Duel to the Death (1898) A Silent Film Review

Two women in love with the same man? This calls for a knife fight! And it wouldn’t do to mess up their blouses during such combat, so… Second generation Victorian trash and quite fascinating.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the BFI.

The good, clean fun of yesteryear…

The first decade of cinema was a wild age of contrasts. Gentle domestic scenes and lovely shots of nature contrasted with scenes of violence, slapstick, magic and, of course, titillation. Movies could be softly humorous or wild in their brutality, with every shade in between.

Preparing for combat

Duel to the Death, as you might imagine falls on the brutal end of the spectrum and was part of the general craze for showcasing woman vs. woman combat. In the picture, two women meet against a flowered background, strip down to their corsets and then engage in vigorous combat with knives. As advertised in the title, one of the women dies fighting. You cannot accuse these 30 seconds of being boring. (The BFI lists the filmmaker as pioneer William Dickson, who worked in England after his association with Thomas Edison ended.)

Now, there is a tendency to think that anything involving kissing, ankles or anything else like that caused mass fainting fits during the Victorian era/Gilded Age, but the fact is, there were plenty of “blue” movies, keyhole voyeurism pictures and even outright adult films. A kiss or an ankle on the screen was not extremely shocking and there were far more, ahem, warm pictures available to viewers who wished to see them. After all, we might not go about our day wearing the leotard-type costumes that pop singers sport but that doesn’t mean we find leotards shocking.

Wild but still fairly mild for the era.

That being said, Duel to the Death was clearly meant to titillate and, considering the reaction that this film has received after the BFI posted it to the internet, it seems to still be succeeding in that goal. The actresses twirl about the screen, blades and décolletage flashing, with the dead loser of the fight carefully posed for maximum attractiveness before the camera. Oh yes. What they did there, we see it.

The BFI’s research states that this film was based on the melodrama Women and Wine by Benjamin Landeck and Arthur Shirley and the actresses engaged in combat were Edith Blanche and Beatrice Homer. Whether it was publicly acknowledge to be based on Women and Wine or was a wink-wink off-brand adaptation—either option was possible—it’s easy to see the connection between the 1897 smash hit and this short film.

Mind the palms, ladies!

The play set its duel (more of a murder, really, as it doesn’t look like the victim was armed in the original) against the backdrop of an empty flower market in the early hours of the morning and only a lone flower vendor as the witness to the crime. The knives being wielded were the tools used to cut the tougher flower stems by the florists. This would explain the otherwise incongruous flowery backdrop of Duel to the Death. The play also includes the grisly detail of the corpse being hidden in a box of flowers, only to be discovered by another member of the cast (cue dramatic scream of horror) but, of course, there’s only so much that you can include in a brief cinematic vignette.

While Women and Wine was treated as trash in England, it was exported to the United States and quickly became a hit with no apparent scandal attached to it. It enjoyed successful runs in New York and San Francisco and was later adapted as a feature film in 1915 by the World company, one of the last East Coast filmmaking outlets. World specialized in classed-up adaptations of stage properties, so adapting Wine and Women would have been right up their alley. (The picture was officially released as The Model; or, Women and Wine.)

I think we would all like to see a side-by-side comparison of the same knife fight filmed nearly two decades apart but, alas, no copies of the World production are known to survive. Check those attics!

So, this is a case of an earlier film being our only clue about the contents of a later production. The few tantalizing stills that survive in movie magazines of the time certainly paint a dynamic, throbbing melodrama. The scene of the stabbing is quite dynamic, indeed, with Columbe, the aggressor, wild-eyed and about to stab her opponent, whose back is to the camera. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any stills of the dramatic corpse-in-a-box-of-flowers scene. Based on what I know about the quality of World’s output, it must have been quite something.

I imagine that the motion picture was quite something as the play featured everything you might want in a melodrama. Love triangles! A woman scored! Paris! Courtroom drama! A last-minute confession saving the hero from the gallows! A blind relative who needs an operation! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.

The craze for women duelists was likely based on the myth that Austro-Hungarian noblewomen dueled topless and the breathless portrayals of both the Paris Apache and Romani women. (The fight in the cigarette factory between the title character and her rival was a set piece of the 1915 adaptation of Carmen.) There were also numerous tabloid newspaper items discussing women murdering other women, complete with tasteless and fanciful illustrations. Is it the fault of the artist if some of the subjects’ clothing tore off in the fight? That’s the risk with blade combat, after all.

Duel to the Death was not the only picture of the 1890s to present the combatants as figures for the male gaze to consume and enjoy. A Ballroom Tragedy (1905) portrays an outright assassination with the victim carefully positioning her bosom for an attractive shot. However, ladies could duel with a certain amount of cinematic dignity, as well. The 1906 Danish film, The Other Woman, portrays the duel in an intensely dramatic yet non-sexualized manner, thanks to the way the performers were choreographed and costumed.

Duel to the Death was unabashed trash and would have been accepted as such when it was released.

Where can I see it?

Stream it courtesy of the BFI’s YouTube channel.


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