Film History Essentials: Duel au Pistolet (1896)

(English: Pistol Duel)

What it’s about:

Two men face off in a wooded field and level pistols at each other. They fire, and one man falls. The doctor and seconds attend to the fallen man. The other combatant steps forward, but the doctor waves him off and his seconds hurry him away to a waiting carriage while the others continue their ministrations.

Why it’s essential:

Gabriel Veyre (see right) was working as a pharmacist in a small village south of Lyon when motion pictures first debuted in France. Seeing an opportunity for travel (and a pay raise), Veyre got a job with the Lumière brothers as a cameraman. In the summer of 1896, he was dispatched to Mexico along with a partner, Claude Ferdinand Von Bernard. The two men were immediately embraced by both the country’s ruling elite and the general public. They not only gave regular showings of imported motion pictures, to widespread acclaim, but also recorded and showed the first films to be taken in Mexico. Several of these included films of the Mexican president, General Porfirio Díaz.

The pair spent nearly six months in the country, and their activities were enthusiastically reported on by several newspapers. Their stay was, however, not entirely without controversy. In mid-December they visited Chapultepec Park and filmed a re-enactment of an actual duel. Veyre reportedly had the permission of authorities to film the scene. This may have been necessary, not because of the subject, but because the actors were playing two real-life political figures. Or it may simply have been because the filming took place near the presidential residence in Chapultepec Castle. However, despite the official approval, some journalists worried in print that the film would give a bad impression of the country to an international audience.

Dueling was officially outlawed in Mexico in 1871, but authorities had often looked the other way when it happened, and in the early 1890s it had reached a peak. The practice was governed by a complex system of social norms that were, for some, a source of national pride as a sign of Mexico’s modernity, and of its kinship with other European nations like France. But in the case of a filmed duel, without context, would other nations recognize it as an honorable, dignified ritual, or simply see it as a sign that everyday life in Mexico was characterized by violence and barbarism? Would they see a kindred culture and society, or a more southerly version of the Wild West?

Several sources claim that this was a re-enactment of a duel that had taken place the day before the filming, between two government officials, but give no additional details. This seems unlikely to be correct for several reasons. It was most probably a recreation of a famous duel that had taken place in September 1894, between Colonel Francisco Romero and Jose Verástegui, the postmaster general (see left). Romero, approaching the house of Juan Barajas, a mutual friend, for dinner, had supposedly overheard Verástegui inside, insulting him to Barajas’s wife, Natalia. He later sent Verástegui a letter, accusing him of carrying on an affair with Natalia, and of having gained a foothold with the family by using his influence to get Barajas a government job.

The two men fought a duel next to the Panteón Español cemetery in Mexico City, and Verástegui was killed. A number of high-ranking officials were involved, and the duel received a great deal of attention. Ultimately, Romero was put on trial and actually sentenced to prison, signaling an end to tacit government tolerance for the practice. This may have been another reason some Mexicans were uncomfortable with Veyre’s film as a representation of their country—because it was no longer accurate. Then, too, many of them would have been familiar with the details of the actual events, and how they may have differed from what is portrayed on-screen.

However, in the end, the film apparently wasn’t shown publicly in Mexico. Veyre sent a print back to France, and traveled on to Cuba, and then to Venezuela, where he did show the film several months later. It had debuted in France early in 1897, under the title Mexique: un Duel au Pistolet. For what it’s worth, the inclusion of “Mexico” in the film’s title confirms that the Mexican journalists’ fears concerning the portrayal of their country were at least partially justified.

Why you should see it:

The print that exists of this film is absolutely pristine, but it genuinely stands out in a few other ways. Many viewers have commented on the naturalism of the duelist’s death, one of the first to be depicted on screen and very much in contrast to the melodramatic style that was more typical of this time. The victim doesn’t throw up his hands, clutch his chest, or stagger or roll around in the agonies of death. He simply falls over, letting the pistol drop. It’s no wonder, then, that some viewers might have mistaken this for the real thing.

Veyre also displays an excellent eye for camera placement here. The norm would still have been to frame this symmetrically, from the side, with the duelist facing each other from opposite sides of the screen. Instead, he places us almost in the line of fire, and with a close view of the fallen man and of the efforts to tend to him. But at the same time, the shot also captures the departure of the winner as he is rushed towards the carriages. He, too, seems affected by the outcome, stumbling forward mechanically as his friends hold him up and one places his hat back on his head for him. It’s an incredibly effective and impressive use of a single shot to tell this story.


~ by Jared on February 27, 2023.

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