Some time ago I became aware of a movie called “The Last Duel”. I saw the trailer. It looked intriguing. It also had Adam Driver doing his usual villainous brooding best; I noted the thing, although it wasn’t high enough on the “must-see” list that would tempt me into a movie theatre these days (not even Guillermo del Toro’s new one did THAT, I”m waiting for it somewhere safer and more accessible in good time). But then HBO brought out “The Last Duel”, and I told my TiVo to tape it for me.
But before I could watch it… I wandered into my library to put away a few books I”d just finished and which were lying in a pile on the floor and while I was doing that a paperback on a different shelf caught my eye.
“The Last Duel”.
I have NO memory of acquiring this book, I certainly have no memory of reading it. But with the movie coming up… it wasn’t a large book, and I was clearly being given “homework”, reading up on God’s gory justice before I saw it play out before my eyes in technicolor.
In a nutshell, here’s the thing. In the days of yore, it was perfectly acceptable for quarrels to be solved in a battle to the death – between two adversaries or possibly the champion for an adversary who couldn’t fight themselves (as in, this particular case, a woman). It was understood that God would stand as judge in this dispute, that it would be to the death, and that God (through the agency of the fighter who won the duel) would provide divine vindication for one or the other of the warring parties. This particular method of dispensing justice — which conveniently allowed earthly authorities to wash their hands of the matter – fell into disrepute as the middle ages crept forward into later centuries – and in fact this particular occasion, a true story, was the last or amog the last of its kind.
In “just the facts, ma’am”, here is the basic layout of the matter. ’tis a tale of two houses – one, of good and ancient name, but fallen on somewhat hard times; the other on the ascendancy, rising in the favour of their mutual liege lord, seemingly at the expense of the first. Initially the two men of these two houses were friends, allies on the battlefield, one of them even stood as godfather to the other’s son before tragedy struck and both that son and the mother who bore him died. The widower remarried, eventually, to a daughter of a house with a dubious and even traitorous reputation (to the french King) but with a sizeable dowry – which lacked one important piece of land that was extorted from the bride’s father in lieu of unpaid tithes and then gifted to… the erstwhile godfather. Who also gathered in other possessions and honors that the new bridegroom believed belonged by rights to himself.
A disastrous foreign campaign later, the husband returned almost destitute and spent a short time at home before setting off for Paris to collect certain sums of money owed to him. In the meantime his erstwhile friend, who had taken a shine to the new lady of the manor, used the opportunity to stop by the castle where the lady waited alone and forced himself upon her.
The lady cried rape.
The wronged husband took the matter to the King, and the highest court of the land, and demanded satisfaction by duel. WHich was granted, and watched, all agog, by anyone who could find a place to watch it from. The man accused of rape swore it wasn’t true… but he was killed in the duel, anyway, and God’s gory justice was satisfied. God showed that he lied. God took his life in payment for his false oath. Nobody dared ask just whose son it was that the lady bore in the meantime. Only a few years after this the victorious husband rode off to war – some iteration of the Crusades – and died there, leaving the wife in sole possession of field and fief. She never remarried.
The book is non fiction, full of footnotes and salient facts and quotes. On the face of it, it would seem to have been a strange choice for adaptation into a movie. But someone looked beneath the surface and saw this deadly duel unfolding, and hey, there was Adam Driver to step into the villain’s role. WHy not?
The movie (which I watched subsequently to reading the book) hewed fairly closely to the account given in the book itself. But, of course, it being a visual medium, things were no longer left to one’s imagination – and they were quite graphically not left to one’s imagination. Flying blood of battle or naked buttocks pumping on beds, this was a window into the “reality” of the thing.
God decided it – Jean de Carrouge was right, Jacques le Gris was wrong. One man left the field with his acquitted wife (oh, did I mention that if he had lost the wife would have been burned alive as having been forsworn…?) and the other, stripped naked, was dragged out and hung upside down from the gibbet for the crows to feast on, and duels to the death began to fade into history and memory.
One things of law, and judges, and juries. One thinks of legal loopholes that felons sometimes slip through, or snares that catch the innocent and destroy them in spite of that innocence. And then one thinks of this. Of course, it isn’t quite as cut and dried as it looks – a better fighter, innocent or guilty, would win such an encounter and thereby decide its outcome, so it probably mattered very little if someone who was less good and less well equipped entered the lists in the full conviction of his innocence and his right – a better armed and more martially gifted opponent would make mincemeat of them, unless God really sent a bolt of lightning to smite the other guy before he had a chance to fight which never happened in recorded history. So innocence was written by the hand which shed the (guilty) blood. God’s gory justice writ graphically in spiilled scarlet billows upon the sands of the lists. There’s a discussion to be said where God made his will more clearly known, in those lists, or in the courts. They say the pen is mightier than the sword – but in this instance the pen was as much wielded by men as the sword was, and oftentimes the law as written by that pen could be an absolute ass but still had to be kowtowed to. Was it simpler to put swords into two men’s hands and let them hack it out between them, as opposed to high-paid lawyers trying to find a mousehole in thelaw through which their clients could safely crawl away…?
WHich was better, book or movie? Well, they tally pretty closely but they’re different of course as they always are. It probably makes a difference seeing Adam Driver strut his stuff on the screen (but in truth everybody sucks here, a little, and the OTHER dude was no great prize either, as described. There was no “noble winner” here, in book or movie…) The truth might have been more nuanced than any of the parties involved really shared. We of course will never know because it was so many hundreds of years ago.
But there’s something heartstopping about watching two men fighting for their truth, with their lives.
I don’t know how I had the book. I don’t know why they made this movie.
But looking God’s gory justice in the eye is always powerful.