It often seems to me that The Duellists (or The Duelists for our friends across the pond) is one of the forgotten classics in historical fiction films. Quite surprisingly, it is directed by Ridley Scott, who is not known for any strive for historical accuracy and who has even stated that he willingly ignores historical details in order to tell a good story. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that he did not see history and the story conflicting in this particular case.
Based on Joseph Conrad's novella The Duel - A Military Tale, the film begins with a duel between lieutenant Gabriel Féraud (Harvey Keitel) and a civilian. In the next scene, another lieutenant, Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine) explores the city of Strasbourg to find Féraud and relate the orders for him to keep a low profile for a while, as the opponent turns out to have been the son of the city mayor. D'Hubert ends up finding Féraud attending a party and the latter takes the interruption as a personal insult and proceeds to challenge d'Hubert into a duel.
It ends up being the first of many duels as Féraud begins to consider the very existence of d'Hubert as an insult towards himself. As the film shows their meetings over the next 16 or so years against the backdrop of Napoleon Bonaparte's campaigns, we learn more and more about the men and their differing ideas of what honour is and how it should direct one's life. Overall, the film follows the original novella very faithfully. The biggest differences are in the details that the viewer gets to know. In the novella, we learn more about the people d'Hubert encounters along the way and we get a longer description of the awful Russian campaign. But, on the other hand, the film gives the duels themselves more focus and the cinematography is, in a word, beautiful.
The biggest changes to the story come towards the end. The film shows us more about d'Hubert's courtship with his future wife, including a memorable proposal scene that is the best such scene that I've ever seen on film. And, as it turns out, the excellence may be more due to a horny horse than the director - although he needs to be praised for his decision to keep the scene rather than get another take. The same authenticity is visible in all the scenes, from the small street-side tavern to all the duelling scenes. The only exception is perhaps the scene where Féraud and d'Hubert slash at each other with their cavalry sabres - and when their blades strike the walls of the room we see sparks flying (the result of a camouflaged chicken wire with a 12 volt charge). But it is a tiny fault in otherwise great film.
It should be said that Ridley Scott himself has admitted that the historical authenticity of the duels was not his aim. Setting them up was the responsibility of the fight choreographer William Hobbs and it is apparently to him that we owe our thanks for some of the best duels we've ever seen on film. Similarly, I suspect that the authentic uniforms and side-locks that Napoleonic soldiers wore in order to protect themselves from sword slashes (which were never mentioned in the novella) owe thanks to the historical adviser, Richard Holmes.
The ending of the film is very different from that of the novella. Both mediums make the point that wars are senseless, but whereas the film ends soon after the last duel, the novella gives us an additional twist that truly shows the difference between the two duellists and their sense of honour.