Official British Entry, 1979 Cannes Film Festival, and Winner Best First Film (Ridley Scott) at 1979 Cannes Film Festival
As Ridley Scott says at the beginning of his highly informative commentary track, "The Duellists" was his second effort to get a feature film off the ground. Many of his colleagues, including composer Howard Blake, knew well that Scott had feature film aspirations, but while several projects came close to the production stage (including "The Gunpowder Plot"), it took a deliberate search through public domain material and a script by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes to get the ball rolling.
Admirers of Scott's work will find a lot to enjoy in this richly photographed film, shot primarily in Dordogne, France. The script bears the same lean, economical yet character driven traits as "Alien," particularly small nuances that add some warmth to an otherwise rigid tale of one man's (Harvey Keitel) ludicrous obsession in pursuing an officer (Keith Carradine) who allegedly insulted his honor. Scott's visuals combine naturalistic lighting with a commercial sheen, the product of Scott's production team and lead cinematographer, Frank Tidy (though Scott himself would take over the lensing after initial filming).
For more than fifteen years, Ridley Scott ran a highly successful commercial company, producing and directing 1500-2000 ads for diverse clients, and was already well-known in London and respected by England's superb pool of thespians. Hence the myriad small roles filled by stage and screen up-and-comers, and legends such as Edward Fox and Albert Finney. (Pete Postlethwaite also appears in one scene, as a barber shaving Robert Stephens.)
Paramount's DVD is a richly produced tribute to a little film that had enjoyed some exposure on video, though remained lesser-known among moviegoers. (A total of seven prints were made for American distribution!) The transfer is first-rate, revealing fine countryside details, earthy shades of small townships and mansions, plus the local ruins that were exploited in the film's finale. Viewers will relish several wide shots that Scott wisely allowed to run for their maximum dramatic and artistic impressions; a great motivator on their own to visit Dordogne.
Locations were exploited by the production with great attention to period detail and mood - one of several aspects that Scott explains in his fairly consistent commentary track. What listeners will ultimately admire, however, is the efficiency that dominated the production and yielded such a polished film. Granted, with Scott acting as guarantor, any overages would have come from his own pocket (a deal sweetener for Paramount, along with Scott waiving his directing fee), but the film's a kind of testament to Good Filmmaking: starting with a great script, going for superb casting, and attacking the shooting schedule with an organized, disciplined game plan (plus a measure of good of luck).
Another bonus is Howard Blake's commentary track, which combines a concise breakdown of his scoring duties, and his working relationship with Scott. Offering a second party view on the production, Blake's commentary is also tightly sandwiched between his score - presented without fades and abrupt edits. Beginning as a pianist at Abbey Road Studios, Blake rose through the ranks, ultimately scoring episodes of "The Avengers" and many TV commercials. When he became tired of the grind, he devoted several years to symphonic works, opera, and Royal commissions until producer David Puttnam tapped at his door with the script. (Blake's score for "The Duellists," incidentally, is also available on CD.) Though he continues to write for the silver screen on occasion, his best-known work is arguably the music for the bittersweet children's tale "The Snowman," adapted from Raymond Briggs' winter fable.)
The new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix adds some added scope from the original Dolby 2.0 mix, and there's a good balance between Blake's score, dialogue (still a wee bit pinched and harsh, though), and great sound effects (which are incorporated into the animated menus).
While Scott covers a lot of ground in his own commentary, the added featurette "Duelling Directors" primarily covers the film's fight scenes, with amiable prodding from Kevin Reynolds, who recently completed his own period film, "The Count Of Monte Cristo."
Reynolds became enamored with "The Duellists" at a young age, and whether self-motivated or contacted by another party, he seems to have jumped at the chance to chat with Scott about the film for this featurette. The tone is very relaxed, and producers of supplemental DVD content should take note of the kind of anecdotal and practical information that arises when two filmmakers are given the chance to discuss their craft. There's no pretense of having created great art here; just an admirer and colleague talking shop with another filmmaker in terms that today's film-savvy viewers can understand. Produced and directed by Charles de Lauzirika, the featurette also combines film footage with archival interviews and production footage from 1977 (likely from an old 16mm promotional print, with comments from Vaughan-Hughes, and footage of Scott and Puttnam in Cannes), and "Duelling Directors" happily avoids the attention-deficit pacing and overly-stylized graphics that often subjugate genuine information to press kit status.
A generous collection of production portraits (5), film stills (35), behind the scene shots (30) and a gallery of international posters (7 - including a really cool campaign from Czechoslovakia) are included, plus storyboards for 2 sequences with optional film scenes. The film's theatrical trailer is in average condition, and though lacking the fine details of the film proper, is also anamorphic. (The trailer also uses music for the Paramount logo that later became the intro 'Paramount Presents' music for their video releases.)
The last gem is Ridley Scott's first short film, shot in black & white and made in 1961 when Scott was a lad of 24. "Boy and Bike" follows a young boy on a self-imposed day off from school, as he rides through the English coastal countryside on an overcast day. The narrative film combines a continuous stream of consciousness dialogue that's designed to reflect the boy's inner thoughts as he wanders, ponders, examines and investigates areas, and reflects the quixotic nature of the mind with sometimes oddball verbal clusters and self-muttering. And it works, along with a mix of focused sound effects and a theme recorded by John Barry expressly for the film. Unfortunately, the DVD contains no info on the short film, but an extract from Brian J. Robb's "The Pocket Essentials Guide to Ridley Scott" at http://www.only-books.com/object=2990 details the film's history.
© 2002 Mark R. Hasan