At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure or theme within the film community and share our thoughts about related works. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
At the helm of Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott is one of the most diverse of blockbuster directors. His films leagues apart in terms of setting, period, and tone, Scott is difficult to pin down, his relevance to generations of American audiences paralleled only by Steven Spielberg. For the first time in over a decade, Scott releases two films in the same year, the already released Alien: Covenant and the yet-to-come All the Money in the World.
The Duellists (1977)
Kevin Jones– The directorial debut of any director is typically not the best representation of a director’s skill, as they are typically working through growing pains and honing their craft. However, it is typically a great indicator of potential success down the line even when the film itself is relatively average or alright. In his debut, Ridley Scott managed to create a film that hinted at his future brilliance while also being a great film in its own right. Starring Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, The Duellists is an adaptation of a short story by Joseph Conrad entitled ‘Point of Honor’. It is this concept of honor that dominates this picture as Carradine and Keitel star as opposing men who become embroiled in a duel. Over the course of years, the two square-off with each duel providing inconclusive results, but remaining an obsession for the character portrayed by Keitel, Lieutenant General Feraud. Set in Napoleon-led France, The Duellists explores the honor of these duels, the masculine tendencies that lead these men to engage in this feud, and the rule of Napoleon.
While The Duellists was certainly quickly upstaged in Scott’s filmography following the release of Alien and Blade Runner in its immediate aftermath, The Duellists nonetheless stands as an excellent debut. As a relatively small-scale film with hints of greater ambitions regarding Napoleonic France, The Duellists showcases a lot of the historical or epic undertakings Scott would later embark upon in 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, or even Exodus: Gods and Kings. Given the tiny $900,000 budget for The Duellists, however, Scott must eschew with the large-scale battles that mark those films and instead focus upon the intimate nature of this duel between Feraud and Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert (Carradine). In the process, Scott delivers some of his best thematic work regarding the honor Feraud feels that d’Hubert has offended, the pride he would have to sacrifice in giving up his long-held grudge, and eventually the impact d’Hubert’s lack of vindictiveness or ill-will has in – figuratively – castrating Feraud.
In reaching this conclusion, Scott demonstrates his knack for creating great tension and beautiful imagery. The film’s climax as d’Hubert and Feraud race about through the hills in what will be their final encounter is a true edge-of-your-seat experience. Though far more small-scale than many of Scott’s eventual action set pieces, the scene makes great use of the terrain available to the film as the men dash about in the woods, hiding behind trees, or tripping up on roots. The terrific, frenetic, and chilling score from Howard Blake accents this duel and others perfectly capturing a sort of horror movie aesthetic that further laces these moments with fantastic tension and thrill. The cinematography from Frank Tidy captures great beauty in these duels and in more quiet moments with cold, muted blues, greens, and grays, highlighting this picture. The establishing shot of Keitel staring off into the distance at the top of a hill with a river beneath him and the sun poking out from behind the clouds stands as one of the most beautifully captured and framed images from Scott’s entire filmography. Though The Duellists may not be his finest work, it is a film that has one of his best action set-pieces, terrifically written and developed themes, a great score, and gorgeous cinematography. For these reasons, of all of Scott’s work, The Duellists made an unexpected impact on me as a film that more than hints at what to come from him. Instead, it embodies all that makes Ridley Scott a fantastic filmmaker.
Ben McDonald– From its production design, script, acting, and visual effects, Alien is a technical and visceral masterpiece of horror. Set far into the future, the film follows the crew of the commercial mining vessel Nostromo after they are prematurely awoken from cryo-sleep by a distress signal from a nearby planet. Upon investigating, one of the crew members (John Hurt) is infected with a parasite, spawning a perversely-shaped monster that terrorizes the ship for the rest of the movie.
At its core, Alien is really just a standard slasher formula executed in space, but without the obnoxious clichés that plague the genre. There’s hardly any gore, obvious musical cues, or dumb decision-making to be found at all in Alien, and that’s what makes it all the more frightening. The crew’s plan to kill the Alien is fairly rational; the Alien just turns out to be smarter and faster. The film gradually builds in suspense as crew members are killed off one by one, all until only Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is left. All that quiet tension is released in a heart-pounding sequence in which Ripley tries to escape the Nostromo, evading the monster down dark industrial corridors as a penetrating warning siren blares and smoke billows all around.
With Alien and Blade Runner, Ridley Scott cemented himself as a true visionary, crafting two haunting and incredibly bleak nightmares of the future. From the oppressively industrial underbelly of the Nostromo to the disgusting insect-like interior of the crashed ship on LV-426, Alien’s production design is incredibly imaginative and artistic. H.R. Giger’s repulsively beautiful design of the titular creature is also undoubtedly one of the most original and memorable monsters in cinema. It’s a shame that Scott has never been able to properly recreate its nail-biting tension, but Alien will always remain as one of the most captivating horror films of all time, and at the top of my favorites.
Blade Runner (1982)
Matt Schlee– There are few science fiction movies ever made that hold up as well as Blade Runner does for me. The effect are stunningly modern for a movie from the 80s and the atmosphere lends itself to so much more than your typical popcorn sci-fi flick. The smokey and downtrodden Los Angeles and the jazzy score recall every classic film noir cue. The steadily-paced plot matches the structure of the film to its noir tone. Every moment of the movie is so engaging because it’s just not at all what you’d expect from an 80’s Harrison Ford sci-fi.
I love this movie so much for what happens during its run time, but its legacy has been so heavily amplified by its fan base and Ridley Scott has never stopped engaging with fans over the material. The various cuts of the movie and the ongoing debate about the nature of Deckard keeps modern viewers continuously able to discover and rediscover this movie, and to me that’s the really astonishing fact lying within this masterful two hours of filmmaking. The Scott-produced 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049 expands on the lore that Blade Runner laid down, and has only expanded fan engagement with the original source material.
Ian Floodgate– I remember when I went to the cinema to watch Gladiator. It was in the days when my dad and I used to turn up at the cinema and just choose something to see. At that time, we knew nothing about the film. Nowadays, for me it’s the most referenced film that often makes me feel old thinking how many years ago it was first released.
Alien and Blade Runner are often thought of what advances they made within science fiction; however, Gladiator is a great homage to the swords and sandals epics of the late 1950s and early 60s complemented by Ridley Scott’s style. All three have stood the test of time. One thing I admire of Scott is that he makes you aware of a world beyond what you see on screen. There is great attention to detail and audiences can easily imagine what it is like for the characters in the place and time in which they live. The opening battle sequence of Gladiator captures how powerful the Roman Empire was through an incredibly dramatic and engrossing scene. Even the less bombastic scenes in the film are compelling and Scott’s signature use of lighting helps strengthen the atmosphere.
I have fond memories of watching Gladiator; the film made me recognize just how effective a film score can be in complementing the mood of a scene, and from Gladiator I first became aware of Hans Zimmer‘s music. I bought the original soundtrack as well as a DVD of the film, and it’s one I frequently take out from my collection to revisit.