Notes on cinematographic duels

The adventures of cape and sword novels are made for the screen.

Duel au cinéma

In fact, these stories don't require much retouching for their adaptation to the film world. Everything about them is already cinematographic: the hero, intrigue, action and, or course, the duel. Film makers have employed their talent and their imagination to create some of the most unforgettable moments in film, credible or comic, exciting and always different in order to attract the filmgoer, who rediscovers the magic in each new film. For, sword combat always delivers when it comes to emotion, heroism and the eternal struggle between good and evil. 

The fencing duel

This is the ideal duel from a technical point of view. The two actors are skilled swordsmen because they are actually trained in the art of fencing. All that remains is to film the choreography. in The Mark of Zorro, the confrontation between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone remains a prefect example of this kind of duel. The positions and the movements of each actor are filmed in close quarters, with their crossing swords in the focus. This close-up brings intensity to the action. 

Le signe de Zorro (The Mark of Zorro)
The Mark of Zorro (in french: Le Signe de Zorro) - 1940
Film by Rouben Mamoulian, with Tyrone Power (Don diego de la Vega / Zorro), Linda Darnell (Lolita Quintero) and Basil Rathbone (Capitaine Esteban Pasquale)

The duel as spectacle

In contrast to the fencing duel, this kind of duel takes place in a wide, open space, ringed with spectators whose reactions dictate the pace of the combat. In El Cid, the spectacle takes the form of a judicial duel of the Middle Ages, beginning as a joust and ending in hand-to-hand combat. Even if Charlton Heston is the hero, and we assume that he will emerge victorious, the combat is sequenced in such a way as to leave a little doubt ... and suspense! The spectacle-duel is violent, emotionally-charged and a real cliffhanger.

Le Cid (El Cid)
El Cid (in french: Le Cid) - 1961
Film by Anthony Mann, with Charlton Heston (Rodrigue or "Le Cid"), Sophia Loren (Chimène), Raf Vallone (Comte Ordóñez) and Geneviève Page (Princesse Urraca).

The comic duel

Often, film makers inject a healthy dose of humour into the duelling scenes in order to bring a little levity or comic relief. It's also a useful tactic when the actors are not skilled swordsmen or when the filmgoer already knows the story. In one adaptation of The Three Musketeers, the film maker used Gene Kelly's talent as a dancer to reinterpret a well-known duel and surprise the audience through comedy. 

Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) 1948
The Three Musketeers (in french: Les Trois Mousquetaires) - 1948
Film by George Sidney, with Gene Kelly (D'Artagnan), Lana Turner (Milady de Winter), June Allyson (Constance Bonacieux) and Vincent Price (Cardinal de Richelieu).

Duelling women

The appearance of women in a duel is another cinematographic device, simply because the audience doesn't expect to see a woman in this role. Playing with our preconceptions, film makers often throw women into the combat, skirts flying, while emphasizing the character's humanity (The Daughter of d'Artagnan with Sophie Marceau) or her power of seduction (The Mask of Zorro with Catherine Zeta-Jones). Without forgetting that little point of eroticism that flusters the audience as much as it does the villain. 

Le Masque de Zorro (The Mask of Zorro) 1998
The Mask of Zorro (in french: Le Masque de Zorro) - 1998
Film by Martin Campbell, with Catherine Zeta-Jones (Elena Montero / Elena de la Vega), Antonio Banderas (Alejandro Murrieta / Second Zorro) and Anthony Hopkins (Don Diego de la Vega / Premier Zorro), 
La fille de d'Artagnan 1994
The Daughter of d'Artagnan (La fille de d'Artagnan) - 1994
Film by Bertrand Tavernier, with Sophie Marceau (Éloïse d'Artagnan), Philippe Noiret (d'Artagnan) and Sami Frey (Aramis).

The secret weapon

A duel wouldn't be a duel without a secret weapon. There's the secret weapon passed down from father to son, as in Cyrano and d'Artagnan, that allows the hero to triumph over a formidable adversary. There is also the famous secret weapon "Of Nevers", invented by Paul Féval in The Hunchback, which is one of the great moments in film history. 

La botte de Cyrano
Cyrano's secret weapon
La botte de Nevers
The secret weapon "Of Nevers"

Location, location!

In this type of duel, a third person invites itself into the scene: the location. This element plays an important role because it adds to the suspense and can actually change the outcome of the combat. This is especially true when it comes to the final duel. In the swashbuckling movie Scaramouche, it was said that the opera in which the duel took place transformed the combat into a theatre within the theatre. For the final duel of Capitan, the medieval castle is the ideal backdrop: grand stairways, battlements and the tower from which the villain plummets to his death, vanquished at last. 

Scaramouche - 1952
Film by George Sidney, with Stewart Granger (André Moreau / Scaramouche), Janet Leigh (Aline de Gavrillac de Bourbon) and Eleanor Parker (Léonore).
Le Capitan 1960
Capitan (Le Capitan) - 1960
Film by André Hunebelle, with Jean Marais (François de Cremazingue de Capestang, alias Le Capitan), Bourvil (Cogolin), Elsa Martinelli (Gisèle d'Angoulême) and Pierrette Bruno (Giuseppa).

Silent duel, talkative duel

Because the duel has no need of words to be understood, it was an ideal sequence for the silent movies of the early years of the last century. Visually, the audience has the whole story in front of it: the hero, the stakes and the villain. Douglas Fairbanks, an accomplished gymnast, made the form of his speciality. He is still remembered for his role of d'Artagnan and his duelling scenes in the Three Musketeers are as unforgettable as they are outdated.

But the duel can also play the supporting role to the dialogue. When a well-placed word punctuates a sword thrust, it becomes masterful, as in Cyrano de Bergerac.

Les Trois Mousquetaires (The Three Musketeers) 1921
The Three Musketeers (in french: Les Trois Mousquetaires) - 1921
Silent film by Fred Niblo, with Douglas Fairbanks (D'Artagnan).

The eternal duel

Just like diamonds, duels are forever, because they always enhance the image of the hero. Think of James Bond in Die Another Day. The duelling scene is unexpected and seems out of place in a twenty-first century spy movie. But the scene reminds us that James Bond is a modern chevalier, serving her Majesty the Queen and, as such, it is only normal that he knows how to handle a sword.

Meurs un autre jour (Die Another Day) - 2002
Die Another Day (in french: Meurs un autre jour) - 2002
Film by Lee Tamahori, with Pierce Brosnan (Jame Bond 007), Halle Berry (Giacinta "Jinx" Johnson), Toby Stephens (Gustav Graves)  and Rosamund Pike (Miranda Frost).