Duelling Films

Issue 6

Dueling had no set rules in the sixteenth century, Tavernier informs us in his commentary to La princesse de Montpensier.  The Duellists and Tomorrow at Dawn, the one set during the Napoleonic Wars and the second in modern-day France among Napoleonic re-enactors, are firmly ensconced within the codes of honor that came to regulate such encounters.  Against the real, gruesome and uncontrollable violence of warfare, men were able to settle their real or imagined grievances according to a set scenario whose outcome, of course, remained uncertain.  The escalating cycle of violence between these combatants, like that among nations, had to end somehow.  Both films, although set in different eras, address this question and ask us to think about our atavistic impulses and how past and present cultures handle them.  In doing so, the films take us beyond the Napoleonic era to engage students on multiple levels and stimulate broad-ranging discussions, ones that could cover anything from historical accuracy to role playing video games.

Duelling Films

Howard G. Brown
Binghamton University, SUNY

The relationship between masculine honor and dueling is a lost part of history that is not easy to recover.  Today’s college students are not insensitive to personal affronts; they know what it means to be disrespected.  But almost none of them know what it means to risk serious, life-changing – and possibly life-ending – injury simply to preserve “respect.”  Ritualized and cold-blooded combat, where the participants have to risk their own lives in order to take that of others, is linked to a time in history when honor was expensive psychic property to which elites laid the greatest claims.  Two superbly crafted films, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977) and Denis Dercourt’s Demain dès l’aube [Tomorrow at Dawn] (2009), both serve well to convey the power of honor to inspire dueling.  Both focus on dueling in the Napoleonic armies.  It was absurd, to be sure, they both seem to say, but also compelling and invigorating.  But Scott and Dercourt have other messages too, ones that make their films suitable for distinctly different teaching purposes.

The Duellists is a fairly faithful rendering of a novella by Joseph Conrad entitled “The Duel,” the subtitle of which changed from “A Military Story” when it was first serialized in Britain to “The Point of Honor” when it appeared in the United States later that same year (1908).  The new subtitle is much better because it works as a clever double entendre, combining didacticism with irony.  Ridley Scott’s film preserves this moral engagement, even though it was made seventy years later and dueling had lost its social relevance.  The story is simple enough.  Two young captains in the cavalry, Gabriel Feraud and Armand d’Hubert (brilliantly embodied by Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine respectively), fight a series of duels with one another over fifteen years of service in Napoleon’s army.  The impetuous Feraud provokes these duels, but the more circumspect d’Hubert also makes them possible by sticking to the aristocratic code of honor that the army officially rejects.  Eventually the chivalric coupling of honor with humanity triumphs over the exploitation of honor through simple military prowess.

The narrative focuses on D’Hubert’s dilemma.  Though he is a slightly dandified staff officer, his courage is made all the more admirable by his realistic fear, especially after almost being hacked to pieces in one rather gory scene.  But he neither hides behind his commander’s injunction against dueling nor takes advantage of transfer orders to avoid another confrontation. Thus, parallel promotions up to the rank of general and crossed paths around Europe allow the rivalry between Feraud and d’Hubert to reach epic proportions.  D’Hubert enjoys the fruits of his fame, especially with women, but he preserves his sense of noblesse oblige.  When the ardent Bonapartist Feraud is arrested and condemned to death in the wake of Waterloo, d’Hubert secretly obtains his pardon from the Minister of Police, Joseph Fouché (Albert Finney).  Feraud uses his freedom to track down his convalescing benefactor and provoke yet another fight, this time arranged as a mutual manhunt (suggestively staged amongst crumbling castles and the wilds of the Dordogne).  Although the tension is sustained well, the ultimate outcome could hardly be in doubt.  D’Hubert manages to save his second shot for last.  Rather than kill Feraud, he says, “I shall simply declare you dead.”  This instantly inverts the relationship between them, allowing d’Hubert finally to exploit the duellists’ code of honor for his own benefit.

The last scene depicts a subdued and somber General Feraud dressed in a bicorne hat and long army capote, his back mostly to the viewer, staring out over the Dordogne River.  By recreating the iconic image of Napoleon on Saint Helena, Scott adds a metaphoric layer of interpretation missing from Conrad’s story.  It is this new layer that makes The Duellists so useful to assign in courses that cover the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire.  The thrusting and irrational Feraud embodies the Revolutionary and Napoleonic order.  He disdains social niceties but cultivates a bougeois salonnière; his success derives from cockiness, military skill and a penchant for interpersonal violence. D’Hubert obviously represents the traditional French elite.  A noble with refined tastes and musical training, he has wit, charm, and a way with the ladies.  Above all, he knows the true meaning of honor and in so doing triumphs over the crass upstart Feraud.  This is all a caricature, of course, but students enjoy picking out the many elements that the film employs to assemble it, then debating the interpretation it embodies.

As the final image suggests, Ridley Scott takes full advantage of the medium of film to enrich and embellish Conrad’s story.  Historians are not supposed to venture too far from the evidence and, so, of necessity, have to leave a lot out.  However, film-makers who venture into history must fill a screen, and therefore, of necessity, have to put a lot in.  The Duellists is one of the best examples of how this can be done to create authenticity.  For students who take a course that includes Napoleonic France because it appeals to their francophilia, Ridley Scott sets his scenes with lengthy, almost motionless shots that have the depth and richness of old master paintings, whether a still-life interior or an open-field landscape.  For those fascinated by the Napoleonic army, The Duellists provides a plethora of highly accurate uniforms, weapons, camp followers, and even hair styles.  The catastrophic retreat from Russia in 1812 and the casual bustle of garrison towns are also exceptionally well presented, especially for a film with a very modest budget.  In either case, this stunningly beautiful, yet uncomplicated film gives students a lively sense of historical period, while also giving the instructor much for them to discuss.

But dueling may not belong solely to the historical past.  In his film Demain dès l’aube – a title borrowed from a poem by Victor Hugo about mourning the dead – Denis Dercourt proposes one way it could be revived.  “C’est une question d’honneur: ça ne discute pas,” Paul (Jérémie Rénier) tells his brother Mathieu (Vincent Pérez).  It is Paul’s only justification for fighting a duel with rapiers.  Although Paul and his opponent are merely Napoleonic re-enactors, the games they play have become alarmingly life-like.  Now one of them must bleed, for real, for the sake of honor.  Surely this is madness.  Quite possibly, but not necessarily, not when viewed in the right light, the light of cinematic dawn.  Like Ridley Scott, Denis Dercourt has a painter’s sensibility and uses it to help blur differences between real life and historical re-enactment.  Real life lacks color: history vibrates with it.  And therein lies a teaching tool (more anon).

Mathieu leads an enviable life in modern France.  He is a 40-ish piano virtuoso with a statuesque wife and devoted son.  But excessive careerism has all but destroyed his domestic bliss.  An existential crisis provokes him to move back into his boyhood home where his mother and adult brother still live.  His mother has cancer and has to be hospitalized, which only exacerbates the emotional fragility of her youngest son Paul, a fork-lift driver whose “passion for history” is actually an obsession with re-enacting experiences of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.  As a gesture of brotherly support, Mathieu enlists in Paul’s would-be regiment.  He soon learns how seriously the game is played, in fact, just how real this fantasy world has become.  At first he is merely rebuked by an orderly at the hospital for greeting him as a fellow re-enactor – “Nobody must know that we are the Emperor’s soldiers” – but later he is challenged to a duel for having, in the course of an elaborate, candle-lit and period-perfect soirée, insulted another regiment of hussards – for its actions at the battle of Wagram!  Having practiced fencing as a youth, and urged on by his maniacal brother, Mathieu fights the duel.  It ends badly.  Mathieu wins, but only by accidentally piercing his opponent’s cheek, thereby violating the rule against blows to the face or genitals that governs these “fake” duels.  The injured captain soon demands revenge and his fellow regimental re-enactors stalk Mathieu, and apparently almost kill his mother, in order to force another duel.  Paul secretly decides to fight in Mathieu’s place, but greatly raises the stakes by proposing pistols at twenty paces.  Although this is the ultimate violation of the re-enactors’ rules, his savagely scarred opponent agrees.  Without spoiling the ending, suffice it to say that Mathieu speeds to the rescue (cars repeatedly, and almost comically, serve as a way to get from reality to fantasy and back again) and arrives just in time to realize that dueling in the name of honor is no mere game: a man can die and a man can live.

As this plot summary should suggest, Demain dès l’aube is a clever (dare I say post-modern?) meditation on the possibility that fantasy role playing can become more meaningful than daily life.  Dercourt asserts that the two may not be able to be kept separate, with both positive and negative consequences. The experience of fighting a duel so invigorates Mathieu that he soon makes the best piano recording of his life.  A career he had begun to question jumps to the next level and his relationship to his wife turns romantic again.  Whether this is plausible or not, it certainly presents an opportunity to discuss the depressing banalities of modern life in contrast to romanticized versions of the past. How would students respond to such questions as “are the values of the past superior to those of the present?” or “would it be better to live for honor than live for success?”

One could also use this taut, intriguing film to begin a more philosophical discussion about the making of history.  Dercourt was inspired to make the film both by observing re-enactors of the Napoleonic wars (who proliferate in France like Civil War re-enactors do in the United States) and by his own experience of playing baroque music on carefully crafted authentic “period” instruments.[1]  Both activities require considerable research and arcane knowledge about the past.  Making history involves much more than recreating the past, but don’t we need to get that right first?  How much do we need to feel the past to be able to appreciate it?  Will actually wearing coarse woolen trousers or high-wasted dresses give us greater insight?  How about painting toy soldiers, trying on old hats, building models, or collecting antique maps?  There is clearly something especially attractive about playing soldiers in an army supposedly imbued with courage and honor.  Why else would so many modern men, young and old, be willing to play soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars, or Civil War, even though most were little more than cannon fodder at the time?  In other words, asking about the past leads right back to the present.

In that vein, Demain dès l’aube could also raise the question of the seductive power of video games, especially those devoted to various forms of warfare.  Students, especially males, often find such games addictive.  They create a level of intense engagement that lectures and assigned readings simply cannot match.  As challenging as that reality might be for professors, it is the fantasy of becoming professional warriors that crosses most powerfully into real life, sometimes leading to enlistment, but more often to distractedness and boredom.  Older role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons clearly helped medievalists fill their courses, but will the latest video war games kill interest in actually studying the past?  Will the players, as in Dercourt’s film, find a game more colorful, more stimulating, and perhaps more real?  These are questions best discussed with students who still do take history classes.

After that detour into fantasy, it is comforting to know that The Duellists is based on actual events (by way of Conrad’s novella, of course) involving two French officers, François-Louis Fournier and Pierre Dupont, who engaged in seventeen duels between 1794 and 1813.  Ridley Scott’s directorial debut is a brilliant fictionalization of their story, and shows students the life of officers in Napoleon’s armies.  The numerous scenes of Napoleonic soldiering in Demain dès l’aube are similarly historically accurate, thanks largely to the extensive involvement of actual rôlistes, and could also be used as moving illustrations.  Like Scott, Dercourt also stimulates serious reflection on the code of masculine honor that underpinned dueling for so long.[2]  In addition, for those inclined to controversy, Demain dès l’aube offers a way to discuss fantasy and recreation in studying the past, as well as the temptation no longer to make the effort.

  1. See the translated interview with Denis Dercourt at http://frenchfilmfestival.us/2011/demain.html.
  2. I have avoided picking and choosing from the vast literature on the Napoleonic Wars.  However, to enhance a discussion of honor in the Napoleonic period, one could assign Norman Hampson, “The French Revolution and the Nationalization of Honour” in War and Society, M. R. D. Foot, ed. (London, 1973), as well as John Lynn, “Toward an Army of Honor: The Moral Evolution of the French Army, 1789-1815” and the subsequent exchange with Owen Connelly in French Historical Studies 16 (1989): 152-82. As for dueling in the French context, one could begin with Pacal Brioist, Hervé Drévillon, and Pierre Serna, Croiser le fer: violence et culture de l’épée dans la France moderne, XVIe-XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 2002).

Ridley Scott, Director, The Duellists (1977), United Kingdom/Color, Enigma Productions/National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC). Running Time: 100 mins.

Denis Dercourt, Demain dès l’aube [Tomorrow at Dawn] (2009), France/Color, Diaphana Films/France 3 Cinéma/TPS Star. Running Time: 96 mins.

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