The true story behind ‘The Last Duel’: a tale that has fascinated France for 700 years

As Ben Affleck and Matt Damon reteam for historical drama ‘The Last Duel’, we go inside the story of chivalry, honour and death which continues to enthral

Matt Damon stars as Jean de Carrouges, and Adam Driver as Jacques Le Gris in 'The Last Duel'. Photo: Patrick Redmond / 20th Century Studios
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The last time Ben Affleck and Matt Damon wrote a script together, 1997’s Good Will Hunting ended up winning them the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, and its star, the late Robin Williams, the Best Supporting Actor gong.

So, for the pair to reunite 25 years later for co-writing duties, along with writer Nicole Holofcener, the story was always going to be an interesting one.

The Last Duel, which is out in the UAE on Thursday, is a story that has enthralled France for more than 700 years. Its outcome has divided scholars and historians, and influenced writers across the centuries.

“The big thing for me about this process was how much fun it was and how important that is for me and my quality of life," Affleck told Reuters, of reteaming with his friend and writing partner. "And how much I enjoy working with people that I like, love and respect."

Bad blood

Matt Damon's Jean de Carrouges, and Adam Driver's Jacques Le Gris had been on-off friends over the years, before Carrouges challenged the knight by throwing down his gauntlet. Patrick Redmond / 20th Century Studios

The infamous tale tells the story of the last official recognised judicial duel in France, which took place on December 29, 1386.

Based on the 2014 book, The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by Eric Jager, Damon steps into the shoes of French squire Jean de Carrouges, with Affleck taking on the role of Pierre D’Alencon, a count and knight.

When Jean accuses his neighbour and rival, knight Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of raping his wife, Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), in January of that year while she was alone at his mother’s chateau, he goes to King Charles VI for justice.

The king calls for a trial by combat, and Le Gris, with the support of the powerful and influential D’Alencon, agrees to the duel rather than a church trial, as a matter of chivalry.

Le Gris and Jean previously had a long history of public arguments, in particular over the domain of Aunou-le-Faucon.

The region had been owned by Marguerite’s father, who had sold it to D’Alencon in 1377. Jean wanted the land back as part of his new bride’s dowry and took D’Alencon to court to get it.

The disagreement kicked off years of bitter disputes ­between the two men, in which Le Gris, as D’Alencon’s right-hand man, became involved.

A fight to the death to determine guilt

Jodie Comer portrays Marguerite de Carrouges in 'The Last Duel', the woman at the heart of the story. Patrick Redmond / 20th Century Studios

According to Marguerite’s testimony, on January 18, 1386, while Jean was in Paris, Le Gris’s squire Adam Louvel arrived at the chateau telling Marguerite that Le Gris he wanted to see her ­because he was in love with her.

She says when she ­protested, Le Gris entered the house and made declarations of love and offers of money.

When she refused, he raped her, threatening retribution if she told anyone.

Jean and Le Gris finally came face-to-face on July 9, 1386, at Paris’s Palais de Justice.

When the former threw down his gauntlet – his glove – the latter signalled that he accepted the challenge by picking it up.

The case, with evidence from Louvel and Marguerite’s maid among others, was heard by the king.

Unable to reach a conclusion, the ­parliament announced that the two men would fight to the death to determine guilt.

The initial date for the duel of November 27 was ­postponed by King Charles, who was embroiled in a campaign in Flanders and didn’t want to miss out after it gained notoriety and began shaping up as the year’s most unmissable event.

If Jean lost, Marguerite would be burnt alive at the stake for perjury.

France’s final duel and enduring fascination

The film marks the first time in 25 years that long-time friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have written a script together, after 1997's Oscar-winning 'Good Will Hunting'. AFP

The duel attracted ­thousands of spectators on the day.

Starting on horseback, the battle involved lances, axes and swords until one victor remained standing. Although that was far from the end of the story.

For centuries, historians, writers and scholars, ­including acclaimed French philosophers Diderot and Voltaire, have debated the ­outcome, which, looking ­beyond the chivalric code of the day, cast light on the ­treatment of women and ­consent in society.

The film opts to tell the story from three different ­perspectives: that of Jean, Le Gris and Marguerite, with Ridley Scott taking on helming duties for the men’s perspectives, and Holofcener directing Marguerite’s.

“We saw it as a story of perspective, and so Ben and I wrote the male perspectives and Nicole wrote the female perspective,” Damon told talk-show host Jimmy Fallon.

“It’s the first movie we’ve written in 25 years.”

'The Last Duel' is out in the UAE on October 14

Updated: October 17, 2021, 1:57 PM