Follow TV Tropes


Film / The Duellists

Go To

"The duellist demands satisfaction. Honour, for him, is an appetite. This story is about an eccentric kind of hunger. It is a true story and begins in the year that Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler of France."

Two French cavalry officers in Napoléon Bonaparte's Grande Armée have a disagreement. It can only be resolved, of course, with a duel. And another, and another, and another, as they meet half a dozen times over more than a decade. They duel with cavalry sabres, with smallswords, with pistols. Despite their failure to kill one another, the fiery Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel) keeps challenging the cool, more rational Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine), long after Féraud has forgotten the original slight.

Ridley Scott's first feature film examines Féraud's consuming obsession, and d'Hubert's inability to say no to another potentially fatal challenge. The screenplay is based on the short story "The Duel" by Joseph Conrad. Winner of the Best Debut Film award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival. Decades later, Scott returned to The Napoleonic Wars with Napoleon.

This film contains examples of:

  • Back-to-Back Badasses: Enforced and subverted when the fifth duel is interrupted by Cossacks amid the snowy forests of western Russia. d'Hubert and Feraud abandon their duel and use their pistols to kill and/or rout the Cossacks, creating one instance where they shoot the same enemy with opposite arms thereby spreading their backs against one-another. After they successfully route the Cossacks and agree to duel later, d'Hubert offers Feraud some liquor to celebrate their collaborative success, but Feraud almost completely ignores it.
  • Barehanded Blade Block: And why it's a really, really bad idea.
  • Based on a True Story: Conrad based his story on the real duels that two French Hussar officers fought in the Napoleonic era. Their names were Dupont and Fournier, whom Conrad disguised slightly, changing Dupont into d'Hubert and Fournier into Féraud.
  • Beard of Evil: Fouché (who was clean-shaven in real life).
  • Bling of War: Hussar uniforms are nothing if not fancy.
  • Braids of Action: As cavalry officers (Hussars), they wear those elaborate braids (plaits) in front of the ears to reduce the damage of sword wounds to the head.
  • Cavalry Officer: Both main characters are such, d'Hubert being the quiet chivalrous type and Féraud being the hot-headed, hard-living cad.
  • Combat Breakdown: The third Sword Fight goes on for so long the duellists are gasping for breath, propping themselves up on their swords, and occasionally mustering the strength to make wild roundhouse swings at each other. The duel is ended by their seconds when they discard their swords and just start wrestling each other.
  • Cool Big Sis: d'Hubert's sister Leonie.
  • Covered in Scars: The fencing master d'Hubert trains with so he'll be better prepared for his third duel.
  • Cruel Mercy: D'Hubert wins the final duel with Feraud with one bullet remaining. By the rule of combat Feraud's life now belongs to d'Hubert and he forces Feraud to finally submit to his notions of honor instead. Feraud is to leave d'Hubert alone forever and live out his life knowing that his archrival defeated him.
  • Deconstructed Trope: As per Shown Their Work below, 19th Century duels were rarely, if ever, artistic and graceful affairs. Most of the duels we see are quick clumsy clashes that end with the first good hit. The one that isn't goes on so long that they both basically collapse from exhaustion, because that's what happens when you spend hours swinging cavalry sabers at each other.
  • Determinator: Feraud turns down several opportunities to end the feud in a face-saving manner.
  • Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: Jacquin plays the movie's theme on his flute at the end of a scene.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: D'Hubert's patronising manner when sent to arrest him gets on Feraud's nerves, so he challenges him to a duel then and there, and keeps the feud going for decades.
  • The Door Slams You: Feraud slams the door in front of d'Hubert when he tries to walk away from his challenge, not knowing (or likely caring) that his mistress gets hit by the door.
  • Duel to the Death: Subverted constantly, which is why they keep dueling. At the last duel, d'Hubert takes Feraud's shots and lives but refuses to fire at all, meaning d'Hubert "owns" Feraud's life. And then he lets him go.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Near the end of the movie, d’Hubert tells Feraud: "You are now my bitch!" in more polite, nineteenth-century terms.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Averted; even fighting together against Cossacks during the frozen hell of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow isn't enough to make Feraud put aside his grievance.
  • Four-Star Badass: After Napoleon's initial defeat and exile both d'Hubert and Feraud are promoted to brigadier general. Feraud remains loyal to Napoleon and fights with him when he returns and is finally defeated at Waterloo. d'Hubert joins the army of King Louis XVIII.
  • Get It Over With: After d'Hubert wins the final duel, Feraud eggs him on to kill him. D'Hubert lets him live with his defeat instead.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Napoleonic uniforms and Empire waist gowns.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • A subversion in honor is what keeps Feraud to continue challenging d'Hubert even after he forgets the original insult.
      d'Hubert: He's most unreasonable!
      Jacquin: The enemies of reason have a certain blind look. Feraud has that look, don't you think?
    • d'Hubert also has his honor to think about, which is why he keeps accepting the foolish challenges. But d'Hubert also keeps Feraud - who sided with Napoleon - from execution after Waterloo, becoming essentially the last person left who cares about Feraud's fate.
  • Hot-Blooded: Féraud, bordering on Ax-Crazy.
  • Implausible Fencing Powers: Subverted. The duels are fairly realistic and often quite brief. Flynning is also avoided.
  • In Harm's Way: This seems to be the real reason for Feraud's constant duelling, both with d'Hubert and others. He's bored by the long lulls between fighting and looks for any excuse to fight someone. When he no longer has anyone to fight at the end and is only an old forgotten General he looks like an empty shell.
  • Knew It All Along: After d'Hubert refuses to rejoin Napoleon when he escapes exile Feraud claims he knew d'Hubert was a traitor all along and that's why he challenged him to duel in the first place.
  • The Matchmaker: d'Hubert's older sister Leonie, who sets him up with his wife Adele.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: A woman receives a tarot reading from an old fortuneteller that describes her situation and future path with eerie accuracy.
  • The Medic: d'Hubert's friend Dr. Jacquin who he sends to tend to Feraud after their first duel.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • The opening scene where the girl herding some geese runs into a menacing Hussar, who turns out to be acting as second to Feraud's duel.
    • At the beginning of the second duel, Feraud and d'Hubert move into position, click swords once...and d'Hubert calls for a time-out to sneeze.
    • We jump right into the middle of the third duel, with both parties already exhausted and bloody.
  • The Mountains of Illinois: The retreat from Moscow goes through a desolate mountain range (supposedly quite near to the Niemen).
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: d'Hubert intervenes to stop Feraud being executed, and even conceals his own role in this to spare Feraud the humiliation of being saved by his enemy. Of course Feraud just challenges him to another duel.
  • Non-Idle Rich: Adele's uncle, the Chevalier became a bootmaker after The French Revolution. Even after the monarchy was restored and he became an aristocrat again he still makes boots and offers to do so for d'Hubert when he first meets him.
  • One Bullet Left: The final duel is fought with each person having only two pistols. Once the first shot is fired, they're down to this trope.
  • The Queen's Latin: All the characters are French but most of the cast except the two American leads are British.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: d'Hubert's girlfriend goes to Feraud at this camp the night before their second duel, telling him that he duels only to work out his spite on others.
  • Rule of Three: Jacquin offers up three ways d'Hubert can avoid fighting Feraud again:
    You cannot fight, one: if you're in different places. Physical impossibility. Two: if you're of different rank. Breach of discipline. And three: if the state is at war. Duels of nations take absolute precedence.
    Therefore, keep away from him. Keep ahead of him. Put your trust in Bonaparte!
  • Scars are Forever: Feraud has a scar on his right forearm from his first duel with d'Hubert. After he loses an arm wrestling match, he complains that his arm muscle "never healed properly" prompting him to challenge d'Hubert to a second duel. The cut on his forehead that ends the fourth duel also leaves a pale scar that becomes more apparent as Feraud ages.
  • Scenery Porn: Not just the exterior landscapes, but the interiors as well since Ridley Scott photographed them to look like still life paintings.
  • Self-Serving Memory: Implied. After dueling each other for nearly 15 years, Feraud has long forgotten the original cause of his quarrel with d'Hubert (who hasn't), which was Feraud feeling insulted when d'Hubert arrested him for another duel while Feraud was enjoying the company of a female host at her salon. When he's reminded of this by d'Hubert through an intermediate, he actually rewrites his own memory to make the quarrel one of national pride, claiming that d'Hubert was an outspoken anti-Bonapartist.
  • Shoot the Messenger: Feraud's original reason for wanting to kill d'Hubert is that the latter was sent to arrest him for dueling.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • The movie has been praised by swordsmanship buffs for its highly accurate and realistic depiction of what 19th century duels were actually like, short, vicious, and usually over the moment the first blow is landed.
    • As cavalry officers, d'Hubert and Feraud wear elaborate braided hair over where their sideburns would be. This was done back in the day to reduce the damage of sword blows to the head.
  • Soldier vs. Warrior: A subtle theme of the film - Feraud is an arrogant, reputation-obsessed Blood Knight looking to escape boredom between battles via dueling, while d'Hubert is a calm professional who only accepts the challenges due to the expectations of the period.) d'Hubert also never forgets that, technically, he and Feraud are brothers-in-arms, so even his application of Honor Before Reason in saving Feraud is more professional than personal. The more traditional and ceremonial the duel is, the more the duel-happy warrior Feraud tends to come out ahead, while the more professional soldier and reluctant duelist d'Hubert does better the more "battle-like" the conditions are.
  • Suave Sabre: Since this story features two Hussars in Napoleon's army who develop a feud over some trifle and fight a series of duels with each other over a long period of years. The first, third, and fourth duels are fought with their cavalry sabres, while the last is fought with pistols. The major themes throughout are the pride and bravado of the Hussars, the macho military culture that created the expectation of dueling, and the personal obsession between the participants. The third duel, fought on foot with heavy sabres, actually subverts the trope by getting really ugly: it goes on for so long the duelists are gasping for breath, propping themselves up on their swords, and occasionally mustering the strength to make wild roundhouse swings at each other. The fight is ended by their seconds when they discard their swords and just start having at each other.
  • Sword Fight: The first three duels between d'Hubert and Feraud.
  • Take a Third Option: When the obvious choices are d'Hubert dies or Feraud dies, d'Hubert creates a third option by winning the final duel: that they both live out the remainder of their lives free of one another, with Feraud unable to challenge him again.
  • Tarot Troubles: "The Two of Swords, reversed - strife without reason."
  • Tempting Fate: After fighting off the Cossacks, d'Hubert turns to Feraud and sarcastically says, "Pistols next time?" This apparently sticks with Feraud, because decides that the next and final duel they fight will be with pistols.
  • Testosterone Poisoning: When Jacquin asks what the issue was that led to Feraud challenging him, d'Hubert can only reply that it was a Cavalry thing.
  • Verbal Tic: Feraud: "Lah!"
  • Victory by First Blood:
    • Feraud's first onscreen duel against a mayor's nephew is considered over after Feraud stabs the man through the chest, drawing blood and humiliating him, but it's later said that he will survive.
    • Averted by Feraud and d'Hubert's subsequent many, many duels, which are often plenty bloody, but are always interrupted before they can finish each other off.
  • War Is Hell: The retreat of the Grande Armee from Russia is, naturally, pretty grim.
  • What You Are in the Dark: d'Hubert uses his newfound influence with the royalists to spare his perennial rival — condemned and attainted for Bonapartism — an execution. Feraud never discovers this grace and d'Hubert swears its only witness to secrecy.
  • White Shirt of Death: Worn by both Feraud and d'Hubert during their third duel, so it follows that this is also their most gruesome and bloody duel. Neither dies, though.
  • Worthy Opponent: After more than two decades of feuding, Feraud still hates d'Hubert enough to smear his name and continue trying to kill him, but d'Hubert himself sees to it that Feraud is spared execution after Napoleon's downfall. While he regards Feraud as a stubborn fool, it's clear that he has grown to care for his arch-enemy in a weird way.