FILM : ‘The Duellists’ Misfires Because of Miscasting

<i> Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Movie adaptations of major literature have, at best, been a checkered affair. Most directors, no matter how talented, usually stumble when trying to scrunch a great writer’s vision into the limitations of film.

Ridley Scott’s “The Duellists” is one of those ambitious but flawed adventures--in this, Scott’s first major movie, you never quite feel the full significance, psychologically or historically, of Joseph Conrad’s ironic story, “The Duel.”

But Scott (who later directed “Alien”) is still able to capture something extraordinary: “The Duellists,” which screens Friday night as part of UC Irvine’s “Double Vision” series, has the stylistic density of Conrad’s writing. The cinematography, with its gun-gray skyscapes and fire-lit interiors, is also able to evoke something of Conrad’s tortured realism. These are no small accomplishments.

The 1977 film is narrowly focused on a longstanding feud between two officers in Napoleon’s army. Harvey Keitel plays Feraud, a plebeian, hot-tempered lieutenant who develops such a hatred for the more aristocratic D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) that he challenges him to several gun duels over two decades that end in injury to both but never death.


These two are caught in a weird cycle of violence; throughout the movie, D’Hubert is constantly looking over his shoulder, waiting for Feraud’s seconds to appear and offer the next challenge. Feraud shadows his life, chilling even the respites from the Napoleonic campaigns and the pleasure D’Hubert finds with a loving mistress (Diana Quick).

Some of the most riveting scenes are the duels themselves. They were staged by William Hobbs, who also did the sword choreography for the “Three Musketeers” films, and are realistic, strenuous and, at times, both terrifying and comic.

The biggest blow to the integrity of “The Duellists” comes from the miscasting of Keitel and Carradine. Keitel, an excellent actor, never seems to lose his New York mean-streets edge; his modernness interferes with our connection with the period Scott is trying so diligently to create. As for Carradine, he’s just a mediocre actor, especially self-conscious here.

Still, Scott gets strong performances from his supporting cast (Quick is sensual and effective) and is able to salvage the movie through the alchemy of the striking visuals.

What: Ridley Scott’s “The Duellists.”

When: Friday, Feb. 14, at 7 and 9 p.m.

Where: UC Irvine’s Student Center Crystal Cove Auditorium.

Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree Road and head south. Go east on Campus Drive and take Bridge Road into the campus.

Wherewithal: $2 and $4.

Where to Call: (714) 856-6379.