On a recent thread, we were discussing what films not directed by Welles were “Wellsian”. I think I have found one that is Wellesian in its method of production, if not in style and content. I was fortunate to receive the new Special Edition DVD of one of my favorite films-The Duellists, for Christmas. For those who have not seen it, this is Ridley Scott’s first film, released in 1977.
I remember reading about the movie in 1977 when I was in college, and since I have an interest in all things Napoleonic, I looked forward to a movie about a 10-year series of duels between two Hussars of Napoleon’s cavalry. Unfortunately, due to the limited release of the film, I did not see it until 1980 or so, when it was released on video. Though it was eventually released on Laserdisc in widescreen, this new DVD marks the first time the film has been released in stereo as well.
The special edition includes a commentary by director Scott, and an interesting interview feature-director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and the recent Count of Monte Cristo) interviews Scott while they watch specific scenes on a monitor. As Scott discussed how the film came to be made, the making of it struck me as Wellesian. Originally, Scott and writer Gerald Vaughan-Hughes were going to do a film based on Guy Fawkes and The Gunpowder Plot. This fell through due to lack of financing, so Scott looked around for more material to adapt. Scott chose the Conrad story The Duel because it was a 19th century story and was in the public domain, and since he was paying a screenwriter, he could not afford to buy rights to a story. He sold the idea, and was given $900,000 to make the film. He shot entirely on location in France, and “didn’t build anything because he couldn’t afford to”. With the help of his gifted cinematographer-Frank Tidy, with whom Scott had worked on countless TV commercials, Scott created a beautiful version of 19th century Napoleonic France (only Barry Lyndon rivals it for beauty, IMO) on a shoestring budget. The way his lack of funds sort of forced him to come up with creative solutions and ideas (though the film was totally storyboarded) reminds me of Welles at the height of his independent genius, when he produced films like Othello, The Trial and Chimes at Midnight (and even the scene in Touch of Evil, when Welles and Heston were taking a leak and Welles sureveyed the room they were urinating in and decided it would make a great location for the scene later in the film between Joe Calliea and Heston) .
I have not watched the film with commentary yet, but learned much from the little interview (it’s called “Duelling Directors”). Those who like the film, or those who have not seen it, should pick up this new DVD. The commentaries and the featurette provide a lot of insight into the creation of a great film. I always thought Welles thrived on “making do” with what he had to work with in the independent years. Although Ridley Scott has made some interesting and more commercial films since The Duellists (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black hawk Down), I do not think he has really made a better film.