The narration opening The Duellists, Ridley Scott’s debut feature film, describes the pursuit of dueling and the honor it carries as “an eccentric kind of hunger.” It’s an appetite, even an addiction, growing from something small into an all-encompassing, life-consuming force.
The same could be said, depending on who you ask, of filmmaking.
In the 45 years since The Duellists, Scott has built a career composed of more than two dozen films (and counting) as a director, and countless others as a producer or executive producer. He’s delivered universally regarded classics (Alien, Blade Runner), modern favorites (The Martian), underappreciated gems (Kingdom of Heaven) and Best Picture winners (Gladiator), along with a few films that missed the mark—creatively, financially or both. He’s a director of surprising versatility, shifting from dark science fiction to crime drama to thoughtful romance and back again, and he’s well-respected by his actors and his directorial peers.
But what’s perhaps most striking about Scott these days is that the 84-year-old filmmaker’s hunger for creation only seems to be growing with age. During the pandemic, he shot two movies—House of Gucci and The Last Duel—in less than two years, then moved right into work on Napoleon drama Kitbag. Throw in producing work, TV series like Raised by Wolves, and other feats of cinematic efficiency (like reshooting three weeks’ worth of All The Money in the World in just nine days) and it’s clear that Scott has his own eccentric kind of hunger.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year about his lightning-fast working style and constant state of creation, Scott summed it up like this:
“I’ve never examined how and why I’ve been so busy, but I won’t let the downtime get on top of me. I keep flying. That’s why I always work, because I’m afraid I may miss something.”
Which brings us back to The Duellists, a strikingly good debut by any filmmaker’s standards that, more than four decades after its release, works as a prescient glimpse at what Scott’s career and reputation have become.
The duellists of the film’s title are Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Gabriel Ferraud (Harvey Keitel), two soldiers in Napoleon’s army whose conflict begins when d’Hubert is tasked with delivering a message to Feraud. Feraud, a fiery fighter fresh off a successful duel as the film begins, immediately views d’Hubert as a condescending bootlicker, while d’Hubert views Feraud as a hot-tempered fool. The challenge is laid down then and there, but won’t be resolved for another 16 years.
Presented as a series of interconnected vignettes, glimpses into each man’s life as their careers and the very map of Europe itself changes, The Duellists looks back in on d’Hubert and Feraud each time they fight through the years, until one final confrontation resolves both the story and how the two men relate to each other forever.
As the catalyst for its plot suggests, both men come to the five duels they fight throughout the film from very different emotional circumstances, but neither will back down from the confrontation. Feraud, from the beginning, is obsessed with d’Hubert, propagandizing and circling his opponent at every possible opportunity, reaching for his sword to make nearly every point throughout the film. Then there’s d’Hubert, who takes a more patient, studious approach to the confrontation, thinking of ways around the fight and, when the fighting can’t be avoided, studying to perfect his swordcraft in order to preserve his own life. Because we see much of the film from d’Hubert’s point of view, we watch him react with disgust, confusion and ultimately frustration as the ongoing duel with Feraud consumes huge chunks of his life. Feraud, who keeps largely to the shadows of the narrative and is imbued in every frame with Keitel’s primal energy, is juxtaposed with the d’Hubert story as more force of nature than man, a being determined to eat up as much of his opponent’s life as possible—even if he can never take the life itself.
This struggle, staged in a way that allows each duel to stand as its own visual and physical achievement, only ends when d’Hubert is able to fight Feraud into a corner, then refuse to do him the honor of killing him. Their final battle, staged in the gorgeous, vine-covered ruin of a castle with the precision of a seasoned master, ends with d’Hubert claiming his opponent’s life not in body, but in spirit. As far as he is concerned, Feraud is a dead man, and Feraud spends the film’s beautiful final moments haunted by this reality. Feraud and d’Hubert are now forever linked—like they were throughout the previous 15 years as their duel enhanced both of their reputations and careers—but the more reasonable, patient man of the two has won the day.
The journey to this moment, and the lengths each man will go to in order to get what he wants, is reflected in the seemingly endless creative determination Scott has shown throughout his career. He spent years before The Duellists trying to get a feature film made after working in commercials, and forced the film into existence despite a meager budget, serving as his own financial guarantor and even fronting much of the pre-production money as he waited for the $1.5 million budget to materialize. He fought for the honor of being a feature film director, and in the years since he has never backed down from that fight, willing movies into existence (American Gangster, for example, sat on a shelf for four years until Steven Zaillian convinced Scott to read the script) and soldiering on even when critics and audiences reject his latest gambit, something we see most remarkably in his efforts to keep prodding at Blade Runner until he finally got the version he wanted. These days, in moments of peak ambivalence to the Hollywood media complex in which he’s forced to work, he’s even willing to tell interviewers off rather than play the game the way they’d hope.
This ferocity, combined with Scott’s apparent unwillingness to ever stop doing what he feels born to do, can be seen in Feraud’s outright tenacity, his refusal to put down his sword even as his sword damages him body and soul. Just as Feraud reaches for the blade to solve every problem, so too does Scott reach for a camera (he shot The Duellists himself, behind the lens for the whole picture) to forge the images he wants.
But Scott is also d’Hubert. He famously storyboards every shot of his films, working carefully and efficiently to plan each move before he makes it, which means that when he arrives on set, he’s essentially already seen his movie play out before his own eyes. He just has to make other people see it, in the same way that d’Hubert’s own careful approach requires him to wait for the right time to strike, and claim victory over a more impulsive opponent. In the end of The Duellists, these two sensibilities create a bittersweet merging—a marriage of impulse and caution, of preparedness and instinct—and in the process, the two narratives each man forges in his own heart forever bleed together into one story. It’s the story of two sides of a driven personality finally becoming whole, and living with the consequences of that wholeness. It is Scott’s entire career—a career driven by both an impulsive need to make movies and a careful consideration of the structures in which he works—in microcosm.
For 45 years now, we’ve been living with the fruits of Ridley Scott’s own eccentric kind of hunger. Perhaps that’s why The Duellists proved so effective as a first feature, and why it still works today as a striking portrait of obsession, determination and fate.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.