“And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning” — Wilfred Owen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est”
The lives of World War I English poets Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden (“Dunkirk”) and Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson, “Making Noise Quietly”) are inextricably linked in U.K. director Terence Davies’ (“A Quiet Passion”) Benediction, an examination of Sassoon’s thwarted relationship with Owen and the heartbreaking sadness of his life. Both soldiers fought in the front lines of the war on the Western Front but only one returned home. Owen’s death, one week before the armistice, is particularly poignant since only five of his poems, now considered masterpieces, were published before the war’s end.
In his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Owen maintains that there is no glory in the deaths of young men on the Western Front.
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle can patter out their hasty orisons.”
In addition to seeing many of his friends killed in combat, Sassoon had to endure the death of his brother Hamo (Thom Ashley, “War of the Worlds” TV series), a loss that haunted him until the end.
“Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.” — “Aftermath”
“But death replied: ‘I choose him.’ So he went, And there was silence in the summer night” — “The Death Bed”
Sassoon’s war service was marked by instances of extraordinary bravery, including the capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades, he scattered 60 German soldiers and he was nicknamed “Mad Jack” by his men for his effort and, on 27 July 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross.
“Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs; And there is absolution in my songs” — “The Poet As Hero”
Culled from archive footage, Benediction opens with a montage showing the war’s death and destruction. As a young combatant, Sassoon makes clear his opposition to the political conduct of the war, saying, “I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.” The circulation of this statement, “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration,” leads to his being sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, a psychiatric facility where he meets the young poet Wilfred Owen.
Aside from describing a productive relationship with his closeted psychiatrist, Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels, “The Exorcist” TV series), and his friendship with Owen (who is given only about five minutes in the film), the story quickly shifts to Sassoon’s prolific activities as a gay man after the war. While Davies’ previous films have contained a veiled gay subtext, Benediction is his first film that contains overt depictions of homosexuality, a punishable offense in England in the 1920s. Unfortunately the portrayals, although intended to mirror Sassoon’s actual relationships, contain harmful stereotypes that mar the film. The repressed Davies once said that “being gay has ruined my life. I hate it. I’ll go to my grave hating it which is why I have been celibate.”
Sadly, this hatred of being gay may translate into an exaggerated depiction of Sassoon’s relationships as being filled with mean-spirited jealousies, resentments, and companions who are lacking in affection, tenderness, or the sharing of common goals. Prominence is given to Sassoon’s affairs with entertainer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine, “Paradise Hills”), socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch, “Black Beauty”), and Ivor’s former lover, retired actor Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth, “Scott and Sid”). Cutesy one-liners abound. Comparing Sassoon’s current poetry to his earlier efforts, Shaw declares that his work has moved from “the sublime to the meticulous.”
Surprising his friends, however, Siegfried finds long-term companionship with a young female friend, Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, “Downton Abbey”), and they are soon married even though she is aware of his past sexual inclinations. Davies plays with time, showing a montage of young faces slowly turning into those of old men. Sassoon (Peter Capaldi, “The Suicide Squad”), is shown as a bitter old man having a shouting match with his adult son George (Richard Goulding, “Me Before You”). We also witness Sassoon’s separation from his wife Hester (Gemma Jones, “Rocketman”), although no context or reasons are given for the breakup. Davies said, “At the end of his life, I think he was actually quite unfulfilled.” The assumption that Sassoon converted to Catholicism and married only out of a desire to be conventional, however, is speculative.
While Benediction has many strong points and the narration of brief excerpts from the poems is very moving, the opportunity to make real the greatness of these men may have been missed. We see them mainly from an emotional distance and the film rarely evokes our empathy or caring until the very end. Unfortunately as well, some of the important points of Sassoon’s life are not mentioned, including his role in bringing Owen’s work to the attention of a wider audience after the war, his participation in the politics of the labor movement, his editorship of the Socialist Daily Herald, his membership in the Ghost Club, a paranormal investigation organization, and his being a recipient of the 1928 James Tait Black Award for fiction.
Davies, however, who has had a long and distinguished career as a director of such memorable films as “Distant Voices, Still Lives,” and “The Long Day Closes,” must be acknowledged for bringing the work and career of these two great poets to public attention. In his poem “The Last Meeting,” Sassoon laments the loss of his friend David Thomas who was killed at Fricourt in 1916. “I know,” he wrote, “that he is lost among the stars, and may return no more but in their light.” Thanks to Davies, the poetry of Owen and Sassoon may return to the light.