The Last Duel is a historical drama directed by Ridley Scott that came out in 2021 starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and Jodie Comer. Based on the 2004 book of the same title by Eric Jager, The Last Duel is about the last officially sanctioned judicial duel by combat that took place in France in 1386 between a Norman knight named Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and a squire, named Jacques Le Gris (Driver).
The film covers a period of about fifteen years during the lives of two friends and squires, Carrouges and Le Gris, beginning with the fighting they participated in during the Hundred Years War, before settling in France to serve at the court of Count Peirre d’Alencon (petulantly but wonderfully played by Ben Affleck). Carrouges is the consummate soldier, and is eventually knighted. Because of his literacy and advanced math skills, Le Gris is placed in charge of Count d’Alencon’s finances, but remains a squire. Over time, their friendship is strained as they pursue their own ambitions by following differing paths. Despite Carrouges’s skill and bravery as a knight, he struggles to improve his standing, his reputation, and his fortunes in feudal France. Meanwhile, over the course of the film Le Gris rises in power, position and wealth through his intellect and cunning, without having to endure any of the struggles that Carrouges had to experience.
The personalities of both the stoic and honorable Carrouges and the foppish and lecherous Le Gris run headlong into each other, when Carrouges marries (in order to further his ambitions) Marguerite de Thibouville (Comer). After Le Gris is introduced to her, he becomes infatuated, and eventually connives a way to be alone with Marguerite, and rapes her. When Marguerite informs Carrouges of what has happened, he immediately demands justice, but realizes that because of Le Gris’s standing at the court of the Count, he will not receive a fair hearing. Thus, he begins a campaign against Le Gris that results in the case making its way to King Charles VI. The trial is humiliating and painful to both Carrouges and Marguerite, and upon realizing that the verdict may not go his way, Carrouges decides to leverage Le Gris’s vanity and demands a trial by combat. His request is granted and the two engage in battle, with Carrouges surfacing as the victor, after which he and Marguerite are vindicated and then honored throughout Paris.
A Matter of Perspective and Interpretation
Despite being more than two hours long and centered around a single traumatic event, The Last Duel is a well-told and engaging story for two key reasons. The first is that the film deliberately emulates Akira Kurasawa’s 1950 film Rashoman, which was a movie about a murder and rape told through the recollections of four witnesses. In a similar fashion, The Last Duel is broken up into three chapters, which are each told from the points of view of Carrouges, Le Gris, and Marguerite (whose version alone we are subtly told is the truth). However, unlike in Rashomon, where the four accounts of the crimes are contradictory and self-serving, the accounts of the three characters in The Last Duel all agree as to the events that form the basis of the story, but differ only slightly in how the characters remember and interpret their words and deeds during those events.
Another aspect of the film that some may find appealing is that unlike Scott’s other historically based films such as 1492 or Kingdom of Heaven, The Last Duel is actually historically accurate and is relatively faithful to the book upon which it is based. The book’s author, Eric Jager, said in an interview that the “real” story of the duel was taken from a popular local legend in France that he had discovered and researched in order to give a full account of the tale. In the interview, Jager also indicated how pleased he was to learn that Ridley Scott was making a movie based on his book, and that he was grateful when Scott was kind enough to send him an advance copy of the script to review. Scott even gave him the opportunity to make suggestions for the script- some of which were incorporated into the film.
Because of this, we are given an accurate and frank look at life in medieval France, during the post-Black Death period and the Hundred Years War. A world of laws and customs that were far different from our own and that our modern sensibilities will bristle at, such as the tradition of arranged and transactional marriages. This is illustrated by a scene when Carrouges haggles with Marguerite’s father over her dowry while she is standing nearby. It was also a time when the rape of a man’s wife, the central element of the story, was seen solely as a crime against the husband. This fact played out in the film, when Le Gris goes to confession to ask forgiveness for the sin of adultery, not rape. Later when the Count d’Alencon informs Le Gris that Carrouges has accused him of rape, Le Gris claims that the encounter was consensual and that Marguerite only protested out of propriety because she was a lady. Lastly, we see Marguerite’s mother-in-law admitting to her that she had been raped in her youth and scolds Marguerite that she should have just kept quiet and carry on with her life, like she had done earlier for the sake of family honor.
An Ancient Tale Seen Through Modern Eyes
It is clear from watching The Last Duel that Scott is deliberately inserting modern feminist themes such as patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and “MeToo” sentiments into the storyline. However, if the viewer can, for a moment, step back from their contemporary cultural centricity, it is equally clear that there are still many universal elements about human nature in the film which will resonate with some audiences.
For one, you don’t need to be a progressive or feminist-minded person to view the crime against Marguerite as an outrage. Even in our own sexually libertine society, there are enough remnants of our Christian heritage that remain with us to understand that even if done out of vanity or pride, and in the confines of the medieval world, Carrouges’ pursuit of justice for his wife is definitely laudable. Further, the asymmetrical legal system of the medieval world that gives certain persons more rights and protections than others, as well as its inclusion of backroom and underhanded deals, is something the modern audience can relate to, even if we don’t settle our disputes through violence or by asking God to directly “decide” the outcome of a trial.
Moreover, some viewers may rail against the strict and harsh constraints of the Medieval Catholic world portrayed in the film, such as the famous line from the trailer when Carrouges tells Marguerite that he is risking his life for her, and she aptly replies, “You are risking my life for your pride!” It is true that according to the laws and customs of the time, if Carrouges were to win his duel, he and his wife would be vindicated. On the other hand, if Le Gris were to prevail, the film makes clear that Marguerite would be tortured and burned at the stake for making a false accusation against a nobleman, and the remaining family members would almost certainly be shamed and/or shunned by the rest of society.
This is the main reason behind Marguerite’s mother-in-law’s warning about keeping the rape a secret, which is something that certainly still happens today, but which had far more dire consequences in the context of the film’s fourteenth century setting. This was a world that was, according to one historian, “a time of betrayal, strife, and bloodlust,” when familial, social, and political conflicts could turn into widespread and bloody conflicts. Thus, as personally galling at it would seem to us not to come forward about such a horrific crime, choosing to remain silent about it at this time in history would have been seen as a prudent choice for the sake and safety of one’s family.
An Unintended Hero
The modern audience is obviously meant to forget about the film's historical context and see Carrouges as a stand-in for the modern caricature of the white cis-gender-hetero-traditonal-Christian. He is a man who sees his wife as merely a means to fulfill his own needs and ambitions, and who puts his pride and honor before everything and everyone else. This is purposely illustrated in a scene in Marguerite’s version of her story, when she tells Carrouges of the rape, and he is oblivious to her feelings as he cries out that the rape was yet another outrage that Le Gris has committed against him.
Yet one has to ask what would be the modern “MeToo” solution to this situation? It would largely consist of virtue signaling and scolding against “systems of oppression” that make a lot of noise about how things “ought to be”, but offering little in the way of anything that would address the actual issues or their root causes. This is why, intended or not, the presence of modern feminist sentiments in film end up being rather timid and superficial.
Considering the severity of the stakes of Carrouges choosing to bring a case against Le Gris and the humiliation and scrutiny of the most intimate parts of their marriage being revealed in an open court, what is lost in the film’s progressive pandering is that within both the film’s historical context and the story itself, his choice to back his wife is far more laudable than the film gives him credit for. The fact that someone would pray to our Lord for aid at such a moment is to be expected, but it is important to question how many of us would literally make a vow to submit their life and fortunes into His hands? For while Carrouges is portrayed as a dour person as well as someone who is, according to Count d’Alencon, “no fun,” he is still a stoic, honorable, and pious character.
A Cautionary Tale for All Times
Finally, herein lies one more significant redeeming element of the film, which I should at least warn contains bloody violence as well as disturbing sexual content. It is summarized in a commentary about Rashomon, where Akira Kurasawa comments:
“Human beings are unable to be honest about with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing...without making them feel they are better people than they really are.”
All three characters in The Last Duel see the parts that they play differently, the differences are slight, but telling. They all tell a version of the story which makes them out to be both the victim and the hero (or at least the center of) the story. More often than not though, it is also what was not said- or what the characters failed to do- that is just as telling about themselves.
In another of Scott’s films, Gladiator, we hear the phrase, “Strength and honor” used repeatedly. It signifies the overriding qualities of Maximus' character as he sets things right on both the personal level and with Rome, even at the cost of his life. In The Last Duel, the operative words could be “Pride and honor.” The movie is an intricate tale that wrestles with the question of where the line exists between the justifiable defense of one’s sense of honor and integrity of one’s family, and a disordered and destructive sense of pride or vanity that ultimately becomes all-consuming.
Photo Credit- Hollywood Reporter