Following a four-year hiatus since "Alien: Covenant," Ridley Scott, renowned for exploring celestial and subterranean themes, makes a comeback with an epic tale of historical warfare in "The Last Duel." This film revisits the iron and blood of the Middle Ages, encompassing the grandeur of the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the shadows cast by weapons in the era of cold steel, the valiant and tragic battles fought by knights for honour, the satisfaction and vendetta of one-on-one duels, and the darkness of ignorance and subjugation under monarchy and theocracy. These elements represent Ridley Scott's decades-long passion for historical themes. However, the movie's exploration of chivalry and historical narrative through a feminist lens reflects his adaptation to contemporary perspectives.
In the realm of historical films, Ridley Scott's wellspring of inspiration seems inexhaustible. From his debut feature film "The Duellists" to "The Last Duel," as the mantle of classical epic films recedes further into the past, this last knight continues to gallop on.
"The Duellists" — Between honour and Vanity
With a 44-year film career, Ridley Scott stands as the king of Hollywood genre films. An admirer of the genre-defying maestro Kubrick, Scott's films traverse deep space, mystical realms, and the psyche of criminals. Spanning from the American West to the battlefields of Somalia, from the mysterious criminal underworld to futuristic dystopias, he's been acclaimed as the "Father of Alien" and a trailblazer in cinematic cyberpunk. His diverse range leaves even Spielberg and James Cameron trailing behind.
In 1977, at the age of 40, Scott produced his first feature film, "The Duellists," which earned him the Best Debut Film Award at Cannes. This story set in the Napoleonic era bears the imprint of Kubrick, whose unfulfilled ambition was to direct a biography of Napoleon. The film drew inspiration from Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," using a classical, painterly cinematic style to narrate the ebb and flow of men's lives.
Set in the early 19th century as Napoleon conquered Europe, two officers, Feraud and Hubert, escalate a dispute over honour into an unstoppable series of duels. From the French countryside to the snow-covered fields of Russia, from fighting as soldiers to clashing as retired veterans, their weapons evolved from long swords and sabres to pistols. The conflict endures until they settle, riding off into the sunset, married, with children, and streaks of grey in their hair, finally determining the victor.
The director's debut film sparkled with an initial acuity and sharpness, marking the genesis of a lifelong contemplation. Knights embodied the ideal man—noble yet low-born, their status not inherited but won with a horse and a lance. honour formed the core of chivalry, and duelling was the means to attain it. Knights staked their lives, with the victorious gaining fame, status, wealth, and women with ease.
"The Duellists" spans the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty, France's transition from a republic to an empire, and Napoleon's exile and return. The old aristocrats resumed their powdered wigs and face paint. One officer married a noblewoman, and became a lord, while the other, steadfast in following Napoleon, ended up in prison. The prolonged showdown between the two persisted for fifteen years, devoid of meaning in either success or failure, ultimately becoming the sole purpose of their lives. They had long forgotten why they duelled, engaging merely for the sake of duelling, ignoring life's beauty, and wasting their existence. Eventually, they realized that the honour that fueled duels and wars was merely the result of male aggression and vanity.
"Kingdom of Heaven" — Anyone Can Be a Knight
In 2005's "Kingdom of Heaven," the film portrays the devastating failure of the Christian world losing Jerusalem in 1187. In Europe at that time, amidst oppressive darkness, clerics preached, "Killing infidels isn't murder, it's a path to heaven." European armies had occupied Jerusalem for over a century, attracting countless people who, in Ridley Scott's words, sought to "plunder Jerusalem, a palace filled with treasures, in the name of God." Amidst this setting, a young blacksmith named Balian sought redemption for his deceased wife, When the king died, the arrogant leader of the Templar knights instigated a war between Christians and Muslims. Balian rose to defend Jerusalem against Saladin's vast army, agreeing to cede the holy city to ensure the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
The film serves as an ode to the spirit of chivalry, directly voicing the knight's oath of "bravery, wisdom, loyalty, honesty, mercy, and helping the weak." In the face of a king's request to undertake a conspiracy to eliminate radical elements, Balian adamantly refused, unwilling to violate his oath, convinced that unjust means could not achieve just ends. During the defence of the city, he rallied the courage of the people, recognizing volunteers regardless of their occupation, appointing them as knights on the spot: "We protect not the city itself, not the churches or mosques, but the people within the city." Anyone fighting for the lives of others is a knight. The knight's quest for the path to God manifests in safeguarding the welfare of the people.
The kingdom of heaven is not in a holy land but resides in the hearts of knights. Regardless of religion, equality and freedom are the essence of heaven. The film portrays Balian's encounters with two adversaries: a warmongering leader of the Templar knights, who faces defeat once more in a one-on-one duel at the end, and the wise Muslim commander Saladin, who respects and admires Balian.
"Gladiator" — Rome Was Once a Dream
In 2000, "Gladiator" with a budget of $100 million emerged as a blockbuster, earning both critical acclaim and box office success. The story of freedom and enslavement merged with the grandeur of ancient Rome, earning tears from audiences. In this elevated tragic idealism, the human soul experienced purification and transcendence.
The film narrates the story of General Maximus, who expanded the Roman Empire's territories, preferring the simplicity of life with his family over fame and fortune. Emperor Marcus Aurelius valued him, intending to pass the throne to Maximus and have him transfer power to the Senate, returning Rome from imperial rule to a republic, thus ending wars. However, the brutal and petulant Prince Commodus murdered his father and usurped the throne. Maximus's family was executed, and he, surviving the attempt on his life, became a gladiator, seeking revenge, and entering the arena. At this point, the Roman Empire was at its zenith, with vast territories yet rampant corruption and oppression. The colossal Colosseum, built at the nation's expense, reflected the empire's martial fervour and ambitions, bringing distant battles to the domestic arena, re-enacting Rome's victories over Carthage and others, allowing people to taste glory and triumph in the bloody spectacle while forgetting their suffering and injustice.
The film epitomized the essence of duels, depicting a fallen imperial general reduced to a gladiator, losing everything in the process. Starting from a desert border town's arena, Maximus, armed with his combat skills and battlefield experience, emerged victorious in duels against chariots, fierce beasts, and heavily armed warriors. As a hero returns, he ascends once again to the highest stage of the Roman arena. Defying the emperor, and refusing to kill his adversary, Maximus awakened hearts with kindness, transforming the ruler's game of wielding power and manipulating minds into a struggle for freedom for the enslaved.
People began to revere him more and mock the emperor, forcing the desperate prince into a duel, where stripped of his regalia and power, he stood weak and eventually fell amid his failure and a disenchanted populace. Maximus left behind the words, "Rome was once a dream, a dream that should be real," hoping for a return to an ideal country of justice, peace, and freedom. His soul traverses the homeland's wheat fields, knocking on the home's wooden door, reuniting with his family, as his spirit returns to the ancestral land. Ridley's films don't merely retell history; instead, they represent a modern reconstruction. For instance, "Kingdom of Heaven" centered on religious conflict and extremism in the post-9/11 era, while "Gladiator" allegorically portrayed America as this "new Rome.”
"Robin Hood" — Yearning for Equality in an Unjust World
In 2010, Ridley returned to his roots, reuniting with Russell Crowe, presenting an English hero epic, "Robin Hood," bearing the shadows of many of his earlier works.
Continuing from the conclusion of "Kingdom of Heaven," Richard in "Robin Hood" had conquered vast territories, burdening the domestic populace with the weight of continuous wars. Richard dies, and his brother John ascends the throne, swayed by corrupt advisers, escalating oppression, and leading to invasion by the King of France. Inadvertently, Robin, inheriting the identity of a Nottingham lord, rallies the people, demanding that the king commit to "if the people fight for the country, the king should guarantee their freedom and rights." He unites the people, repels foreign invaders, and defends against internal threats. After the crisis, King John betrays the pact, prompting Robin to retreat to Sherwood Forest, continuing to resist the authorities, rob the rich to aid the poor and uphold justice.
Robin Hood, one of England's classic cultural symbols, has been the subject of numerous works, and Ridley's version was instantly likened to another "Gladiator" upon its release. Unlike the agile and precise "forest elf," the protagonist is a robust, sword-wielding knight. Not aiming for a light-hearted, romantic portrayal of a rogue legend, the film maintains the trajectory of classical epic storytelling, delving into the prehistory of Robin Hood and the genesis of the hero. The climactic battle bears resemblance to the "Siege of Jerusalem" in "Kingdom of Heaven," only this time, the assault shifts to a coastal landing, with cliffs in place of city walls.
Robin leads his army to repel the French invasion on a cliffside, arrows raining down, and cavalry charging like fire, showcasing Ridley's trademark epic battlefield scenes with their grandeur and ferocity. The brutality of close combat, with knives piercing rib cages and arrows penetrating necks, is a standard feature in Ridley's war scenes. As he said, the film still centres around fairness, "yearning for equality in an unfair world."
"The Last Duel" — A Self-Subversion of "Chivalry"
As a male director, Ridley previously relegated women in his epic films to supporting roles and possessions, mere trophies for noble knights. In "The Duellists," the soldiers were consumed by duelling, heedless of women's emotions; marriage was merely a means to an estate. While the princesses in "Gladiator" and "Kingdom of Heaven" displayed courage, they appeared fragile and helpless, sacrificing themselves to ensure their sons' safety.
In "Robin Hood," for the first time, a female warrior emerged, with Cate Blanchett portraying the lady of the manor, adept in combat, and cutting down corrupt individuals. In this 14th-century France, under a lord's command, two comrades, Carrouges and Gris, fought battles. Carrouges married a noblewoman, Marguerite, inheriting her land, and continuing his military pursuits after marriage. Exploiting the situation, Gris violated the wife of his friend. Having exhausted legal options, the two individuals resorted to a duel. In this duel, if the husband lost, Marguerite would be declared making false accusations and he would subjected to being burned alive. In the event of his victory, the man would gain everything, rendering justice for her entirely inconsequential. The film's incorporation of a female perspective unveils the facade of male arrogance, greed, hypocrisy, and shamelessness. It transforms the previously glorified medieval wars and the celebrated valor of knights—often exalted by men—into a complete mockery.
At the age of 84, Ridley aligns himself with the present, extending the values of freedom and equality to women. He completely overturns the traditional historical narratives and chivalrous ideals, which were predominantly defined by men. If history, as traditionally written by men, only portrays senseless duels that oppress women, then Ridley's film acts as the final punctuation mark on this narrative.