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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.—Opening narration
Two French cavalry officers in Napoleon's Grande Armeé 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 keeps challenging the cool, more rational Armand d'Hubert, 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.
This film contains examples of:
- Barehanded Blade Block: And why it's a really, really bad idea.
- Badass Mustache: Both of the leads. Also Badass Pigtails... what?
- 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
- 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.
- Duel to the Death
- Fate Worse Than Death: Near the end of the movie, d’Hubert tells Feraud: "You are now my bitch!" in more polite, eighteenth-century terms.
- Flynning: Averted; see Implausible Fencing Powers.
- 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.
- Gorgeous Period Dress: Napoleonic uniforms and Empire waist gowns.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Pete Postlethwaite is giving d'Hubert's general a shave!
- Hey, It's That Voice!: Mike Hammer is the narrator!
- 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. Fereaud has that look, don't you think?
- In Harm's Way: 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.
- Implausible Fencing Powers: Subverted. The duels are fairly realistic and often quite brief. Flynning is also avoided.
- 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.
- Napoleonic Wars
- One-Scene Wonder: Albert Finney as Fouche.
- The Matchmaker: d'Hubert's older sister Leonie, who sets him up with his wife Adele.
- May-December Romance: d'Hubert is a couple of years older than Adele. Not that big an age difference but enough to make him reluctant to marry her at first.
- The Medic: d'Hubert's friend Dr. Jacquin who he sends to tend to Fereaud after their first duel.
- The Mountains of Illinois: The retreat from Moscow goes through a desolate mountain range (supposedly quite near to the Niemen).
- 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.
- The Queen's Latin: All the characters are French but most of the cast except the two American leads are British.
- Ridley Scott actually wanted the leads to be played by two established British actors, see What Could Have Been.
- Real Life Relative: Keith Carradine's girlfriend at the time, actress Christina Raines was cast as d'Hubert's wife Adele.
- Ridley Scott cast his two sons as d'Hubert's young nephews.
- 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.
- Scenery Porn: Not just the exterior landscapes, but the interiors as well since Ridley Scott photographed them to look like still life paintings.
- Shoot the Messenger: Feraud's original reason for wanting to kill d'Hubert is that the latter was sent to arrest him for duelling.
- Sword Fight: The first three duels between d'Hubert and Fereaud.
- Tarot Troubles: "The Two of Swords, reversed - strife without reason"
- Theme Tune Cameo: Jacquin plays the movie's theme on his flute at the end of a scene.
- Verbal Tic: Feraud: "Lah!"
- What Could Have Been: Ridley Scott wanted the two leads to be played by Oliver Reed and Michael York (Athos and d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers 1973), but the small budget and studio decisions forced him to choose from a list of less well-known but more affordable Hollywood actors.