Cover of The Duellists
Whatever happened to Ridley Scott? He's not everbody's favourite film-maker, but I reckon he's made some crackers, particularly early on. Alien is as good a sci-fi movie as you're ever going to see, Bladerunner, a cult movie in anyone's book, and the likes of Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster are pretty good movies too. Once upon a time he was a director whose movies I looked forward to seeing.
Other than Alien my favourite movie of his was his very first, The Duellists. It's a great movie based upon a Joseph Conrad story about two officers in Napoleon's army who fight a series of duels over the span of 20 years in different countries and through the rise, fall, and temporary return of Napoleon. He was an inknown director at the time and he cast as his two leads a couple of less fashionable actors – Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine – who proved very effective. Though it was his first go-round as a big movie director the film had stylistic imprint of Scott – beautiful to look at, lovely composed scenes, rich attention to detail. In the years to come that was to become his hallmark, and what made his films so distinctive.
I couldn't help but thinking of The Duellists as last night I watched Robin Hood, his latest movie. Somewhere in between he lost it big time. Though it looked lush The Duellists was a small movie by an untried director. It was, in a sense, a boutique movie, if not quite an art film. It had the broad sweep of Scott's work, but was held together by small parts and rich characters. None of this is evident in Robin Hood.
Robin Hood stands in many ways as symbolic of his decline as a film-maker. It is both over-blown and bloated, and pretty shallow. A lot of Ridley Scott's stuff is borderline pretentious, but for the most part he has tread on the right side of the line. Not so in this case. The writer – Brian Helgeland – has done much better stuff. Quite aside from the blatant re-writing of legend and history – unacceptably so in my book – it is the fine sounding but meaningless rhetoric that had me groaning as if I was listening to an American presidential speech.
Overlong, tedious and uninvolving is my final verdict on the movie. If I was giving it stars I might give it one and a half out of five. I'm dead-set certain too that the Ridley Scott of 30 years ago would have made a much different film of it, shorter, tighter, more compelling.
I'm prepared to write this off. He's made some clunkers in recent years, yet I still think he has it in him to re-create the sort of compelling screen experience he has in the past. I hope so – he's now working on Alien 5, which is something to look forward to.
- The Duellists: it takes two to tangle (guardian.co.uk)