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DVD Review: The Duellists

By Glenn Abel

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art A quarter-century later, Ridley Scott still bristles at the memory of critics who found "The Duellists," his 1977 debut film, "too beautiful."

"How can you be too beautiful?" the director asks incredulously.

At least critics got to see the film. Released with only seven prints for the entire United States, Scott's adaptation of an obscure Joseph Conrad short story remains largely unseen.

"Probably 90% of the public doesn't know it exists," says director Kevin Reynolds ("The Count of Monte Cristo"). He adds that the work "profoundly affected me."

Set in the 19th century and somehow made for a mere $900,000, the film has yet to break even. "Maybe now (on DVD), things will change," says Scott, whose next two films were "Alien" and "Blade Runner."

Scott proudly states his case for the film on Paramount's splendid DVD release of "Duellists" (retail $24.99).

In his fast-moving commentary, Scott tells a terrific tale of how he sold and directed the tale of two French military officers who carry out a series of senseless duels over the course of the Napoleonic Wars.

Having made more than 1,500 commercials in Britain, Scott had been frustrated trying to break into features. But he'd made a lot of money via his production company. "Therefore, I was able to acknowledge the fact that Hollywood would never acknowledge me. (So) I had to put my hand in my wallet," he said.

Paramount greenlighted the film after Scott threw in his fee and agreed to a brutal completion bond. But the studio rejected his casting of expert swordsmen Oliver Reed and Michael York. Scott had to work from a short list of four acceptable actors.

Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel seemed workable, so Scott spent months in Los Angeles trying to persuade them. Carradine agreed, but then almost dropped out as his song "I'm Easy," from "Nashville," was a pop hit. Keitel, hot from Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver," was "very uneasy about doing a period piece." He had never held a sword or ridden a horse and had to deal with his New York accent. The pair were the only U.S. actors in the film.

Scott rushed into production despite it being the winter rainy season in the rural location of Sarlat Dordogne, France. In 58 days of shooting, the crew saw one day of sun.

Carradine (the aristocratic d'Hubert) and Keitel (the street-smart Feraud) fought their duels with real swords, blunted but still quite dangerous. Scott rejected traditional film swordplay, instead emphasizing the razor-sharp menace of the weapons. Even a glancing blow could bring a torrent of blood and mind-bending pain, Scott shows his audience.

Once the project gained momentum, Scott attracted name actors Tom Conti and Edward Fox. Then Albert Finney ("a great sport") came aboard for the fee of a crate of champagne.

The crew came almost entirely from commercials. Scott didn't like what he was getting from the cameraman, so he became his own operator. Racing against the bond's penalties, Scott shot a key scene on Christmas Day in the rain with only the stars and producer David Puttnam.

Scott's "splendid adventure" produced a film that Paramount wasn't sure how to distribute. "If Miramax would have been around then ...," Scott muses. Critics praised the direction, visuals and music, but some panned the leads' acting and accents as well as the sluggish narrative. Regardless, "Duellists" remains a work that has to be seen by those who love film.

A second commentary, by music man Howard Blake, isolates the outstanding modernistic score. Blake gives an unusually detailed and listenable talk about his craft, seeing film music as "emotional commentary." It's among the best discussions of film music on DVD.

Those who remember the incredible images as they appeared in theaters should find the DVD's widescreen presentation (1.85:1) acceptable. Much of the softness is intentional, coming from filming in the rain. The Dolby Digital 5.1 keeps the action up front.

Reynolds interviews Scott in a featurette, breaking down key scenes. The segment has some BBC footage of the production. Other extras include Scott's first short film, photo galleries, storyboards and a trailer.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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