Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is a chance to rethink the place and definition of the auteur in Hollywood
“Solid” is the word that is said the most when I ask some of the people who liked Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (most of them “millennians”) to describe the film to me. These people would call themselves fans of the film, some of them have even seen it more than once at the cinema, yet none have claimed to have cried as the end credits rolled or to have felt particularly “seen” by the film, and very few of them would call it a masterpiece. So what is going on? Are we witnessing a large-scale descent into cinephilic complacency? Or is it something worse — could the self-described fans in fact be ironically proclaiming their love for a 3.5 to 4 stars film (their own rating)?
No. The strange ‘success’ of The Last Duel is, by all standards, cause for celebration.
Part of the film’s general appeal, and no doubt what convinced studio executives to give Scott millions of dollars, is of course the “relevance” of what has been dubbed a medieval #MeToo story. The film is based on real events from 1386 when the wife of a French knight accused a former friend of her husband’s of raping her. At the time, this was considered an attack not on the woman herself, but on her husband’s property, and these were the terms on which the inconclusive and biased trial then took place. Aware of the judge’s bias towards the accused, the husband went directly to the King and asked for the matter to be settled in a duel to the death: in staying alive, the winner would be revealed to have been an honest man, protected by a God who sees the truth, while the dead man would have paid for his lies with his life. The practice of duelling was still legal at the time, but out of fashion and considered barbaric — The Last Duel cannily draws attention to the other similarly barbaric ideas and habits that nevertheless still dictated much of what was a fundamentally male-dominated world.
It is however difficult to imagine your average Gladiator fan being particularly thrilled by the prospect of a single duel at the end of a 153 minutes long film. The more perverse cinephiles may generally be more curious to find out what Scott’s return to the medieval might look like, and more patient for the twists and updates he gives the genre that truly made him a global star. Another enjoyable extra-textual dimension is the film’s nature as, essentially, a chamber drama with just three characters — a type of film naturally concerned with precise characterisation, interpersonal dynamics and nuanced performances, and which is today rarely realised on such a massive budget. In that regard, The Last Duel is indeed a throwback to a kind of cinema that simply isn’t made at this scale and for multiplexes anymore (the notion of a throwback is heightened when considering the film’s structure and core story, lifted straight from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon).
But all these elements alone, as excitingly unusual as they are in the context of contemporary Hollywood cinema, do not fully account for the kind of love that the film has been receiving from its fans.
Feeling doe-eyed and full of warm feelings for an average-to-good Ridley Scott film is for sure a sign of the times. Had The Last Duel been made in the 1990s or early noughties, this fondness wouldn’t necessarily have been less intense, but it certainly would have felt less special and rare. This simply was an era where more than one director was allowed to make interesting, original big budget films that didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but were nevertheless relatively intelligent, well-made and, indeed, solid. Scott is one of the few directors from that time to still be able to make such films, in part because Gladiator and the Alien franchise mean he is sometimes given carte-blanche. But perhaps the main reason is that he has adapted to the changes brought on by digital cinematography and to other challenges affecting Hollywood like few others have. Steven Soderbergh is often the reference in discussions about the time- and money-saving possibilities of digital, but at the budget scale Scott is working at, no one comes close. In a recent interview with Deadline, the director talks about finishing every shoot day hours early, and completing House of Gucci $5 million under budget.
Reading him discuss some of his methods for saving time without sacrificing quality, I was reminded of Don Siegel, another wildly prolific Hollywood filmmaker who directed very commercial films and efficiently worked across a wide variety of genres and registers, from the western (1952’s The Duel at Silver Creek) to film noir (1954’s Riot in Cell Block 11), science-fiction (1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the war film (1962’s Hell is for Heroes) and the neo-noir crime film (1971’s Dirty Harry).
In a 1975 booklet written for BFI, Alan Lovell — then deputy head of the education department at the British Film Institute and a key figure in the development of film studies in the UK — looks back at his original writings composed for a 1968 season of Don Siegel films to be shown at the National Film Theatre (now the BFI Southbank) with exceptional rigour. One of his most fascinating findings concerns a divide between a vision of mass culture (including Hollywood cinema) as a tool of exploitation for a passive, victimised audience; and a more open view of mass culture where “the cultural products of industrial capitalism were not inevitably debased by their conditions of production.” In the latter view, the work of Hollywood directors could therefore be analysed in the same way that that of non-studio directors was, namely, with auteur theory: despite the demands and influence of the capitalist system in which Hollywood films were produced, in them could be discerned the interests, ideas, thematic and formal signature of their directors.
There however lies, for Lovell, one of the failures of his original text. Although he assesses that his 1968 writings did successfully “suggest that the films directed by Don Siegel would repay careful, sustained critical examination,” they failed “to confront the weaknesses of the auteur theory.” If the idea of the director as auteur is always on shaky ground considering the naturally collaborative nature of filmmaking, it is even more so in the context of Hollywood cinema. Lovell felt he had lost sight of this reality at the time of his original writings, falling back on the romantic view of Siegel as a special, singularly gifted individual who was expressing his “world view” — a loosely defined thing — through his films.
Lovell explains this failure with the appeal of auteur theory at the time of writing, “its energising impact on film criticism, particularly through the opening up of the American cinema to critical examination.” Had Lovell had access to Siegel’s autobiography then, this “failure” might have smarted even more. Published in 1993, two years after Siegel’s death, this book in which each chapter corresponds to a film in the director’s career is a refreshingly matter-of-fact collection of stories about the very practical act of making movies in Hollywood. If Siegel felt he was on a divine journey, exploring various themes close to his heart and telling specific stories in a way no one else could have, he does not show it: to someone looking to study the mystique of Siegel-the auteur, the book can almost be disappointing. The general impression is that of a man who, it must be assumed from the sheer number of projects he took on throughout his career, simply loved to make films. In his preface, Siegel explains that he wrote the book not for the same reasons most people write books “because they like the subject matter, the form, their fellow writers, the prestige and, of course, the chance to make money” but simply to answer once and for all the questions that people always ask him about making movies — “I’m not a writer.” His conclusion to the preface lays it plainly: “I hope you lovers of film, you would-be directors, you army of questioners, benefit from my mistakes. I trust you will learn something. I didn’t.” For Siegel, directing films does not appear to have been a quest for meaning of some kind, a journey to self-realisation, or anything to do with a divine impulse for self-expression. From this preface and in reading the rest of the book, it appears the director looked at his work more as a craft than as a divine calling or gift. The book’s division by film and Siegel’s sober, factual recollections give the sense of someone who quite simply took things as they came, day by day — a work ethic which strongly resonates with Scott’s own as he describes it. “I always say my plan is, there is no plan,” he said in a Deadline interview from the time of the release of The Martian. “I read something and say, wow, I like that, and if I can get it, I’ll do it.” In the same interview, he adds: “To work is life. I live to work, not work to live, you know?”
At the time of Lovell’s writing, when auteur theory was popular, efforts to make Siegel one of “the exceptions to the general rule that directors employed by the Hollywood studios were in the same position as the foremen of production lines in car factories” made sense. They were even more legitimised by the median quality of commercial films produced by Hollywood at the time of writing (both in 1968 and 1975). The state of Hollywood cinema as it stands today, however, does not inspire the same desire to look at its directors as auteurs — and this despite certain studios’ attempts to legitimise their content by hiring auteur filmmakers to direct (“direct”) their films. At the same time, it is also increasingly difficult to see the majority of these Hollywood directors as in any way comparable to workers in a car factory — they simply are not skilled enough. If they were not filmmakers but factory workers, the cars that they would make would be very strange and most likely wouldn’t work.
In a climate where everyone’s an auteur but no one can make a half-coherent picture, a machine such as Ridley Scott stands out. His basic competence at making movies not just quickly and under budget, but also well, does not make him one among many worker bees in the Hollywood beehive — in 2021, it singles him out and, somewhat paradoxically, affords him privileges that other directors captive to the demands of profit do not have. Though we may not agree, as Scott believes, that “Disney did a fantastic promotion job” on The Last Duel (the film was rather unceremoniously dumped in UK cinemas), it is safe to assume that Disney execs wouldn’t have made this expensive but small scale and very long medieval film if they didn’t believe in it or if it wasn’t directed by Ridley Scott. This unusual proposition, so distinct from the type of spectacle and IP blockbusters made today in Hollywood (and which are Scott’s own bread and butter, with the Alien and Blade Runner franchises), provides a rare opportunity to look at Scott as an auteur, divorced from the demands of the capitalist studio system. In his Deadline interview from the time of The Martian, Scott said:
“There’s a fiscal responsibility for a director who wants to do movies on this scale. You have to be that way, otherwise you’re an idiot. I’m a very practical man. Have I got an artistic side? Clearly. But I don’t carry that on my shoulder. I tend to hide it.”
Although made as efficiently as ever, The Last Duel might have been for Scott an opportunity to set aside his “fiscal responsibilities” to some degree, and show more of his “artistic side.” As such, while auteur theory can definitely be used as a tool to analyse Scott’s filmography as a whole, The Last Duel might provide one of the purest fields of study for Scott – the auteur.
The film’s three-part structure, showing each character’s vision of the same events, has the kind of crass, garish obviousness familiar from Scott’s work and which does make certain eyes roll. But divorced from epic battles and with an added dash of feminist critique, it takes on a more interesting, queasy and uncertain quality that recalls the best moments of Alien, a film in which men’s arrogance and weakness of character also played a large part. There is never any doubt as to the truthfulness of the woman’s accusation; what the film is really focused on is the ways in which each man’s inflated ego clouds his perception, and these ways are maddeningly boorish and stupid. Yes, some of it is obvious, but it is reassuring and refreshing to see Scott (and Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, who each wrote one part of the screenplay) treat a rapist and his accomplices with the same straightforward and unambiguous hostility as they would a violent alien life-force. It’s the kind of common sense treatment of a subject that, when coupled with competent filmmaking and good collaborators in every department, makes for a film that while not full of revolutionary insight is at least… solid, which is more than can be said about most other big budget Hollywood films today.
With each part written by a different screenwriter, The Last Duel makes clearer than ever the collaborative nature of Scott’s cinema, and any attempt to define him as an auteur is bound to come up against the common definition of this kind of filmmaker as a “psychotic control freak,” per Paul Thomas Anderson. Scott (and Siegel before him) are not merely great technicians, they are also directors keen on collaborating with their partners, rather than bent on imposing their vision of how things should be at every turn. It is clear when watching The Last Duel, but even more so in interviews with Scott where he describes getting the script from Matt Damon, his complete trust in his editor, the way he shoots to keep his cast fresh, and the way he describes himself as a partner to his actors, letting them be “the painter of [their] own portrait.” Perhaps besides how efficient he is, one of the defining characteristics of Scott’s cinema is precisely the openness with which he approaches not just his actors, but all his collaborators, and all the genres and registers of commercial cinema.
At a time when the notion of the auteur has been simplified and reduced to a fetishistic cult of personality in Hollywood, the fact that Scott follows in Siegel’s footsteps as an auteur who is also an efficient worker and collaborator is an opportunity to set the record straight not just on what an auteur really is, but also and more importantly on what exactly big budget Hollywood cinema is best at.