Daily Dojo

Friday Fight Scene - The Duellists

In honor of my blog’s anniversary, I give you Ridley Scott’s first movie, the Duellists.

If you haven’t seen this film (and again, you simply must) it stars Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as French officers who basically duel off and on over a period of twelve to fifteen years. It’s a superb film. And this is no more apparent when it comes to the fight scenes. Here’s the opening, wherein Harvey defeats a poor guy who he’s challenged:

Anyone who’s ever studied fencing can appreciate, this is real and gritty, for its time, not full of flash and wit but blood and death and honor. Soon Keith comes to calling with regard to the first fight, and finds Harvey now challenging HIM.

Scene here:

Keith survives, just barely, Harvey then challenges him every single time they meet, and they fight again and again over a period of years. What’s fascinating is that these duels are, in essence, acting scenes… and that’s the important takeaway when writing a fight scene, it’s not simply an action scene, but a scene about character, where they’re either revealing something about themselves or discovering something about themselves. Keith makes an important discovery in this first duel.

Here is their next battle:

Keith survives and later studies fencing, since he knows he’s made an enemy for life. What I love here is the time spent before the setup, see how long they hold that moment before the fight commences (and I love the sneeze)… and we really discover Harvey’s jealousy (the remark, “going home to his beloved general”, etc) and obsession.

Next one:

What’s important to point out, as I did earlier, that the word often forgotten in the phrase “fight scene” is the “scene” part of it… it’s to be an emotional journey for the characters and the audience, one that rings true no matter who wins. The end of this fight is excellent, both men spent and yet howling for battle and an end they will not be granted.

Next one: Can’t embed, but here’s the link: the duellists (1977) - fourth duel - YouTube

What’s excellent here is how Scott and the writers varied their approach to the fight, it all leads up to one moment, and it’s mastered beautifully… we know it’s Keith’s movie, and here is the reward. But it’s not over.

The two men try to duel again, but then find themselves fighting on the same side against a common enemy (couldn’t find that clip). Later, Harvey is arrested for treason and sentenced to execution, but Keith gets him pardoned. This leads to a last duel with pistols, which I cannot embed, but you can watch here: the duellists (1977) - last duel - YouTube

Which leads to this last, beautifully shot moment here: the duellists (1977) - epilogue - YouTube

Man, that epilogue, it’s a piece of work, and how did Scott ever get that shot of the sun? Just a great film.

To sum up, a movie about dueling is less about dueling and more about the men who duel and why… and though many of us like sword fights and battles over honor, it’s because of the characters and what they endure and learn (especially in that last moment), that’s what draws us in.

Have a great weekend, everyone, rent THE DUELLISTS and watch it in full.

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