Having a keen interest in firebacks I am wont to peer into the recesses of fireplaces wherever I come across them in the hope of spotting some unrecorded gem. This even extends to historical documentaries and dramas on television and in films, in the hope that if I spot one I might be able to visit the place where it was filmed and add it to my ever-expanding database.
I did not expect to be doing so when I went to the cinema a few weeks ago to see Ridley Scott’s latest film, ‘The Last Duel’, which is set in late-14th century France. I enjoyed the film and it was evident that, for the most part, the production manager, Arthur Max, the art directors and their teams had striven to recreate a convincing medieval ‘feel’ to the film in the choice of locations and in the lighting and costume. Several historic sites were chosen to represent the places where scenes from the story occurred, as well as some interiors being created on sound stages at Bray in the Republic of Ireland.
However, I could not help but peer behind the characters talking on camera into the adjacent fireplaces, and what did see? firebacks! But this was supposed to be 14th-century France and cast iron, from which firebacks were made, was not introduced into France until well into the 15th century and certainly could not have produced the styles of firebacks that were being illuminated, some of which were of 17th-century date. A press release put out by Disney on 21 October 2021, the day the film opened in the USA, made much of the film’s authenticity but was this mere inattention to detail or something worse?
I began to research the locations used for filming and found one named in the press release where there was a fireplace with a fireback I could identify in several scenes. It was in the hall of one of the principal characters, Jean de Carrouges (played by Matt Damon). Chateau de Beynac is in the Dordogne and in its Great Hall is a grand fireplace with a fireback displaying three doves with olive branches, typical of those made in Germany for the Dutch market in the mid-17th century. How can the presence of such a specifically identifiable object be in any way authentic to a 14th-century setting? Could they not move the fireback, or was leaving it deliberate?
I searched other locations mentioned in the press release and on other websites but could find none of the other fireplaces visible in the film. I am guessing that they were in scenes with settings recreated on sound stages, for the press release made much of the ‘attention to detail’ that included replicating the texture of stonework. One such scene was the hall of Pierre d’Alençon (played by Ben Affleck), where there was another fireback. But presumably this was constructed in the studio, so the fireback must have been deliberately brought in as a prop. But why choose one that probably dated to 1653?
I spotted two other firebacks in the film: one in the bedroom of Jean and Marguerite de Carrouges (played by Jodie Comer); the other in the room of Jacques le Gris (played by Adam Driver). Neither, of course, could have conceivably been present in 1386. Deliberately including firebacks when they are not of the period is an avoidable error and inevitably diminishes the claims made by the film’s producers of its ‘attention to detail’.