“The Duellists”. Joseph Conrad vs Ridley Scott

Adriana Prodeus

Honour is something indescribable and undeniable. It is also something possessed by the heroes of “The Duellists”, Ridley Scott’s feature-length film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “The Duel”. The short story is about a duel that begins over a trifle, and then is carried on over the years in different places and fought using a variety of different weapons. The absurd humour in which the antagonists are caught up as a consequences of words spoken long ago, the ever-tightening ties that bind them, their delight in the wounds they deliver and receive, turns what a first seems like a tale of war into a story of love between two men. Is it not thrilling to watch as Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) imbibes Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) with is dogged persistence? The insatiability of the clash between them, the continuing demand for satisfaction is bewildering. And yet, on another level, this light, charming comedy is frightening in the way it shows how a random individual can determine our destiny.
The nearly 100-page story was originally published serially by Conrad in 1909 in the U.K. in “Pall Mall Magazine” and in the U.S. in “Forum” (under the title “Point of Honor”), and then included in the volume “A Set of Six” in 1924, when it was also issued in Polish. When praised for how accurately he portrayed the Napoleonic era, Conrad said “I was trying to capture in my small net: the Spirit of the Epoch – never purely militarist in the long clash of arms, youthful, almost childlike in its exaltation of sentiment – naively heroic in its faith.” Interestingly, he did not think the story was a good one, writing: “Personally I have no qualms of conscience about this piece of work. The story might have been better told of course. All one’s work might have been better done; but this is the sort of reflection a worker must put aside courageously if he doesn’t mean every one of his conceptions to remain for ever a private vision, an evanescent reverie. How many of those visions have I seen vanish in my time! This one, however, has remained, a testimony, if you like, to my courage or a proof of my rashness.”
Conrad took the idea for the story from a paragraph in a French provincial newspaper that referred to a well-known anecdote concerning two officers from Napoleon’s army. He expressed it, however, in a typically Polish tradition – the Sarmatian ethos of the rankling of wounded pride, the need to defend one’s good name at all costs. In “The Duel” he mocks a system of values that many recognize today as Poles’ national weakness.
In Poland, duels were fought since the Middle Ages. Killing in the name of honour was permitted under Magdeburg law and there was a fashion for throwing down one’s glove during the reign of King Stanislaus Augustus. It had arrived from France, by way of Germany, and took a heavy toll in terms of lives (in the early 17th century, 30,000 people were killed in duels in France, as many as died in the wars of that era). To be killed in a duel was regarded as one of the most noble deaths, and in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries many famous names lost their lives in them (Pushkin and Lermontov, among others, were killed by their opponents in duels).
Well known is the story of the journalist and writer Walery Łoziński, who in 1860 fought a duel with sabres with his editorial colleague Karol Cieszewski. The cause of the fight – Aniela Przyłęcka – worked with the two men in the Academic Library in Lwów. The course of their story follows that of Conrad’s: wounded in the temple, Łoziński caught an infection and meningitis after a wound from a previous duel (with Jan Dobrzański) opened up. On his deathbed, he learned about the death of his closest friend Bruno Bielawski during a duel with pistols, and closed his eyes forever.
The tradition of duelling originally grew out of the sport of fencing. During such fights, there dogged devotion was paid to medical hygiene, with blades being disinfected beforehand, but this was inconsistent with their aesthetics: various bits were sliced off, and beautiful scars remained afterwards. Women also fought duels – over their lovers (such as when one Margravine cut off the tip of her rival’s ear). Opponents shot at each other standing next to one another at the bottom of a freshly-dug grave, and muskets were fired from a balloon at the passenger of a second balloon floating parallel. And all this was done in order to regain one’s honour.
The history of duelling is a history of the absurd.
Adriana Prodeus
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A lecture, film and discussion afterwards will be held October 2 at 8 p.m. in Lalka Hall, Dolnoslaskie Centrum Filmowe (ul. Pilsudskiego, Wroclaw)