En garde: Carradine offers 'shocking' details from 'The Duellists'

In The Duellists, a French Hussar (Keith Carradine) insults a fellow soldier (Harvey Keitel) during the Napoleonic Wars. For years afterward, they engage in a series of brutal duels, driven by the injured party’s fanatical sense of honor.  

The 1977 film marked a major star turn for Carradine, as well as the directorial debut of Ridley Scott, who went on to make the now-classic Blade Runner.  

Virginia Film Festival director Jody Kielbasa calls The Duellists “a wonderful film that is often overlooked... Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel turn in bravura performances and the fight scenes are breathtaking.”

Speaking with the Hook recently, Carradine, 63, reveals that initially, he turned his role down repeatedly. Finally, while talking with Scott, Carradine says, the director told him, “‘Keith, we’re shooting the film in the Bourgogne region of France.’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Think of the food.’”

The cuisine did it. Carradine was in.

Carradine watched Scott meticulously construct The Duellists. “There was no aspect, no frame of that film over which he did not have control,” Carradine recalls. The film “really was like a painting,” Carradine enthuses. “I mean, every frame of that film is like a Vermeer...

“And, at the same time, [Scott] was just a delightful guy.”

Typically laconic and affable, Carradine perfectly offset the explosive Harvey Keitel onscreen. “It was very smart casting,” Carradine says, “in terms of each of our demeanors and energies that we brought to the set.”

Keitel is “just brilliant,” he continues. “He’s like a wound-up spring... and I can’t imagine anyone better cast for a role than that.”   

For the most part, the film’s grueling sword fights were fought with actual sabers. Lightweight sabers made for the film were seldom used because “you couldn’t wield them with enough heft for it to look authentic,” says Carradine.

Sparks enhanced the duels’ realism, an effect that involved wiring the sets’ walls and running wires up the actors’ pant legs and sleeves into their swords. “It was very effective,” Carradine says. “You had to be careful–  every once in a while, I got a little jolt.”

An Academy Award-winner and nominee for numerous other awards, Carradine’s recent work includes a recurring role on TV’s Deadwood as Wild Bill Hickok and an upcoming Broadway show.

In hindsight 35 years later, Carradine describes The Duellists as a “neo-classic– a cult classic.” Though it received rave reviews, initially, “It did no business,” he recalls.

“But it did have a cult success and that has endured,” he says. “And as time has passed, it has taken on this well-deserved aura of being a kind of seminal work... That’s all Ridley Scott.”

Keith Carradine will host a screening of The Duellists at 2pm Saturday, November 3, at the Regal 4 on the Downtown Mall.

1 comment

Good flick; based on "The Duel," a story by Joseph Conrad.