Harvey, the Haughty Hussar

|Alex Kies|

Feraud (Harvey Keitel), a light-skinned, brown-haired man with a mustache and two skinny hair braids, is sitting down with a person on his right whose face is obscured by Feraud's hand. He is wearing a white shirt with a thick black collar, and looking slightly off-camera.

The Duellists plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, March 24th, through Tuesday, March 26th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

In 1977, two years after Stanley Kubrick released Barry Lyndon, Ridley Scott made his filmmaking debut with The Duelists, his own artfully shot Napoleonic epic about the inner lives of petty European men played by incongruously cast Americans.

Last year, Scott made an Oscar-bait return to the Napoleonic Era (and the year before that to dueling among the French aristocracy in The Last Duel) with NapoleonNapoleon works on the level of spectacular entertainment, but if you want a Ridley Scott film that actually provides some insight into the era, at less than half the runtime, The Duelists is the way to go.

The Duelists is based on the 1908 novella The Duel by Joseph Conrad, a dramatization of the legendary series of 30 duels across 19 years between Pierre Dupont de l’Étang and François Louis Fournier-Sarlovèze. 

The story begins in 1800, just after Napoleon installed himself as First Counsel and shocked the world by repelling allied forces from France’s eastern border at the Battle of Marengo. During some downtime in Strasbourg, the ersatz Fournier, Feraud (Harvey Keitel), kills the mayor’s son in a duel, and the ersatz Dupont, D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), is given the unlucky assignment of summoning Feraud for a tribunal, which he does in front of a lady Feraud is romancing. Embarrassed, Feraud impugns D’Hubert’s honor, D’Hubert takes a tone with him, and so begins the blood feud.

One of Napoleon’s great strengths was a canny understanding of mythmaking, and his rivals, subordinates, and biographers (and Ridley Scott) have followed suit. Either in spite or because of his own memoirs and exhaustive correspondence, the cottage industry of memoirists in his orbit, and the thousands of subsequent biographies (second only to Jesus), he’s a total mystery. Like Napoleon’s motivations, what drives the characters in The Duelists has a simple answer that doesn’t tell you anything.

D’Hubert and Feraud personify conflicting aspects within French society that theoretically had been resolved by or subsumed within either the fall of the ancien régime, The Revolution, Reign of Terror, or Napoleon’s rise to power.

Napoleon’s Grande Armée FKA the Revolutionary Army was the most Democratic fighting force in Europe. But within that massive interfaith and interclass organization, there inevitably remained divisions between cavalry and artillery, non-commissioned officers and infantrymen, Catholics and Protestants.

D’Hubert is a Protestant northerner, a veteran of the Bourbon army, a survivor of the Great Terror, content to benefit from Bonapartism. Feraud is a proud southern Gascon, an avowed Jacobin (as Napoleon had been), a devoted Bonapartist. Feraud repeatedly rages that D’Hubert “never loved the Emperor.” Feraud is far more passionate than D’Hubert but no less vain.

Both men are Hussars, an elite subtype of light cavalry. Think Top Gun with horses and outlandish costumes. They proclaimed themselves in one of their marching songs to be “in every land, dearly beloved by the wife, hated by the husband.”

Their ornate uniforms featured jangling oversized spurs sabres and outrageous waxed mustaches and pigtails, or cadenettes, an ensemble which made “the most downy-lipped hobbledehoy into the likeness of a hero and confirmed breaker of female hearts.”1 Recruits wore horsehair cadenettes and boot-polish mustaches while their own grew out.

They were more than mere himbos, however. The cavalry led charges and countered them, defended flanks and served as rear guards, and suffered high casualties as a result. Celebrity cavalry general Antoine De Lasalle once said, “A cavalryman who is not dead by 30 is a blaggard.” De Lasalle must have been relieved to finally die at the Battle of Wagram at the advanced age of 34.

Dueling was second nature to a bunch of casanovas living each day like their last, although it was by no means limited to Hussar culture or the French military. Napoleon, in contrast to his English nemeses, outlawed corporal punishment in his army and navy, and likewise forbade dueling. He compared the professional duelist to a cannibal, and much preferred his officers inflict casualties upon the enemy than each other. Feraud’s real-world analogue Fournier was so cannibalistic that Napoleon had him stripped of his commission.

In The Duelists, it is D’Hubert’s political acumen—precisely what Feraud hates most about him—that saves Feraud’s bacon. During the First Bourbon Restoration, Feraud skulks around Paris in his bicorn hat and revolutionary garb where everyone around him, D’Hubert included, is pulling their Pre-Revolution finery out of mothballs. Feraud’s unflinching allegiance to the Emperor has him marked for political imprisonment and execution.

D’Hubert goes to ask for intercession from Joseph Fouche (Albert Finney), who, unlike Dupont and Fournier, is a historical figure who appears in the novella and movie under his real name. Fouche was a political animal. He had moved from a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker within the regime to serving as the Directory’s secret police chief, digging up dirt for the Great Terror. After 18 Brumaire, Fouche obtained a commission in Napoleon’s ministry running domestic intelligence operations and foiling assassination attempts. With the Bourbons restored, Fouche offered his services purging the most avowed Bonapartists from prominent positions.

Fouche is the ultimate operator, a dark mirror of D’Hubert’s survival impulse, the apotheosis of the nonideological actors Feraud hates so much, and being spared by this political maneuver is the greatest humiliation.

And so, Feraud challenges D’Hubert to one last hurrah, just as Napoleon is making one last go of it in his Hundred Days. And as Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, Feraud is defeated not by death, but by the final indignity: exile. 

Feraud is not stripped of his commission like his real-life equivalent, but is likewise consigned to live the rest of his life with his honor besmirched and under house arrest, like his beloved Emperor. The final shot of the film shows Keitel’s Feraud staring out at a sunset, consciously imitative of Franz Josef Sandmann’s famous painting Napoleon on Saint Helena (1820).

D’Hubert on the other hand, enjoys retirement that recalls the landed gentry lifestyle that had driven France to the brink decades earlier, which mirrors France’s attempts to synthesize the prestige and gentility of the ancien régime with the egalitarian impulses of the Napoleonic code. 

  1. John R. Elting, Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon’s Grande Armée, p. 240. ↩︎

Edited by Finn Odum

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