The Duellists (Great Britain, 1977):

Already a stickler of the sheen uber alles dictum, Ridley Scott segued into features (after years of commercials and shorts) with this adaptation of Joseph Conrad's short story The Duel. Taking place during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, the picture charts a decade-spanning feud sparked when soldier Keith Carradine is sent to detain another officer (Harvey Keitel) and a "light cavalry skirmish" balloons into a series of duels, invariably interrupted but obsessively fueled by Keitel's bulldog tenacity. The theme is the foolishness-shading-into-absurdity of male chivalry, a psychotic "honor" that locks the two soldiers, in their military coitus interruptus, into a private pas de deux that outshines the wars around them. Never a director to let theme interfere with how mist can creep into a scene in the most ravishing way, Scott is besotted with Beauty, and drenches the screen in various Barry Lyndon-isms. Singularized pastoral intensity, lighting that paints rooms golden-amber, lavish detailing over uniforms, sables and mustaches, landscapes that preen and brood for the lenses -- the eye is always teased, stimulated. Some of Scott's pictorial effects (slowly zooming out of a still-life to survey a chamber or a frost-bitten battlefield) are right out of Rossellini's late historical tableaux, although the coldness of all his canvas-filling excludes any hint of contemplation. The story may hinge on obsession, but his use of plastic loveliness is all surface cosmetics -- I'm sure Scott would insist on making the plague look resplendent. The adaptation is by Gerald Vaughan-Hughes. Cinematography by Frank Tidy. With Albert Finney, Christina Raines, Edward Fox, Tom Conti, Robert Stephens, Diana Quick, Alun Armstrong, and Jenny Runacre.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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