- Kinski v. Herzog, My Best Fiend & Burden of Dreams
Before he hooked up with Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog was a little-known art-film director who was nevertheless one of the most single-minded men the cinema has ever seen. Of course, the man met his match in Kinski, who while being intensely talented – he worked with an amazing array of directors before he became something akin to Herzog’s muse – was also the most temperamentally self-important actors every to grace the screen. He was as known for the quality of his work as for his ability to get fired from every other movie he worked on.
Despite the each of them being an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, Kinski and Herzog forged an unlikely partnership and made five films together, starting with the hypnotic masterpiece, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, through the insanely atmospheric Nosferatu, Phantom der nacht and the masterwork to end all masterworks, Fitzcarraldo, which is as much an allegory about the director and star as it is about anything else.
To get these films, though, required a massive, two decade duel of egos that was fraught with anger, distrust, derision, hostility and outright threats of violence, which only came to an end because Kinski up and died. Which was probably as it should be.
To get the sense of their love/hate relationship one need only watch the combined truths of My Best Fiend and Burden of Dreams. Between them the length of their association is plotted out in all of it’s glory/inglory and shows quite succinctly why Herzog would continually subject himself to Kinski’s behavior. And vice-versa. Of the two, Burden of Dreams is the more objective film, told as it is from the perspective of filmmaker Les Blank, who has a much firmer grasp on literal truth than Herzog in My Best Fiend, who has always been a filmmaker to prefer ecstatic truth over all else.
Either way, though it’s unclear whether either man truly triumphed over the other it is clear the audience reaped the true rewards.
- Alfred de Musset v. Felicien Mallefille, and Frederic Chopin v. Felicien Mallefille, Impromptu
James Lapine’s Impromptu is not a great film. Rather, it’s middling and almost wastes very good supporting turns from Emma Thompson, Mandy Patinkin, and Bernadette Peters. Nevertheless, one of the pleasures of the film is it has not only one duel, but two.
While the American stereotype of a duel is played out in a western setting, with a black hat and white hate meeting at dawn – you’ll find examples of this elsewhere on this list – my preferred cinematic duel involves aristocratic men squaring off with their pistols. Why prefer it? Because it’s a bit goofy to see proper gentlemen trying to make the art of being ‘tough’ into something proper and stiff-upper-lippish.
Anyhow, in the first of the duels here the chagrined, hot-headed Mellefille (George Coraface) demands satisfaction via a duel with de Musset (Mandy Patinkin). Why? Because one of the men is the former lover of George Sand (Judi Davis), while the other is her sorta-current lover. In all this duel shapes up to be a rather brutal affair, with one man getting his romantic rival out of the way in a most decisive manner. But, because this film is comic in nature, de Musset gets drunk and goes immediately askew when counting out his paces so that, instead of the men shooting one another they accidentally shoot a butler in the arm.
Then, later, when Sand has taken up with Chopin (Hugh Grant), Mellefille comes to confront this rival, convinced as he is that the way to a woman’s heart is through a show of barbarism. Chopin agrees to the duel but, when the men meet up, the stress of it is so great that Chopin faint as he’s counting out his paces, leaving Sand to grab her lover’s gun and shoot Mellefille herself. As before it is merely a shot to the arm and is not life-threatening. But in terms of the story it makes clear to Mellefille, once and for all, that Sand is through with him.
- Dueling Banjos, Deliverance
The name says it all with this one. City folk and country folk are normally cinematic oil and water, and this movie doesn’t argue otherwise. Instead, it turns every encounter between the two into a duel, including when Ronnie Cox’s Drew goes head-to-head with a local boy, each of them playing their instrument of choice. For Drew it’s the guitar, for the boy it’s the banjo. To underline the tension between the city and the country, when Drew is bested he acknowledges the boy as his better by offering to shake hands, only for the boy to rebuff it. No, it’s hardly the most deadly ending you’ll find on screen, but it is here where the deadly events of the film are set into motion, with Ned Beatty’s Bobby paying the most dramatic price.
- Dennis Weaver v. The Truck, Duel
An exercise in truth in advertising here, but if you don’t mind a title giving away the entire plot of the movie you’ll have a pretty good time.
Duel is one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest efforts, a TV movie based on a Richard Matheson story, and though it was made before Spielberg transitioned completely to feature films and became the Spielberg we know today, Duel carries many of the hallmarks associated with his later work.
Here, Dennis Weaver plays a milquetoast who spends the balance of the movie being terrorized by a semi-truck and it’s unseen driver. Why? Because he dared pass it when it was going too slow. There is not much in the way of subtext or depth on offer, just a straight-ahead thriller that is either has a troubling message of violence solves everything, or a better message about single-minded pursuits of revenge are ultimately self-destructive. And though it’s a Spielberg movie, meaning you’ll never doubt who wins this one, he still manages to effectively tighten the screws, leading to a rather fraught and exciting 90 minutes.
- The Battle of the Minds, The Princess Bride
If you think about the duels in the Princess Bride the first scene that might come to mind is the confrontation atop the cliff between Wesley (Cary Elwes) and Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). Or, perhaps it’s the showdown between Wesley and Fezzik (Andre the Giant), wherein Wesley manages to get over on the big man, despite his inferior size. Or, maybe even it is Wesley’s later encounter with Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). Or perhaps the showdown between Inigo and Count Rugen in a piece of decades-old revenge.
For me, though, the true standout scene is the Battle of Wits between Wesley and the treacherous Vizzini (Wallace Shawn). Taking place entirely while sitting at a rock and revolving around a poisoned cup of wine, Vizzini seems to get the upper hand and best his opponent through a cunning mix of incomprehensible logic, gibberish, misdirection and switched cups, only to die mid-laugh when he doesn’t realize both cups are poisoned. Inconceivable!
5. Final Showdown, Once Upon a Time in the West
Sergio Leone was a maestro of slow-burn tension, specifically in the mano-a-mano tete-a-tete, and here he doesn’t skimp on the goods.
There is the famous, extended opening at the train station, where we are introduced to Harmonica (Charlie Bronson), as he easily guns down the three men sent to kill him, scored entirely by the sound of a squeaky windmill. There is the duel – well, not so much a duel as a game of chicken – between the cold blooded Frank (Henry Fonda, as the baddest of bad guys) and the McBain family, where he kills them all, right down to the innocent little kid. And there are any other number of tense moments throughout, between any number of combinations of the baddies and goodies.
Of course, the ending, where Harmonica and Frank finally face off over some decades old score that, is what lingers. Sure, not much happens between them when you come right down to it – they face off and shoot and Frank dies – but the way Leone shoots the scene, treating it as grand opera, complete with lingering looks and flashbacks to the earlier moment between them that drove Harmonica to revenge, gives what is otherwise a satisfying ending a jolt of something extra.
- The Duelists in The Duelists
Again, truth in advertising here.
A simple plot description for this movie finds two French officers during the Napoleonic wars squaring off over a misunderstanding that somehow becomes the basis for a 15-year-long running battle between men. It is a bit off putting that Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel, two quintessentially American actors, were chosen to play the Frenchmen in question, but once you get passed the lack of any accent, they nevertheless do justice to Ridley Scott’s debut feature.
The key duel in this one occurs – as they all invariably do – at the end. By then Keitel has spent 15 years following Carradine’s trail in search of honor over the long forgotten slight, to be constantly thwarted by rules of etiquette. Eventually, though, proper etiquette is served and so Keitel meets Carradine at dawn in some ruins near Carradine’s home. Keitel, brash and overconfident as always, immediately wastes his shots, leaving him to the mercy of the ever-more-patient Carradine. Except Carradine is not interested in killing man, only pitying him, and so leaves him alive, which is a far more stinging insult than death.
The final visual of the film, when Keitel climbs a hill to watch a sunrise in contemplation of the shallowness of his quarrelsome nature and the pointlessness of the previous 15 years of his life, is a wonder.
- Peck v. Connors, The Big Country
Throughout much of his career Gregory Peck seemed to specialize in characters that were dry-runs for his turn as Atticus Finch. Tall, determined, honest, earnest and a little square, but with the undercurrent of all-rightness that usually wins over his enemies in the end. He’s usually so damned goodly he just can’t be beaten and his role in The Big Country is no different.
Here Peck plays McKay, an easterner come west to marry Carrol Baker, a rancher’s daughter. On his first day in town he meets ranch hand Steve (Charlton Heston), who takes Peck as the worst kind of coward, because he can’t be roused by insults from a neighbor, Chuck Connor’s, nor Heston’s macho-inferiority complex. Eventually, that perceived cowardliness puts a wedge in between Peck and Baker altogether.
What none of the three understand about Peck, though, is while he’s not partial to the performative toxic-masculinity that seems demanded in the west, he’s not about to let slights against him just slide away. So when Peck and Heston find themselves in a private place one day, Peck decides it’s time to settle the debt – so to speak. Though this is too late to save the nuptials with Baker – honestly, he’s better off without her – he doesn’t shy away from kicking the shit out of Heston.
But while the fistfight between the two men is good, the true duel of the film comes at the end, when Peck reluctantly engages in some performative violence with Chuck Connors. In a plot point that appears common to stories with duels, rather than shoot Connors down like the dog he is when Connors’ first shot goes wild, Peck takes pity and fires his pistol into the ground. Connors, though, is not the honorable sort and though his life was just spared he tries to grab a nearby gun to have a second shot, forcing Connors’ papa, played by the lovable Burl Ives of the Frosty, The Snowman shows from the 60s, to shoot his own son in the back, rather than let him bring any more dishonor on the family.
- The Menage a’ Duel, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
In the grand scheme of things it’s hard to exclude any of Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollar’s Trilogy’ from a list like this, and you could probably make a list like this with nothing but Leone, but the final showdown at the end of The Good, the Bad and The Ugly is clearly the piece de resistance of Dollars Trilogy. Pitting Tuco (Eli Wallach), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and Blondie (Clint Eastwood) against one another, the scene plays out almost statically, letting the tension linger and draw out without the need for flashy camera work, played perfectly against the spot-on score of Ennio Morricone, until in a momentary blaze of bullets, Blondie takes out Angel Eyes and get’s the goods on Tuco.
Looking back on it today, the scene almost seems standard, but that’s because it has endured forty years of cinematic plagiarism. But just because it might look standard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the source to see why it is Leone has not one, but two films on this list.
- Lord Bullingdon v. Redmond Barry Lyndon, Barry Lyndon
You know he’s got the stones for it – that’s all you ever need to know about Lord Bullingdon. He’s got stones.
Fantastic and somewhat little-known within the Kubrick oeuvre, Barry Lyndon is actually the unsung hero of the bunch. Telling the life story of notorious ne’er-do-well, and contemptible social climber, Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal), this movie is as worth seeing for the story as it is for the perfectionism in making it, including Kubrick’s insistence on using natural lighting in every scene, sometimes requiring thousands of burning candles to illuminate the screen. To accomplish this Kubrick has to personally develop revolutionary lenses capable of capturing such low levels of light, which is an extreme example of melding form and function on film.
There are two duels in Barry Lyndon, the first informing our expectations of the latter. In the first, a young Redmond Barry duels a soldier for the love of Barry’s cousin, Nora. We see this duel in all its methodical preparations, from the choosing of the pistols to Barry coolly shooting his opponent and escaping in the aftermath. The second takes place when Barry is an older, broken-down man, and features his wronged step-son as an opponent.
Kubrick allows the second duel to play out virtually in real-time, complete with a percussive and ponderous score that only heightens the tension. That we have seen Barry act so cold-bloodedly in his encounter with the soldier years before makes it clear to us he is a man who knows how to use a firearm and can kill if he wants. So when the young Lord Bullingdon’s pistol misfires, this certainly spells doom for the young man. Only, rather than shoot the boy, Barry fires his pistol into the ground, thinking that sparing the boys life will end the quarrel between them. Except, Lord Bullingdon could give a hang about his own life – he’d rather be dead than let Lyndon walk away scot free. So, in a cold-blooded twist on the earlier duel, when Bullingdon is allowed his second shot he coolly shoots Barry’s leg out from under him.
 When this list originally appeared in 2009, I included the final scene of Reservoir Dogs as one of the great duels. As time has gone on I’ve decided that Mexican Standoffs are not duels, no matter who argues otherwise, and so have thrown it out completely. Otherwise, I’ve also completely re-written it, added another entry, and so bring it back to you as if it were a brand-new thing.
 This is also a reason why I love duels between aristocratic types – they’re always so proper and adhere to the rules, even in their killing.