In Strasbourg in 1800, obsessive duellist Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) of the French 7th Hussars nearly kills the nephew of the city's mayor in a sword duel. Under pressure from the mayor, Brigadier-General Treillard (Robert Stephens) sends Lieutenant Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine) of the 3rd Hussars to put him under house arrest. As the arrest takes place in the house of a prominent local lady (Jenny Runacre), Feraud takes it as a personal insult from d'Hubert and challenges him to a duel. D'Hubert, however, manages to knock him unconscious.
The war intervenes in the men's quarrel and they do not meet again until six months later, in Augsburg in 1801. Feraud immediately challenges d'Hubert to another duel and seriously wounds him. Recovering, d'Hubert takes lessons from a fencing master and in the next duel the two men fight each other to a standstill. Soon afterwards, d'Hubert is relieved to learn that he has been promoted to captain, as military protocol forbids officers of different ranks from fighting one another.
The action then moves forwards to 1806, when d'Hubert is serving in Lübeck. He is shocked to hear that the 7th Hussars have arrived in the city and that Feraud is now also a captain. Aware that in two weeks time he is himself to be promoted to major, d'Hubert attempts to slip away on leave, but bumps into Feraud, who of course challenges him to another duel. This duel is fought on horseback, and d'Hubert wins, giving Feraud a cut on the forehead which bleeds heavily into his eyes and prevents him from continuing.
Soon afterwards, Feraud's regiment is posted to Spain and the two do not meet again until 1812. During the Retreat from Moscow, d'Hubert and Feraud meet by chance, but fight off a group of Cossacks instead of fighting each other. Two years later, after Napoleon's exile to Elba, d'Hubert, now a brigadier-general and recovering from a leg wound, is staying at the home of his sister Leonie (Meg Wynn Owen) in Tours. She introduces him to Adele (Cristina Raines), niece of her neighbour (Alan Webb), and they fall in love and are married. A Bonapartist agent (Edward Fox) attempts to recruit d'Hubert to command a brigade when the Emperor returns from Elba, but d'Hubert refuses.
When he hears this, Feraud, also now a brigadier-general and a leading Bonapartist, declares d'Hubert is a traitor to the Emperor. He claims that he always suspected d'Hubert's loyalty, which is why he called him out in the first place.
The fight scenes are terrific. They are realistic in that instead of fancy sword play, you see two men exhaust themselves trying to take the other down.
Below is an excerpt from a review of the movie. The whole review may be read here.
Ridley Scott’s Brilliant First Film
That’s why it’s pleasurable and inspiring to re-see Scott’s gorgeous and thrilling film debut, “The Duellists,” from 1977, which kicks off “Past and Prologue: The Films of Ridley Scott,” a complete retrospective by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Think of “Barry Lyndon” as if paced by Howard Hawks. That’ll give you some idea of the voluptuous fury of this wry, volatile romantic adventure. The burnished, lustrous images of Napoleonic Europe zip by, and the Emperor’s hussars racing through them make most movie swashbucklers look conventional and cautious.
In George Stevens, Jr.’s, new collection of American Film Institute interviews, the film’s producer, David Puttnam, says, “What’s extraordinary about the [Joseph] Conrad story [‘The Duel’] is that it’s about violence for no reason. In fact, it’s about a man who invents reasons to justify his obsession for mindless and meaningless violence.” Puttnam also says, “We used the best of the crews that Ridley had used on his [TV] commercials and I had used on my previous films. It was important to do that, because Ridley’s commercials were about looks and style while my features had been about story, and thought I wanted to make a stylish film, I didn’t want to wallow completely in style.”
Taking into account a producer’s possessiveness, “The Duellists” does have qualities rare in Scott’s work, including an exciting lucidity that’s all the more astonishing because its central characters remain partial mysteries. They are, after all, men of action, and they’re never more clearly revealed than when tied together in an infernal tussle. Feraud (Harvey Keitel) is a squat, demon dueller; D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), is a slim, sweet-tempered gentlemen who has the bad fortune to tee him off. Because of a manufactured slight, which is so minimal that Feraud constantly remembers new ones, he engages D’Hubert in a series of duels spanning sixteen years. Compelled by his own honor into combat, D’Hubert gets a reputation as a fire-breather that he’d love to dampen. Feraud both represents the feral side of a code of honor they both share and becomes D’Hubert’s personal heart of darkness. The movie chronicles D’Hubert’s attempt to drive a stake through it.