After directing some thousand commercials (even he's not sure of the number) over fifteen years, Ridley Scott finally got the money together to make a feature film. And for only $900,000 he turned out what must be one of the breathtakingly beautiful period films of all time. It looks like it cost $10 mil, easily! The visual are at the same level as Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon"; it's easy to forget you're watching a movie made in the 1970s and fall headlong into this oil portrait of the early 1800s. Scott shows what a visual genius and stylist he is in this first movie, and would prove it with his later classics "Alien," "Blade Runner," and "Gladiator."
The simple plot follows the conflict between two soldiers, played by Keither Carradine and Keitel. The origins of the fight are obscure, and soon neither man remembers the reason for it. But over the years they clash, whittling each other away with sabers and pistols for some concept of "honor" on which they cannot agree.
The duels are pretty spectacular, especially the saber fights. Scott tosses all the old fashioned Hollywood swashbuckler styles out and shows bloody, weighty, and furiously realistic combat. Those sabres really could take your arm right off, and they're heavy.
Keitel, of course, is great in the role, but Carradine is a real surprise, carrying the main role with great pride and seriousness. Plenty of great British character actors are on hand as well, such as Robert Stephens (love that guy's voice!). And Stacy Keach does the narration (an odd move to have American voice, but it works.)
You should see the "Duellists" for the visuals alone -- they're like romantic oil paintings come to life, but it's also a thrilling story with great performances. No wonder Scott was instantly recognized as a new talent and given the director's chair on "Alien"!