Film History Essentials: Duel to the Death (1898)

What it’s about:

Two women armed with large knives strip off their outer garments and then begin to circle one another, each looking for an opening to stab the other. They grapple fiercely until one manages to plunge her knife into the other. The killer watches, horror-stricken, as the other woman sinks to the ground.

Why it’s essential:

Picturesque landscapes, coronations, and other such decent and high-minded films were not William Dickson’s only work for the new British Mutoscope Company. From the beginning, exploitation formed a not-insubstantial side of the motion picture business. In fact, the Mutoscope itself was uniquely fitted for the exhibition of such films, and was used for that purpose from its inception. Unlike the communal experience of projected motion pictures, the Mutoscope offered a more-voyeuristic, private peep show for the viewer.

Within a few years, these machines, which were often stocked with more titillating fare (at least suggestive, if not outright erotic, see right for some later examples), became widely known in England as “What the Butler Saw” machines. The name came from the immense popularity of a Mutoscope reel in which the viewer was placed in the point-of-view of the titular butler, watching his mistress undress through a keyhole. This title, in turn, came from the huge scandal surrounding a well-known 1886 divorce trial. The husband’s accusation of infidelity depended upon whether the jury agreed that their butler could have seen (as he claimed) the wife in a compromising position with another man through a particular keyhole.

Although Duel to the Death doesn’t seem to have been a Mutoscope reel specifically, clearly both Dickson and British Mutoscope were no strangers to exploitative material. Certainly this film isn’t even pretending to be anything else, beginning (as it does) with two women literally ripping their outer garments off, and then engaging in a vicious struggle that is devoid of even a hint of grace or delicacy (and which causes their looser undergarments to slip and move quite suggestively). It’s like a penny dreadful come to life.

For Dickson, it was a chance to return to his roots, filming a pair of performers in a studio, staging the act for which they were best known. Actually, this wasn’t even the first time Dickson had filmed a similar scene. The year before, while still in America, he made An Affair of Honor, based on the 1884 painting by Emile Antoine Bayard (see left), featuring two women dueling with swords. The women in that film are fully-clothed, although the original painting depicts them stripped to the waist.

Duel to the Death is supposed to have been a reenactment of a climactic scene from a Drury Lane melodrama called Women and Wine. The film stars Beatrice Homer and Edith Blanche, the actresses from the play, reprising their roles. It may also have been released under the title To the Death, or this may have been a second version of the same film (as was commonly done when an especially popular film wore out).

Homer and Blanche did not have particularly distinguished careers, though both enjoyed steady work in London’s West End. After performing at Drury Lane, Homer was at the Adelphi Theatre for the 1899-1900 season, appearing in 21 performances of “Drink,” an adaptation of Emil Zola’s L’Assommoir. Edith seems to have come from a family of actors, which included both her mother and her sister Ada, a far better-known actress with a career that spanned several decades.

The plot of Women and Wine is a fairly typical one. A law student, Dick Seymour, falls in with a bad crowd and turns to gambling, drink, and questionable female companionship, nearly destroying his life in the process. Marcel Rigadout (Homer), the woman who lured Dick down the wrong path, is eventually killed in a knife fight (as seen here) by “La Colombe” (Blanche), a jealous rival for the affections of another man Marcel “stole” from her.

Meanwhile, Dick is nearby, drunk into unconsciousness, and when he wakes up, he believes that he is responsible for the murder. He is arrested and put on trial, but La Colombe finally comes forward with a dramatic, 11th-hour confession in court, and Dick is tearfully reunited with his faithful girlfriend, who stood by him all along. It’s pretty clear from this summary which scene is (without context) the most cinematic (and marketable), though a full, feature-length adaptation (The Model) was eventually produced by Vitagraph in 1915.

Why you should see it:

Dickson had come a long way since his days filming these kinds of scenes in the Black Maria. Instead of a black backdrop, there is painted scenery effectively combined with real plants to create an actual setting. The framing doesn’t feel as confining as it generally did for similar acts in the Black Maria. The women have plenty of room to maneuver without ever looking like they are constrained by the space.

The choreography and costumes are also very effective in conveying the action. It would be easy for such a close struggle to devolve into confusion, but it is always clear which character is which and exactly what each one is doing. (It seems odd but notable that both women fight with the knife in their left hands.) The death scene is a bit much (and inadvertently reveals the total lack of any wound), but it’s brief and not nearly as over-the-top as it could be. Best of all is the rare glimpse of what an actual 19th-century stage production would have looked like in one of its most sensational moments.


~ by Jared on April 6, 2023.

2 Responses to “Film History Essentials: Duel to the Death (1898)”

  1. […] This principle extends to the (presumably male) audience of the film, as well. The term “male gaze” was coined in the 1970s, but the concept that it named had existed in art long before the beginnings of film. Certainly also by this point there had already been many, many examples of depictions of women on film from a male perspective for the pleasure of a male audience. Many of these were shot by Heise himself, including any number of “dance” films (i.e., Carmencita and Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance) and films like Seminary Girls, but also plenty of others, such as Après le Bal and Duel to the Death. […]


  2. […] after Esterhazy’s acquittal, the newspaper L’Aurore published an open letter by the celebrated novelist Émile Zola under the famous headline “J’Accuse…!” (see right). Zola’s outpouring […]


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