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The Duellists
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Synopsis for
The Duellists (1977) More at IMDbPro »

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"The Duellists" is based on a story written by Joseph Conrad, which, according to the author, was itself based on a true story whose origins sprang from a ten-line paragraph in a small Southern France local newspaper. That brief paragraph reported the fatal ending of a duel between two officers in Napoleon's Grand Army. The two officers had fought a series of duels in the midst of great wars on some futile pretext. As the pretext was never disclosed, Conrad invented one.

We are in 1800, in the garrison town of Strasbourg, on the Rhine. There is a lull in the Napoleonic wars, and the French soldiers are enjoying a moment of peace before resuming the slaughters. As the film opens, a young girl driving a gaggle of geese happens upon two men dueling in a meadow. Lieutenant Gabriel Fraud (Harvey Keitel), from the 7th Hussar Regiment, is in the process of settling a score with an unknown man who soon ends up skewered on the Lieutenant's pe. We learn that this man is the nephew of the Mayor of Strasbourg, and is seriously wounded, when General Treillard (Robert Stephens), Commandant of the garrison, enters his officers quarters and makes inquiries about this Lieutenant Fraud. Lieutenant Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine), from the 4th Hussar Regiment, admits to vaguely knowing the gentleman, and he is immediately "volunteered" by his Commandant to find him and bring him back to the barracks, where he will be put under house arrest. General Treillard, who must see that his soldiers obey the Emperors rules prohibiting combat with civilians, needs to investigate what happened in the meadow. It is somewhat ironical that Bonaparte, who spent a large part of his life dueling with the rest of Europe on a rather grand scale, involving tens of thousand of participants on both sides (but was somewhat of a dilettante when judged by present day's standards), had little respect for the same tradition on an individual level.

D'Hubert, after looking all over town, ends up at Fraud's private quarters, where he learns that the Lieutenant is attending a soire at the salon of Madame de Lionne (Jenny Runacre). At the salon, d'Hubert meets with Fraud and informs him of his mission. Fraud, having judged himself the insulted party in his morning duel, cannot comprehend the reason for his arrest. Further, he determines that d'Hubert has in turn insulted him by bursting into the salon of Madame de Lionne, disturbing him with the General's orders as he was talking to the lady. Fraud immediately challenges d'Hubert to a duel with sabers, which ends when Fraud is wounded. Now, not only has Fraud's forearm been injured, but his wounded pride demands satisfaction.

From then on, for the next fifteen years, Fraud will be obsessed with the idea of settling his dispute with d'Hubert, holding him captive by Frauds tragic, ironic concept of honor.

D'Hubert goes to meet his friend, an army surgeon (Tom Conti), asking his advice on how to get out of this messy situation. The surgeon tells him first, to keep away from Fraud, second, to always stay ahead of Fraud in military rank, since only duels between soldiers of equal ranks are tolerated and third, to rely on Napoleon for keeping the wars going, as there is no dueling during a state of war.

Augsburg, one year later. Lieutenant d'Hubert meets an old girl friend, Laura (Diana Quick), one of the camp followers. She tells him she has an offer of marriage from a one-armed veteran, but they nevertheless resume their relationship. It happens that Lieutenant Fraud is in the same town, and of course they will duel again. Epes, this time. This encounter is not so lucky for d'Hubert, who ends up gravely wounded. Their seconds propose that now the honor of both parties has been saved, but The Duellists both refuse the opportunity for reconciliation. Laura nurses d'Hubert back to health, but after a face-to-face with Fraud and a subsequent consultation with a fortuneteller, she realizes that these duelists will go on until one of them is killed. If it is d'Hubert who is to die, she cannot see any future in their relationship. She decides to leave him and go and marry the disabled ex-soldier.

Captain Fraud (he caught up in rank with d'Hubert, who was promoted earlier) and Captain d'Hubert meet in a third duel, again with sabers, in a cellar. The two combatants fight to total exhaustion in an inconclusive duel, and eventually, dirty and bleeding, must be separated by their seconds.

Lubeck, 1806. Captain d'Hubert and Captain Fraud duel a fourth time, on horseback. It is Fraud's turn to be wounded, seriously enough to not be able to continue the fight to its conclusion. Laura reappears on the scene. She is now a widow, and had hoped to settle with her ex-lover, Captain d'Hubert, but she sees that this is just wishful thinking. D'Hubert, too involved in this dueling matter, remains deaf to her subtle suggestion that they resume their affair.

Russia, 1812. The Emperor's Grand Army, defeated by the terrible Russian winter and the Russian battle tactics, is in retreat. Colonels Fraud and d'Hubert are now like grunts in the "sacred battalion," consisting of officers of all arms who had no longer any troops to commend. One night, around a campfire, they find themselves again face to face. They silently recognize each other. The next day, Fraud requests a volunteer to go investigate some Cossack activities in the nearby woods. The soldiers are so exhausted and despondent that Fraud had guessed rightly that d'Hubert would be the only one to follow him, with the ulterior motive of finishing their endless confrontation. Far from the camp they come face to face, each with a pair of pistols, but at that moment, a group of Cossacks appears and the two adversaries present a common front to fight them off. Following this, in a gesture of reconciliation, d'Hubert offers Fraud a drink from his hip flask, but the latter disdainfully walks away: "Pistols, next time," he says.

Tour, 1814. Napoleon is in exile on the Island of Elba and the Bourbons are back in power with Louis XVIII. General d'Hubert is convalescing at his sister Leoni's home from a bad leg wound sustained during the campaign in France, fighting the Prussians. She suggests to her brother he ought to get married, and offers to introduce him to Adele (Cristina Raines), the niece of her neighbor, the old aristocrat Chevalier de Riverol (Alan Webb). After a short courtship, the two marry. D'Hubert is visited by a Bonapartist gentleman (Edward Fox), a friend of General Fraud, who tries to recruit him to aid in the planned return of the Emperor, but d'Hubert refuses.

Following the "Hundred Days," the return of Napoleon to French soil, the Emperor is defeated at Waterloo, and definitively exiled to the Island of St. Helena. Louis XVIII is returned to the throne. Many known Bonapartists are arrested, including General Fraud, and these will be executed as examples. Upon hearing the news, d'Hubert meets with the Police Minister of the Second Empire, Fouch, now Duke of Otranto (Albert Finney), and requests Frauds pardon, a request that is granted. D'Hubert asks only that his intervention on Frauds behalf be kept secret.

Having discovered d'Huberts whereabouts, Fraud sends two of his ex-companions in arms to set up yet another, and hopefully, final duel. The Duellists meet at dawn, on d'Hubert's property, with pistols. Two shots each, fire at will. D'Hubert gets to fire the last shot, but instead of killing Fraud, he fires a bullet into the ground, and with this gesture becomes the rightful owner's of Fraud's life: "I shall simply declare you dead," says d'Hubert. The final scene shows Fraud, from the back, standing on a bluff overlooking the Dordogne River winding through the beautiful valley below. He stands wearing a two-pointed cocked hat and a long black, straight military capote, reminiscent of his Emperor's portraits on the Island of St. Helena - could it be "le petit caporal" (the little corporal), the Emperor himself, humiliated and defeated? It is the "end of the road" for Fraud: finally at peace, as he meditates on what has been his life.

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