The film's source short-story by Joseph Conrad was based on a true story of two real life French Hussar officers who regularly fought real duels together during the reign of 'Napoleon Bonaparte'. Nick Evangelista said of this real life story in "The Encyclopedia of the Sword": "As a young officer in Napoleon's Army, Dupont was ordered to deliver a disagreeable message to a fellow officer, Fournier, a rabid duelist. 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."
During the scene where D'Hubert asks Adele to marry him, she starts to laugh. This laughter was not intentional. According to director Ridley Scott, she actually has a hard time keeping a straight face since one of the horses has a huge erection.
According to director Ridley Scott, Paramount gave him a list of four actors to choose from for the two leads, which he had to agree to in order to receive financing. Scott selected Carradine and Keitel, then spent several months trying to convince them to accept the roles.
According to the audio-commentary with director Ridley Scott, this film attempted to mimic the luscious photography of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975) which itself had attempted to emulate the paintings of that film's historical period.
In the Notes for the liner of the soundtrack album, the writer states that both director Ridley Scott and producer David Putnam "were of the same mind about (composer Howard Blake's) score, and requested Blake to write a huge, almost Wagnerian closing composition for the film - stating they would adjust the length of the end credits to whatever Blake wrote."
Ridley Scott said that after having directed anywhere from 1500 to 2000 TV commercials he realized no one was going to approach him about directing a film so he'd have to take the lead. Since his funds were limited he used a public domain source for the story and commissioned the script for this movie on his own.
According to director Ridley Scott, lead actors Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel insisted upon using real saber swords for the sword dueling sequences. The swords used by the French Hussars in the first part of the movie are all English 1798-pattern light cavalry sabers.
Director Ridley Scott once said of the film's central theme: "The one man played by Harvey Keitel is a prisoner of his own hatred. He must kill or be killed. Keith Carradine plays the other man who is honor bound to fight. It is a fascinating story of man's violence within himself".
According to the director's commentary, Albert Finney's payment for playing the Duke of Otrante was a case of champagne. His girlfriend at the time, Diana Quick, was in the movie and suggested him for the role.
Theatrical feature film debut of director Ridley Scott who for this film won the Best First Film Award at the 30th Cannes Film Festival in 1977. The movie was also the first film of cinematographer Frank Tidy as well as the first cinema movie of actor Pete Postlethwaite who played the small role of a man shaving General Treillard.
The Joseph Fouché character in this film (played by Albert Finney) was the First French Duc d'Otrante, this title is often known in English translations as the Duke of Otranto. The characters of Armand D'Hubert and Gabriel Feraud in this film and its source 'Joseph Conrad' short-story had names which were slightly altered by Conrad from the real life duelist Hussars who inspired the characters. They were called Pierre-Antoine comte Dupont de l'Étang and François Louis Fournier-Sarlovèze respectively. As such, in short, Dupont became D'Hubert and Fournier became Feraud.
The duelists that the film's dueling lead characters were based on fenced their first duel in the year of 1794. The loser gentlemanly demanded a rematch. However, there was not just one more duel, there were thirty more conducted over nearly the next twenty years after. The two officers fought in a variety of ways: both horse mounted and on foot, and with sabres, rapiers and swords.
D'Hubert wears the uniform of the 3rd Hussars regiment whilst Feraud wears that of the 7th. There were as many as twelve regiments of Hussars in the Naploeonic army at its height. Their role as light cavalry was mainly scouting and skirmishing. They regarded themselves as the elite of the cavalry, although many saw them as reckless wild cards. Their colourful uniforms and glamorous, devil-may-care attitude was attractive to the ladies and consequently they also had reputations for licentious behaviour that often preceded them. They were renowned for their fighting spirit and fiercely guarded code of honour. The film captures all of these elements to various degrees.
This film was made and released about sixty-nine years after its source short story "The Duel: A Military Story" (aka "The Point of Honour") by Joseph Conrad was first published in 1908. The story was serialized in 1908 in Britain's 'Pall Mall Magazine' and in the same year in the USA under the title "The Point of Honor" in the periodical 'Forum'. It was also in 1908 collected as part of the 'A Set of Six' anthology and this was published in 1924.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Because Harvey Keitel insisted on throwing aside his pistol at the end of that duel, Ridley Scott had to provide mattresses and prop men underneath and out of view of the action in order to protect the pistols from damage, since they were antiques and the most expensive props of the entire production, costing about 17,000 pounds apiece. (Source: director's commentary)