Friday, October 20, 2017

The Duellists

Screenshot from the film The Duellists
I don't remember when I first saw this film, I'm guessing it was while I was still on active duty. Though, since I retired 18 years ago, it's quite possible that I saw it since then. As one gets older...

The movie came out in 1977, so it's not a new film. What surprised me when I looked into it was who made it, Ridley Scott. I was also rather surprised to see that it was Sir Ridley's directorial debut. He followed that up with Alien and then Blade Runner. Both of which I really enjoyed. (I still can't enter an abandoned space craft without getting the willies. Well, in theory. One doesn't run into a great deal of abandoned space craft in Little Rhody. Abandoned hopes and dreams perhaps, it is a "blue" state after all.)

Now I don't know what Sir Ridley's politics are and I don't really give a rat's patoot. I find many of his films entertaining. But this post isn't about the filmmaker, it's about the film and the story behind the film.


When I saw an ad for this movie on the TV, some years ago, I was pretty excited. The Napoleonic Era! Hussars! What's not to love? What I saw wasn't what I expected. (You can read a summary of the plot here.)

It was better.

It's a story of two Frenchmen. One receives a perceived insult from the other, which was absolute horse manure, but cavalrymen can be very touchy, if not a little touched. The insulted party demands satisfaction from the insulting party, so they fight a duel. As war rages across Europe, these two officers fight one duel after another. The wars of Napoléon are merely a backdrop to the conflict between these two soldiers. And a fascinating tale it is, brilliantly filmed with a great score. As an amateur historian I couldn't help but notice that they got the little details right. Even down to the hairstyles worn by light cavalrymen in the early 19th Century.

What struck me most about the film was the one officer, Gabriel Féraud, played by Harvey Keitel, who is a fanatical adherent of Bonaparte, blindly seeking to avenge the insult to his honor. An early archetype of the easily offended perhaps? The other officer, the one who gave offense to Féraud, Armand d'Huber, played by Keith Carradine, starts the film as a staff officer, so my sympathies were originally with Féraud (I mean come on, d'Huber's a staff puke), but quickly shifted to d'Huber. He loses his cushy staff job and has to rejoin his regiment. All the while trying to stay one rank ahead of the insane Féraud, lower ranking officers aren't allow to duel senior officers. (Must have been a movie thing, I'm pretty sure the Emperor didn't want his officers killing each other, regardless of their respective ranks.)

Féraud always catches up, d'Huber makes captain, Féraud makes captain, the duels continue until shortly after Waterloo. The aftermath of the final duel sees Féraud bereft of his Emperor and his perceived honor. That's him in that opening screen shot. His life, his reason for being is over, he faces an uncertain future.

What triggered this post was my hunt for interesting topics in history to blog about. A search for graphics (photos, paintings, whatever I can use without falling afoul of the copyright lawyers) led me to this painting -

La rendición de Bailén - José Casado del Alisal
(Source)
In July of 1808 a battle took place which sounded the death knell of the First French Empire of Napoléon. A French Imperial army, under Général de division Pierre Dupont was defeated in the field. By, of all people, the Spanish. It was the beginning of the end for Napoléon.

While I was researching the circumstances of the battle and the unfortunate General Dupont, an old memory popped up. Which tickled a couple of brain cells into colliding and recalling the film, The Duellists. Why?
As a young officer in Napoleon's Army, Dupont was ordered to deliver a disagreeable message to a fellow officer, Fournier, a rabid duellist. Fournier, taking out his subsequent rage on the messenger, challenged Dupont to a duel. This sparked a succession of encounters, waged with sword and pistol, that spanned decades. The contest was eventually resolved when Dupont was able to overcome Fournier in a pistol duel, forcing him to promise never to bother him again. (Source)
Art imitating life...
Dupont was the model for Armand d'Huber, played by Keith Carradine in the film. Over a period of roughly 20 years, Dupont de l’Étang fought a series of more than 20 duels with his fellow officer, the particularly quarrelsome Fournier, nicknamed by the Spaniards el demonio (Gabriel Féraud, in the film, and played by Harvey Keitel). (Source)
As for the character of Féraud? Also based on a real person, a fellow who was noted for his bad temper, a real mauvais tête as Colonel Elting might have said. (Read Swords Around a Throne, brilliant!) Meet Général de division François Fournier-Sarlovèze:
They (Dupont and Fournier) fought their first duel in 1794 from which Fournier demanded a rematch. This rematch resulted in at least another 30 duels over the next 19 years in which the two officers fought mounted, on foot, with swords, rapiers, sabres and pistols. Again deprived of his rank because of financial dishonesty and illegal absences, he was reinstated once more and became the aide-de-camp of General Pierre Augereau. Involved in the curious affair of Donnadieu and suspected of conspiracy against the First Consul, Fournier was arrested in May 1802, and imprisoned in the Temple, and later in Périgueux under house arrest. (Source)
Not a chap known for "playing well with others" was he?

Anyway, if you have a chance, see the movie. It evokes the time period very well, and as you watch it remember, those were two real men, officers! Not the kind of behavior one would see these days. Though I wonder, society might be a bit more civil if dueling was still a thing.




34 comments:

  1. I believe that the 1st Amendment loses a bit without the duel. "Why, yes you can say anything about anybody.... But you best be ready to meet at dawn with your second if he takes offense." That is what's missing from the equation.

    Can you imagine the duel between the mad hatter and General Kelly? It would be excellent, and brief. (I figure the President would let his second stand in for him)..... hmmmm....

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    1. Sounds like a good pay per view event!

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  2. Can you imagine what it would be like if every perceived insult were solved in such a manner today?
    Just think of the money that could be made running the concessions at the dueling ground (HSWHTPFIHC).

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    1. I hadn't thought of the profit angle.

      ;)

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  3. Never even heard of this movie. Might just have to seek it out. Thanks.
    STxAR makes a pretty good point. People might just choose their words a bit more thoughtfully.

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    1. It's why the Japanese evolved to be a very polite people. In the days of the samurai, one wrong word and your head might be rolling in the dirt.

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    2. It is also why our forefathers perfected the art of debate, to take the sting out of discussions amongst themselves that would result in a potential duel, or back-alley blackjacking, depending on the strength of the men involved.

      Tavern debates, town hall discussions, over-the-fence arguments used to be the American way of life, with the participants knowing to keep a civil tongue in their heads lest a fight, deul, feud, ass-pounding, farm-burning or other not-nice-thing occur, accidentally, of course. Not no more in these fallen days.

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  4. I guess I've led a sheltered life but I've never heard of this movie. I like the two actors you mentioned. And I agree with Juvat, STxAR makes a good point. As Robert Heinlein said "An armed society is a polite society." (mostly)

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    1. Heinlein was a smart guy!

      (See the movie, I think you'll like it.)

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  5. How many duels? Brings to mind the words of Wyatt Earp, "Speed is fine, accuracy is final".

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    1. The final duel in the movie proves Wyatt's theory.

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    2. Or, as the movie "Rob Roy" shows, Cut through beats Cut to.

      To stop someone you need to cut through the target, which takes more (miniscule but still there) time than to do surface cuts. Blade version of shooting someone with something starting with .4 instead of .25ACP. Ask me how I know, hur-hur-hur.

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    3. A cut can be bloody and painful, but not immediately disabling. A thrust through the body tends to dissuade one's opponent from continuing.

      That being said, heavy cavalry were taught to thrust and their sword reflected that doctrine, heavy with a sharp point, the edge not being that important. I own a French cuirassier sword from the French Second Empire (reproduction) while you can slash with that instrument, it's cumbersome and not as effective as the straight thrust. With the weight of an armored horseman on a large horse, that thrust was very effective.

      On the other hand, light cavalry (which the hussars were) tended to use curved swords and were taught to both cut and thrust. A curved blade, sharp at the tip with a sharp edge, expertly handled would cause a lot of severe injuries on the battlefield. Heads and arms particularly susceptible to being "lopped off."

      Unarmored cavalry would wear their rolled cloaks across their shoulder, diagonally across the body, in an attempt to protect themselves from the cut. Fairly effective actually.

      Sword play on horseback is something of an art form. One of the reasons for the great expense of cavalry (besides the cost of the horse) was the amount of training required to make a really good horse soldier. Not a guy who rode to battle then dismounted to fight (technically a dragoon), but a man who could fight effectively from horseback. Along with the many duties of cavalrymen - skirmishing, scouting, screening, being used en masse in battle - the horse soldier had to take care of his mount before seeing to his own needs. All that took a lot of training.

      Yes, I have a thing for cavalry. The true ancestors of the fighter pilot, especially the light cavalry, in particular the hussar.

      Hhmm, I feel a post on cavalry coming on...

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    4. Cavalry is very interesting, but I was, in my fumbling way, trying to describe the difference between 'First Blood' and 'To the Death!' First blood requires better speed and control than your opponent in order to get any hit that results in first blood. Killing, on the other hand, requires one to either push-through on the lunge, or hack through on the cut. Very different. Like tossing katana moves against broadsword. Very different, for different results.

      I am many much more versed on medieval cavalry tactics, and how they relate to infantry. Heavy, Medium and Light, and all their specific uses, equipment and mounts. I am much more suited to heavy horse (or foot), but can do Medium or Light, if necessary.

      Geeks. There be geeks here...

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    5. You might not be clumsy Andrew, I am oft as thick as a post.

      Thanks for the clarification.

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    6. And I am really looking to your future possible post on Napoleonic cavalry tactics. One of my first forays into epic exposition on someone else's blog was when I explained, on harryflashman's blog, about the difference between light, heavy and medium cavalry (as per medieval and early 'renaissance' style warfare (before the gun.) I am curious to see how the harness of the medieval war-fighter transitions to the later styles.

      Now you got my 'curious' up. Hmmmmm.... Write, dammit!

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    7. I have a few links to older posts in Saturday's post. Hope that's what you were looking for.

      (One of them concerns the differences between light, medium, and heavy cavalry in the Napoleonic Era.)

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  6. While a serving officer, I often thought that dueling would solve a lot of problems. More's the pity that it's frowned upon. Still, after hours, fists or you're yellow did happen at times.

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    1. I understand why it's frowned upon, but it would settle certain things. And make for a more civil society.

      Out behind the barracks, no rank, seems primitive, but damn it, it was effective.

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    2. There are matters of honor and slanders that need to be dealt with expeditiously or they infect the unit and the cohesion of the capacity of everyone to work together. I've done Roman candles at ten paces on the beach as a sop to political correctness and broken teeth. It's amazing how that reduces the tension.

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  7. Thanks for the post. You are back on form, I see.

    Paul L. Quandt

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  8. An interesting post. Going to try to watch this film per your recommendation.

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    1. Let me know what you think. I need to watch it again.

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  9. I read of the duels in History Of The Duel, then read Joseph Conrad's story based on that, then saw the movie and was very pleased not to see a good story messed up. All too many screenwriters seem to think that there's no story that they can't make much, much better! Napoleon is said to have commented that he never knew a really good officer who was an avid duelist. While I don't know about the French Army's regulations, C.S.Forester says that the Royal Navy forbade challenges from a junior to a senior officer. I expect Conrad had it right in the scene where D'Hubert is being advised to seek advancement and trust the Emperor.

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    1. Yes, Sir Ridley did a fine job.

      (I've got to track down Mr Conrad's tale.)

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    2. It is sure to be full of Belgium Emo stuff, as Conrad is wont to do. All those Gloomy Goths in the Congo...

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  10. I bought, read, and enjoyed Swords Around The Throne, on the reccomendation of someone I trust on the subject.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)