<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=252463768261371&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

5 Screenwriting Takeaways: 'The Last Duel' is a true story of one woman's struggle in 14th century France

October 23, 2021
5 min read time

More than 650 years ago, the last officially recognized judicial duel was fought in France. Why this duel took place is the story behind Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which tells the narrative in three chapters from three characters’ points of view about the events leading up to the famed fight.

The Last Duel is the tale of a brave and skillful knight and intelligent squire who start out as friends and soon become enemies. When the squire viciously assaults and rapes Marguerite, the knight’s wife, she accuses him in public of these actions and the knight feels compelled to defend his honor even as the squire denies this attack. And so, they put the test into God’s hands in the form of a duel sanctioned by the crown. Should the knight win, it will prove his wife’s accusations were true. If he loses, they are false. 

If you’re looking for a feel-good family film, this is not the one for you. The Last Duel is violent, dramatic, and the spark of several conversations about some of today’s most relevant topics.

The Last Duel stars Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, and Ben Affleck. It was written by Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck.

Here are five screenwriting takeaways from The Last Duel:

1. A preview of things to come

One of the popular ways to start movies nowadays is to show a major story incident as a preface to the start of the film. Whether or not this is due to streaming services and the notion that movies must get audiences interested within seconds or an overall general trend, it’s nonetheless a popular way to begin a film. Writers can start taking note and seeing this as a way to start off their stories.

In essence, what pivotal point in your story would drive the viewer’s interest level? What glimpse into your characters’ lives would entice them to want to know how they get to this pivotal point? In The Last Duel, after the audience sees Jacques Le Gris (Driver) and Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon) start their duel, it cuts to where the story starts — and Jacques and Jean are good friends. Now the audience wants to know what happened.

2. The truth according to...

One compelling way that the filmmakers tell the story is through three chapters, each from a perspective of the main characters. What makes this way of telling the story fascinating is that the audience sees parts of the same story with holes in them, which get filled in as the film unfolds.

One example is in the first chapter — Chapter 1: The truth according to Jean de Carrouges — when Jean tells his wife, Marguerite, about a conversation gone bad with Jacques and Pierre d'Alençon (Affleck). Jean was supposed to receive a plot of land as part of a dowry upon marrying Marguerite, but he discovers he is not the owner; something that has to do with his friend Jacques. What we don’t see, until the second chapter, is what exactly happened during this conversation.

Writers can see how this tool provides mystery and engagement in a variety of characters and stories. There are even subtle changes of dialogue between stories as in one perspective someone says, "I have a plan," but in another the other person states, "We have a plan."

3. What are the universal truths?

The universal truth is what will help relate the characters and the story to audience members' lives. There doesn’t have to be just one in a movie, and The Last Duel has many of these truths and overall themes that lay behind the story.

There is friendship and deceit, money and power, loyalty and pride. These universal truths connect the world of 600+ years ago to today’s world. This includes many of the characters being alive during, and referencing the bubonic plague, the treatment of women by men in power (in which basically any man had power over any woman) and how church dictated everyday life.

Writers can see how these universal truths can be in the story to help enhance the relevance of their historic tale. It’s critical that these truths are present as it gives a reason for investors to spend the money telling a story in the 14th century when it could just as easily be told in a modern-day narrative.

4. Creating complicated characters

The main characters in The Last Duel are complex with many dimensions and layers including within their interactions with others. What’s compelling to watch as the story unfolds and as the three chapters take place, is observing how these characters will act in situations the audience knows are coming up. In the confrontation scene mentioned above, in which Jean confronts Jacques and Pierre, we know the vague details according to Jean’s perspective — we only know what he tells his wife. When it's Jacques perspective, the audience sees the complexity within the characters and how Jean’s attempt to save his pride corresponds to what he told Marguerite. Rarely is the story we share of an embarrassing incident accurate; why should a movie’s characters be any different?

Just like in life, everyone is the hero of their own story. As such, these perspectives show each hero within their story and the truths and lies they tell themselves and others to survive and save face. Each confront their internal and external demons in different ways, at different times, and the writer can see how these struggles play out.

5. The world we don’t know

While there are definite parallels to today’s world, the filmmakers also give us a glimpse into life in a time most people are not familiar with. What was religion like in the 14th century? What did Paris look like in 1385? What was war like and why were soldiers sent to fight? How did the powerful rule the weak?

Writers can see the subtle details put onscreen and in the dialogue. Examples include religion and how prominent a role it was in everyone’s lives. For instance, watching how priests blessed the marriage bed after the wedding between Jean and Marguerite, how confession was performed and the advice priests gave, and even how court was held. Even the duel is based on God sparing those who tell the truth.

The Last Duel doesn’t shy away from comparisons to modern-day issues, especially the ill treatment of women, how the wealthy wield power over those without the means to fight, and patriarchy in general. What’s compelling is how much similarity one can find in a true story from 650 years ago.

The Last Duel is currently in theaters.