In 1800, as Napoleon Bonaparte rises to power in France, a rivalry erupts between Armand and Gabriel, two lieutenants in the French Army, over a perceived insult. For over a decade, they engage in a series of duels amidst larger conflicts, including the failed French invasion of Russia in 1812, and shifts in the political and social systems of Europe.
ActorsStarring: Keith Carradine, Harvey Keitel, Albert Finney, Robert Stephens, Tom Conti, John McEnery, Diana Quick, Alun Armstrong, Cristina Raines, Edward Fox, Stacy Keach, Maurice Colbourne, Dave Hill, Gay Hamilton, Meg Wynn Owen, Jenny Runacre, Alan Webb, Pete Postlethwaite, Stacy Keach
Ridley Scott’s debut as director is a historical drama, based on a Joseph Conrad story, set in the time of Napoleon. An impetuous hussar lieutenant Feraud (played by Harvey Keitel) stabs the son of an influential mayor in a duel, and another lieutenant d’Hubert (played by Keith Carradine) is sent to arrest him. Keitel’s character, rather than returning to barracks, challenges his arresting officer to a duel instead, though both survive the encounter.
The film follows the bizarre obsession over supposed honour, as the two young men rise in the ranks and, as the Napoleonic wars proceed, stumble into each other every few years, with Feraud challenging d’Hubert to a duel on every occasion, to the increasing irritation of d’Hubert, who cannot see the point of this ongoing feud yet feels obliged to meet Feraud in combat each time rather than lose face. On the positive side, the costumes are impeccably researched, the framing of scenes hints at Scott’s later painterly style in this regard, and the cast is top notch, with an especially good performance by Diana Quick as d’Hubert’s lover. On the other hand, the script does not bother to explain Feraud’s bizarre obsession with duelling and with d’Hubert, and so other than a comment on the absurdity of male machismo and honour the audience is left in the dark as to what the point of it all is. d’Hubert gains a grudging respect for Veraud as they are forced to fight together in the misery of the retreat from Moscow, but that is about the extent of the character development.
For me the plot just limps along from duel to duel without really developing, and other than the odd cameo by assorted fine actors there is little to get engaged by. I am a fan of Scott but this felt to me like a stylish but lumbering start to his career.