THE DUELLISTS: RIDLEY SCOTT’S NAPOLEONIC THRILLER

Let it not be said that men are not the equal of women as duelling divas. There is no better proof than in the film The Duellists, with its noble heritage of being based on a Joseph Conrad short story titled The Duel, which in turn was based on a true story about two members of Napoleon’s cavalry that carried on a series of duels with each other that lasted 20 years , from 1794 to 1813.

The Duellists, made in 1977, was the directorial debut of Ridley Scott. It was made for Paramount under a  tight budget of $900,000, and Scott was offered certain actors to work with. Those who accepted to be the principals were Harvey Keitel as the hot-headed Cavalry Hussar Gabriel Feraud, and Keith Carradine as Hussar Armand D’Hubert. Keith Carradine almost didn’t accept since his song I’m Easy was a hit in 1976, and had received the Oscar for Best Original Song for Nashville. He was  thinking maybe the singer-songwriter life was calling him.

The panoramic scene below is not a duel between the protagonists, but rather of Feraud at left just before he seriously wounds the nephew of the Mayor of Strasbourg, which sends Carradine/D’Hubert on orders to arrest him for duelling, which precipitates their years-long grudge match of duels.

The Duelling Divas Blogathon is hosted by Lara at the Backlots blog

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This opening scene is very reminiscent of the opening pastoral duelling scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, made only two years before and undoubtedly a stylistic influence on The Duellists. The scene below takes place at Mme. de Lionne’s salon, where D’Hubert is about to tell Feraud he is under arrest.

The costumes were excellent in the film, designed by Tom Rand and fabricated in Italy. The military uniforms were very accurate.  The Hussar’s uniform of the period consisted of a fur-trimmed pelisse jacket with rows of buttons, frogging and loops, worn over the left shoulder. The torso was also covered with a dolman that also featured rows of frogging and a two-toned barrel sash. the trousers worn inside  cavalry boots. Belted sabers were accessorized with the black leather “sabretache” pouch that featured the Napoleonic eagle. The hat was the tall leather shako with brass chin straps, emblems, and feather, and later the bearskin hat. The colors of the uniforms depended on the regiments. D’Hubert at left wears the colors of the 4th Hussars, Feraud at right that of the 7th Hussars. Historically all hussars were light cavalry and assumed to be impetuous. They used sabers, pistols and carbines as weapons.

 

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D’Hubert’s visit, official business or not, was perceived by Feraud as an insult and the cause for their 1st duel. In filming these fight sequences, Ridley Scott operated the camera himself, using a hand-held camera and getting close to the action, dodging sword swings as he shot. Scott had been a maker of commercials before turning filmmaker, so he felt comfortable operating his own camera, talking directly to actors  while filming, and paying attention to the details of set design. He stated this made is easier for him to be thrifty while still achieving his goals in filmmaking.

The duel below ends with Feraud being wounded, but his girlfriend saved him by jumping on D’Hubert and severely scratching his face.

 

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The photo below shows a close-up of the hussar uniform and hair-style. The French hussars’ hair was worn long, somewhat typical of their Hungarian origins. It was braided at the side, this to add protection from saber cuts to the cheeks. The back was worn in a knotted queue, offering more protection for the back of the neck. Mustaches added extra panache. The red and white barrel sash belt was largely decorative – its origin was that of a rope to tether horses.

 

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The scene below was shot from the interior of a village building that was transformed into a café. Scott filmed the movie mostly in France in the Dordogne area, No sets were used, only real buildings and outdoor settings. This worked for its authenticity and also to save money. Carradine as D’Hubert sits looking outside the window with his friend and fellow lieutenant Lacourbe played by Alun Armstrong. Also in the scene is the great actress Diana Quick, playing D’Hubert’s girlfriend Laura. Outside the window, the dreaded Feraud’s friend and second can be seen walking down the street, who also sees D’Hubert. Thus, the second duel is set up.

 

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The second duel  is also set in a pastoral landscape, on a lush carpet of grass using epees as weapons. The duel is quick, as Feraud runs his blade into D’Hubert’s chest. The wound is not mortal, but quickly ends this encounter. He is seen lying on the ground surrounded by the other hussars in the image below.

 

Duellists 7 Alan Armstrong

Laura nurses D’Hubert back to health, yet they separate as he prepares for another duel. This one is fought to exhaustion with swords inside of a vaulted barn. Ridley Scott shot this sequence himself as well with a hand-held camera. He used some rudimentary special effects, using chicken wire on the walls that had been wired to a 12 volt battery, so when Keitel’s sword blade hit the wall sparks flew (and Keitel got jolted). The duel ends in a draw, as both men are bloodied and can barely lift their sabers, they lock arms and collapse on the floor.

 

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In 1806  D’Hubert is now in Lubeck, with the rank of Captain. Again with  Lacourbe in a tavern, he is spotted by Feraud, who has also achieved the same rank. Fighting a superior officer would be grounds for a courts martial . Feraud immediately challenges him to another duel, this time on horseback, a “tribute to the cavalry,” D’Hubert is told, who finds it hard to take this connection seriously.

The duel will be made by cavalry charges with sabers. D’Hubert is nervous, remembering his previous chest wound. When the two pass each other in their “joust,” Feraud is struck on the head and knocked off his horse. D’Hubert celebrates by jumping his horse over a cart piled high with hay and then races down a country lane.

 

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The Napoleonic wars continue and D’Hubert and Feraud find themselves in the disastrous Russian campaign. In the frozen terrain they are about to shoot each other with pistols when cossacks attack them, so they empty their pistols  at the cossacks instead.

After the wars D’Hubert, now a General, returns to a more peaceful life. He visits his sister and her two sons. The sons, shown in the picture below, were played by Ridley Scott’s two boys: Jason and Luke Scott.

 

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D’Hubert’s sister Leonie, played by Meg Wynn Owen, introduces him to the beautiful Adele, played by Cristina Raines. Cristina just happened to be Keith Carradine’s girlfriend at the time. In the scene below he proposes to her. She can’t keep from laughing, however, as according to Scott, Keith’s horse had an erection during the shooting. Erection or not, the horse should have gotten a Best Supporting Actor Award for continuously nudging Keith in Cristina’s direction.

 

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In the Conrad story D’Hubert wants to settle a final duel with pistols before he marries and so writes a letter to Feraud. In the movie Feraud’s  friend and second, Chevalier played by John McNery, now in humbled condition as is his companion, finds D’Hubert and asks for satisfaction on Feraud’s behalf – for a now long-forgotten reason. In fact unknown to Feraud, D’Hubert had saved his life by intervening when Feraud was put on a death list when the new Bourbon king came back on the throne. Feraud and many Bonapartists were in disfavor at best with the new royal regime.

As they had left off in Russia, pistols would be the weapon: two pistols; one shot in each in open country.

 

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True to his character, Feraud is the more tempetuous, firing more quickly in their game of cat and mouse. D’Hubert is left with the last shot, which he can take at close quarters. Instead, he spares Feraud’s life, on condition that he forever leaves him in peace.

The last film shots are of Feraud overlooking the hills and a river. He is expressionless, and we are left to draw our own conclusion about his state of mind. Like his Emperor’s, his ultimate battle was a defeat. And the monarchy and its aristocracy, that they both fought against, were back in power in France and safe on their thrones throughout Europe.

 

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One can view The Duellists as an anti-war film, or one depicting the futility of war as represented by the stupidity of duelling. It was in any case an auspicious beginning for Ridley Scott. While it had limited distribution in the U.S., it won a Best First Work at Cannes where Ridley Scott was nominated for a Palme d’Or, and was nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Costume by BAFTA. One can see in this film Scott’s clear focus on setting and his characters’ often  sharp delineation in that world. The chiaroscuro of his cinematography is both beautiful and effective, and a hallmark of his film Blade Runner.

There is no more iconic story of dueling divos than The Duellists, but it is also fundamentally a story of forgiveness.

 

 

THE 10 WILDEST COSTUMES IN FILM HISTORY

Hollywood movies have a rich history of wild and outrageous costumes. My list of the “Ten Wildest” must be prefaced. I did not include show girl, chorine, or musical number costumes. If I had, Adrian would likely have taken all ten slots in his costumes from The Great Ziegfeld, and Ziegfeld Girl.  I also did not include fantasy, fairy tales, superhero, and science fiction movies, which precluded the great costumes from movies such as The Hobbit series, Snow White and the Huntsman,  the Star Wars series, and the fabulous Edward Scissorhands costume.

I did include the  costumes from historical characters on film, and from masked balls, which often depict historical characters, although with a bit of fantasy. Quite a bit as we’ll see later.  The costumes skew to the 1930s. As has been written about elsewhere, so much energy was channeled into the movies as a release from the Depression and other societal pressures. This was especially true for film costume design. Well represented below are the great designers of that field: Adrian; Travis Banton; Walter Plunkett; Edith Head, and Irene Sharaff.

Your own list may be very different than mine. There are many costumes out there to discover. But to start out 2015, here’s my ten wildest costumes of the last century on film. They are arranged in chronological order.

 

Costume Wild Salome Nazimova

1) Alla Nazimova in SALOME. Costume design by Natasha Rambova, 1923

The Biblical story of Salome, the daughter of Herod II and the original femme fatal, is told in this film, based on the Oscar Wilde story. The sets and costumes were designed by Natasha Rambova, the wife and manager of Rudolph Valentino. Even Erte was an admirer of Rambova’s style. She was born in Salt Lake City, and was not Russian. She did dance in the ballet and was very talented. She hired Adrian in New York to design costumes for Valentino, and was responsible for bringing him out to Hollywood with them. This costume was inspired by the book illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley.

 

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2) Evelyn Brent in SLIGHTLY SCARLET  Costume design by Travis Banton, 1930

Evelyn Brent plays the unwilling accomplice of a jewel thief in Paris and the French Riviera in this caper. She looks like a jewel herself in this Travis Banton “hostess gown.”  The fabric was a sapphire blue chiffon, encrusted with crystal bugle beads. She wears no brassiere, definitely pre-code.

 

 

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3) Kay Johnson in MADAM SATAN Costume design by  Adrian, 1930

This is a C.B. DeMille directed movie, which has to be seen if only for its Zeppelin Ball and “Ballet Mecanique” sequence. Kay Johnson plays a staid housewife that is losing the attention of her husband and so takes on the persona of “Madame Satan” at a party on a dirigible. The costume designed by Adrian had red sequins on the interior of the cape, flame-cut fabric that went up the bodice, flame shaped gauntlet gloves, and the horned mask. The velvet was not black but a dark purple that registered better on the black and white film.  See below.

 

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4) Greta Garbo in Mata Hari. Costume design by Adrian, 1931

Certainly one of the most amazing costumes in movie history is this outfit made for Garbo in Mata Hari, its pants were made of gold mesh, the bodice of spruce green colored glass beads, and crystals, with a metallic scull-cap, jeweled-belt, and a bugle-beaded, long-trained skirt. Yet the costume was backless, a typical asymmetrical flourish of Adrian’s, but one showing Garbo’s vulnerability as Mata Hari the spy. Fifteen women worked three weeks to make the costume.

 

Dietrich Coq feathers

5) Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Costume design by Travis Banton, 1932

Marlene Dietrich plays “Shaghai Lilly” in Von Sternberg’s film, playing a regular rider on the Shanghai Express, living by any means possible in China for a woman of her beauty and wits. Travis Banton dresses her to perfection for the role, the picture of allure that only the silver screen and the glamour photography of the era can capture. The black coq feathures, skull cap, and veil, concentrates attention on her face, yet surrounds it in mystery. Still the confidence and the power of glamour radiates from within. The long  string of pearls add sparkle over the black dress. The gloves and bag are Hermes.

 

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6) Katharine Hepburn in CHRISTOPHER STRONG Designed by Walter Plunkett, 1933.

Katharine Hepburn played an aviator in this story of complicated love affairs within the Brittish upper classes. This was her first starring role. Here she wears this stunning Walter Plunkett designed costume to a party, The costume’s theme is “the silver moth” taken from “The White Moth,” an early working title for the film. The costume was made from small silver-metallic squares like an airplane would be, and she had a skull cap/helmet with the antennae of a moth. Indeed, she flies too close to the sun.

 

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Photo courtesy Photofest

 7) Claudette Colbert in CLEOPATRA, Designed by Travis Banton, 1934.

Cleopatra was one of the Cecil B. DeMille spectacles, and despite its age, holds up well in its visual and storytelling qualities. The sets are amazing, though very much influenced by the styles of the 1930s, but the same holds true with the later Cleopatra and the influence of the 1960s. Travis Banton’s costumes are magnets for the eye, with essentially simple form-fitting, 1930s silhouettes adorned with Egyptian-chic  accesories. Banton had a series of arguments with Claudette Colbert over the designs for her costumes.  She found them too revealing, with disapproving comments written all over his beautiful costume sketches. He left a second set of costume sketches for her approval, with instructions that she had better either like these or slit her wrists. The next day Banton waited and waited, only to have them returned streaked with dried blood. Furious, Banton left the studio and went on a binge, not returning until several days later when studio head Adolph Zukor called him personally and mediated the situation.

 

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Photo courtesy Photofest

8) Vivien Leigh in GONE WITH THE WIND, Designed by Walter Plunkett, 1939.

This is one of the most iconic costumes in movie history. Although the curtain dress was part of the original novel, Plunkett designed it with  much panache, adding its one sided capelet and huge tassled belt. Plunkett picked a green velvet to match Vivien Leigh’s eyes, although he had parts of it faded to look like authentic curtains. Vivien’s hat of velvet and black coq feathers was made by Mr. John. Scarlett wears the costume in crucial scenes as she goes asking for money from Rhett and then runs into Frank Kennedy.

 

 

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9) Grace Kelly in TO CATCH A THIEF, Designed by Edith Head, 1955

The exquisite Grace Kelly does not play hard to get opposite Cary Grant in this movie where we are kept wondering, is he or is he not a jewel thief, operating on the French Riviera (jewel thieves and the Riviera have a long history in film). This movie has some of Edith Head’s best costumes, and the one above is a knockout. It is worn at a costume party and the plot’s climax, and Grace is wears the mock Marie Antoinette 18th century gown of gold lame, complete with golden birds and a golden wig.

 

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Photo courtesy Photofest

 

10) Elizabeth Taylor in CLEOPATRA, Designed by Irene Sharaff, 1963.

The last “wild costume” comes from another Cleopatra, and probably the most lavish costume film in history. In fact the production and marketing costs of $44 million (in 1963 dollars) for the movie nearly bankrupted 20th Century-Fox, and halted production on several of the studio’s movies. The number of costume changes for Elizabeth Taylor still holds a record at 65 costumes. The gold costume above and below was made of seed pearls, gold bugle beads, and sequins, including  a cape made of 24-carat gold -covered leather strips, made to look like the wings of a Phoenix.

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Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

 

If only we still had such Masked Balls. Hope you have a wild or happy 2015.