Before Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott worked in television as a set designer for BBC shows like Z Cars and Out of the Unknown. He was very almost the man given the job of designing the Daleks for a brand-new science fiction show called Doctor Who but a scheduling conflict got in the way. He eventually rose through the ranks and began directing episodes of BBC shows including the comedy, Adam Adamant Lives!
Scott’s most notable work from this early period is actually a commercial for bread. In 1973 he directed an ad known as “Bike Round” for the bread maker Hovis, voted the best commercial of all time in a 2006 poll conducted by The Sunday Times. The ad itself is just under a minute long and relies heavily on a warm sense of nostalgia, one Scott captures with his choice of music (Dvořák‘s “New World” Symphony), grandfatherly narrator, and design that drops you exactly into his vision of the past for the fifty or so seconds that the ad runs. Even this piece of work, made four years before his movie debut, shows that Scott’s ability to put his viewer in a time and place through meticulous design was already in place.
Scott is known for his excessive attention to authenticity and for what he calls layering, the art of making everything single prop as detailed as possible, even if the audience will never see it. This creates a deep, immersive world in which the viewer to gets lost, rather than the work of a less attentive filmmaker, whose work makes it obvious we’re watching actors on a soundstage made up to look like the Coliseum, a spaceship, or the streets of Los Angeles in 2019. Instead, with Scott’s insistence of 110% authenticity given to the movie’s look and design, we find ourselves removed from a sense of artifice and, instead, feel more like we’re somehow gazing into a different time period to watch real events unfold before our eyes.
But there were other signatures to Scott’s work yet to be developed. With the late 70s release of The Duellists, we were first introduced to what would become new hallmarks of Scott’s work: his penchant for strong, central female characters, his aversion to showing graphic violence in gratuitous detail, and his love of a good landscape shot.
The Duellists follows the lives of two soldiers in Napoleon’s army as they continuously cross paths and duel. Keith Carradine plays d’Hubert, a man whose honour keeps dragging him again and again into sword fights and gunplay with the angry and unreasonable Feraud, played by Harvey Keitel. The movie was released in 1977 and won the Best Film Debut at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The Duellists expertly showcases Scott’s eye for imagery and his ability to craft a setting that feels wholly real and tangible. He made this movie on a budget of $900,000 and had to use existing locales rather than expensive sets. That ‘hindrance’ pays dividends ,though, as the settings for this movie, along with everything else, are imbued with history and help to elevate Scott’s already brilliant work
The attention to detail is immersive, even at the expense of occasionally making the characters look foolish: their hair in pigtails, the giant hats, the amount of pointless decoration on their clothes. However, this attentiveness feels so real and authentic, the verisimilitude of the whole thing lends credence to the opening narrator’s claim that ‘it is a true story.’ It’s intriguing that as this period of history—the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte—is not one we often see on film, so the unusual modes of dress and setting render the whole thing otherworldly and thus fascinating and beguiling.
This otherworldliness and historical accuracy make some scenes look as though it could be hanging in a gallery. Much in the way Kubrick based the look of Barry Lyndon on the works of William Hogarth, The Duellists feels like a series of Antoine-Jean Gros paintings come to life.
Other than the painterly aspects of every plate of food looking like a still life and the men always being dressed as though on their way to a portrait sitting, the way Scott shoots landscapes in this movie is a hallmark of his work that still punctuates his movies 40 years later. His skill with a landscape is mainly down to another trademark—his use of light and shadow. This is best epitomised by the film’s final scene in which the defeated Fraud climbs a hill and looks out across pastoral France. The sky is mostly eclipsed by a huge, black cloud, but there are shafts of light finding their way through, cutting against the darkness and lighting half of the frame. Feraud stands in the dark half, dressed in black, looking out across this gorgeous vista with a look of hatred across his face, a defeated old man staring angrily back at the world. There is not a sense that the rising sun is bathing him with redemptive light, more that it is mocking him by shining a light on his defeat. It is a delightful final image of the movie and one that is shot with patience and a sense of pace, another hallmark of Scott’s
The Duellists was a success and received mostly positive reviews, leading to Scott’s next movie, which finally made his name in Hollywood, Alien. However, you can’t watch The Duellists and not see the trademarks and skills of Scott on full display. Perhaps the only thing missing is Scott’s usual fondness for powerful women in leading roles (Alien, Thelma & Louise, GI Jane.). However, considering the time period and the strictness of authenticity, we can give him a pass for this one.
Following The Duellists, Scott’s career flourished with only a brief lull in the mid- to the late- 90s that ended with 2000’s Gladiator, a movie that won the Best Picture Oscar and re-launched Scott as a Hollywood powerhouse, a position he continues to hold.
Scott’s next movie is All the Money in the World, a depiction of the John Paul Getty III kidnapping. While early buzz for the movie leaned towards this being a sure-fire Oscar win for Kevin Spacey in the role of John Paul Getty I,, following the recent allegations against Spacey, he was removed from the finished movie by Scott who chose to re-film his scenes with Christopher Plummer in the role. In this cynical age where some actors can pretty much do what they want and not see the consequences, Scott’s actions here will hopefully set the tone for a future where being an (alleged) sexual predator does not mean you get to still win an Oscar.
Ridley Scott makes gorgeous movies that transport their viewers into whole other worlds. His attention to world-building, layering, and credibility in his depictions of the past, present, and future make him a movie maker like no other. The lessons he learned as a set designer 50 years ago have not left him and his eye for an image or a composition of light still remains as acute as ever. Watching this debut is a wonderful exercise in seeing a master announce himself to the world and begin to show what he is capable of.