword, Nick Evangelista wrote:
As a young officer in Napoleon’s Army, Dupont was ordered to deliver a disagreeable message to a fellow officer, Fournier, 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.
Their first duel in 1794 resulted in Fournier demanding a rematch, which amazingly led to at least another 30 clashes over the next 19 years.
Film Alex (Repo Man) Cox slated The Duellists as ‘outtakes from Barry Lyndon‘ , but the movie has become a firm favourite with film-lovers.
In 2020 Scott returns to this scenario with The Last Duel, based on the last officially recognized judicial duel fought in France in 1389. The trial by combat involved the knight Jean de Carrouges and squire Jacques Le Gris, who Carrouges had accused of raping his wife.
Adapted by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the movie boasts an all-star cast, including the aforementioned duo as well as Jodie (Killing Eve) and Adam Driver. Damon plays the knight, Driver the squire accused of raping his wife (Comer). The movies are part of a long tradition of period pictures where dueling is a key element, here’s a few to whet your appetite:
THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974):
LA REINE MARGOT (1994):
THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940):
THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1952):
THE PRINCESS BRIDE (1987):
TOMORROW AT DAWN (2009):
Other more contemporary movies with a ‘duel’ theme include (naturally enough) Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Frankenheimer’s The Fourth War (1990), Enemy At The Gates (2001), The Prestige (2006) and American Sniper (2014). And of course, the great Western duels, such as Once Upon a Time in the West, The Quick & The Dead, Open Range, Vera Cruz, The Wild Bunch, Magnificent Seven and many others.
And finally the many duels in submarine vs surface ship/submarine movies such as The Enemy Below, The Bedford Incident, Above Us The Waves and Murphy’s War…
Here are some more clips:
OPEN RANGE (2003):
VERA CRUZ (1954):
THE APPALOOSA (2008):
MURPHY’S WAR (1971):
ENEMY AT THE GATES (2001):
THE FOURTH WAR (1990):