‘The Last Duel’: Ridley Scott Takes the Male Gaze to Task in Sharp and Brutal Medieval Epic

Ridley Scott has made so many lavish historical epics that you never doubt while walking into the latest one that he will deliver something formidable. Like few other filmmakers, Scott has truly mastered the art of making the viewer feel as if they have traveled back in time. Yet after a while even a master gets tired of his usual formula and tries something new. Scott’s latest, “The Last Duel,” features all of the exquisite and stark detail from his best period extravaganzas, as well as remarkable cinematography. But don’t expect his usual heroes or villains. Beneath all the clanging steel and armor, there’s a richer, even darkly comic idea at play. It’s a medieval movie that almost smirks at its forebears, while telling a compelling story about mysterious accusations and the role of women in both 1300s Europe and this whole film genre.

It’s those messy days of the Hundred Years’ War and the story is split into three perspectives. First, we meet Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a French squire who has seen battle against the English alongside friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). But in this feudal world much success depends on how well you get with a pompous lord like Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), who likes Le Gris’s goblet-drinking, wench-bedding ways, and his wit, while finding the rougher, prouder de Carrouges to be a bore. Tensions erupt when d’Alençon tags Le Gris to be a sort of tax collector, which clashes with de Carrouges’s marriage to Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Marguerite’s father is a land owner and formerly accused of treason, who to pay off his debts, gives Le Gris a portion of his lands which were originally part of Marguerite’s dowry. A boiling feud builds between de Carrouges and Le Gris that later seems to temper down, until Marguerite accuses Le Gris of rape and de Carrouges demands a duel to the death.

Typically a Scott epic would feature some hyper masculine lead called to jump into the swirl of history. His best one remains 2000’s “Gladiator,” with an Oscar-winning performance by Russell Crowe as a Roman general seeking revenge for the death of his family at the hands of a demented emperor (Joaquin Phoenix). Aside from some other, less memorable efforts like “Robin Hood,” at times Scott’s more daring choices get overshadowed by the scale of his images. His 2005 “Kingdom of Heaven” told a story set during the Crusades, where Christians and Muslims were treated as equals. Now with “The Last Duel” Scott lets the characters completely overtake the action. The sources of the material are in themselves intriguing. Screenwriting duties are credited to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, reuniting to write 24 years after winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Good Will Hunting.” They team up with Nicole Holofcener, writer of films and shows with strong female leads like “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and “Mrs. Fletcher.” Their main source for the story is a nonfiction book by Eric Jager. 

What Damon, Affleck and Holofcener accomplish is a story with subtle wit and even satirical bite. The cinematography by Scott regular Dariusz Wolski has the expected stark richness, with snow and mud we can almost touch. Lords and squires pound drinks in fire-lit halls, singing with much merriment. The narrative breaks into a puzzle, where first we see de Carrouges’s point of view. From his angle this is a story of a hard working squire who fought for king and country and is now being denied rightful lands, plus titles, by a traitorous friend and dismissive lord. Is it an inside joke that Damon’s hairdo looks like a ‘80s mullet? He’s the hard working roughneck, who can’t read, versus the suave, cultured Le Gris. Marguerite was the innocent maiden who became a devoted wife, now violated by the ravenous tax man. Then, we get Le Gris’s version which naturally casts him as a loyal friend pressured into duties by his lord. He then fell in love with Marguerite out of a shared passion for books. What both versions agree on is that Ben Affleck’s vivaciously performed Count Pierre is a debauched party animal. 

These two male gazes are essential in the first half of the film, because Scott then does something new and lets the screen be fully occupied by Marguerite’s version of events. This section becomes a finely constructed revelation and also a commentary on the very role of women in any patriarchal society. What may seem like romance and duty to the other men is actually hellish domination for the women, but of course their voice rarely gets noticed. This is a medieval world where doctors conclude a woman can only become pregnant if she orgasms. Any other result is her fault or surely some smite by God. One senses Scott’s cheer at making subtle fun of the gestures and codes of the era. Le Gris makes his case in court, then swivels his cloak in what is meant to be an elegant gesture, but looks hilariously absurd, as many rituals are. d’Alençon beds three women at a time like a rock star and asks Le Gris if he should wear gold or black shoes. The answer is gold, of course. King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) looks over everything like a mischievous teen. He gleefully smirks at the prospect of a hanging. Scott’s previous sword-wielding heroes have been men lacking in irony, driven by a cause, here they are driven by pride and greed, which is most likely how it actually was. But remember Ridley Scott has also pioneered great female leads, from “Alien” to “Thelma & Louise” and “G.I. Jane.” With “The Last Duel” it’s as if he is looking back at characters like Maximus from “Gladiator” or Orlando Bloom’s knight in “Kingdom of Heaven,” and brushes them aside, to let the female characters always under their shadows speak.

Always a director who is above all a fantastic craftsman of big entertainment, Scott still delivers what we expect from a thunderous medieval story. The violence in “The Last Duel” can be merciless, from English soldiers cutting the throats of French villagers to the final, brutal duel between Carrouges and Le Gris. The finale of the duel is pure intensity, fueled by a pounding score by Harry Gregson-Williams, full of the kind of gory period detail Mel Gibson pulled off in his day. Despite these memorable flourishes, what stands out is Scott’s take on the society itself. More important than the duel of the title is the social order at play. An older woman tells Marguerite that she was raped once long ago, she just kept quiet and survived. We can feel superior and scoff that such were the Middle Ages. As the #MeToo movement has made it all too clear, such situations are not rare in our “modern” world. “The Last Duel” is a riveting entertainment, containing a keener message behind the clanging of steel.

The Last Duel” releases Oct. 15 in theaters nationwide.