Truth in Adversaries: Ridley Scott's the Duellists and Joseph Conard's "The Duel"

By Collins, Richard | Studies in the Humanities, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Truth in Adversaries: Ridley Scott's the Duellists and Joseph Conard's "The Duel"


Collins, Richard, Studies in the Humanities


He felt an irrational tenderness towards his old adversary and appreciated emotionally the murderous absurdity their encounter had introduced into his life.

-- Joseph Conrad, "The Duel"

The Duellists is not an art film. While I was shooting it I thought of it as a western.

-- Ridley Scott

When Joseph Conrad and Ridley Scott compared their earliest work in fiction and film to adversarial conflicts, each used a metaphor common to his time, the pen as sword for Conrad, and the camera as gun for Scott. Conrad called the pen "the cold steel of our days" and constructed an epic simile for the scattered results of his early writing attempts, comparing the manuscript pages to the wounded on a battlefield: "There were pages of MS. on the table and under the table ... living pages, pages scored and wounded, dead pages that would be burned at the end of the day -- the litter of a cruel battle-field, of a long, long desperate fray ... I felt, somehow, as grimy as a Costaguana lepero after a day's fighting in the streets, rumpled all over and disheveled down to my very heels" (A Personal Record, 147-8, 163-4). Scott's metaphor for filmmaking is apparent when he says that when he was "shooting" his first feature film The Duellists (1978), based on Conrad's novella "The Duel" (1907), he was thinking of it not as an art film but as a western. (1)

Scott's other films, especially Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma & Louise (1991), suggest that he was drawn to "The Duel" for two reasons. First, since its centerpiece, the custom of dueling, was an historical anachronism at the dawn of the twentieth century, Conrad was able to deal with dueling with an authorial distance combined of ridicule and respect, humor and awe, an attitude that we might identify now as Conrad's "modernism," and that, with some adjustments, fits Scott's ironic postmodern sensibility. Second, dueling -- and duality -- has been a central motif in each of Scott's subsequent films. The Duellists emphasizes duality as it explores Conrad's motifs of the secret sharer and the Doppelgiinger. Nor does Scott leave Conrad behind after The Duellists. In Alien, for example, which shares characteristics of Conrad's The Shadow Line, the spaceship is called the Nostromo (Robertson, 176). In Blade Runner, duality is treated on an even larger, Blakean scale, putting the larger-than-life hal lucinatory effects of science fiction to mythographic use. Indeed, Scott deliberately misquotes Blake in Blade Runner -- changing "the angels rose" to "the angels fell" -- to suggest that the rising aspirations of the American revolution to which Blake was referring had become the postmodern nightmare of American corporate and technological tyranny. (2) For these reasons, examining The Duellists in relation to "The Duel" throws light on the origins of Scott's vision of the cinematic project in relation to literature, which is, like the relationship between art and commerce, adversarial yet ultimately necessary and fruitful. The light reflected from Scott's revision of Conrad likewise allows us to revisit afresh Conrad's typical concern with dual conflicts, such as art vs. market, restraint vs. violence, self vs. other, and the vision of comic irony vs. that of tragic earnestness.

No matter what period setting Scott chooses, whether in the futuristic Alien and Blade Runner, or in his contemporary feminist road film Thelma & Louise, his commercial and literary expertise are always at work. Having begun his career as a director of television commercials in the 1960s and 1970s, Scott discovered that art and Hollywood could be true friends in opposition. (3) Many of Scott's commercials were "literary" in that the product being pitched was not always obvious; viewers had to "read" the ad carefully to get the point. Scott's attention to the dual aspects of his medium as art and market never allowed him to lose sight of film's double responsibility -- to entertain and enlighten, and to make money -- a marriage of convenience between Horace and Hollywood. …

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