Benediction: a case of Sassoon the man v Sassoon the legend
Terence Davies’ Benediction, a biopic of Siegfried Sassoon, portrays two iterations of the First World War poet: the embattled soldier of the trenches and the embittered elder statesman, but is the man behind the poetry to be seen? Dr Chris Kempshall, a historian specialising in portrayals of the First World War in popular culture, considers how Benediction tackles what we think we know
In Terence Davies’ feature film Benediction, actors Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi split the duties of representing the famed poet Siegfried Sassoon at different stages of his life. Lowden is the younger Sassoon, during the First World War and in the post-war years; Capaldi as the older man, embittered at the breakdown of his marriage and as he planned to convert to Catholicism.
The nature of the film’s focus, on Sassoon’s relationships, is framed both by the title and an early conversation with the anthropologist and psychiatrist WHR Rivers, who suggests that Sassoon consider his therapy sessions as a “cleansing of the soul”. As the plot advances, the extent to which Benediction's Sassoon is portrayed as a man deeply damaged both by the war and his relationships with men like Ivor Novello becomes clear.
As with all biopics, Benediction is primarily interested in trying to unpick the nature and character of Sassoon himself, but there is also a great deal to be noted regarding the extent to which the wider cast of characters exist within a popular mindset, and what that says about how British culture remembers the war and its literary figures.
Memory versus the man
As with many of the war poets, Sassoon exists as a duality within popular memory: both as the man he was, and the man as understood by his poetry. The tension between these two ideas is often complicated by widely accepted myths, some of which appear in this film. Most obvious is the story that Sassoon, in a fit of frustration, cast his Military Cross [earned for “conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy's trenches”] into the River Mersey. It’s an event Sassoon himself recounted, and is partially reproduced in Benediction, but didn’t actually happen; the medal was later found in an attic.
Sassoon’s protest against the war and the nature of his poetry are often translated into an entirely anti-war stance, which is neither an accurate nor nuanced understanding of what he was trying to say. So it is refreshing that Benediction delivers the full text of Sassoon’s protest statement, Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, although it feels a little like a missed opportunity to explore what it actually means.
When Sassoon – a man known as ‘Mad Jack’ by his comrades because of his aggressive approach to warfare – made his protest, it was not against the war in itself, but the way it was being waged. It is not the job of Benediction to entirely rebalance this position, but it remains a point of departure between Sassoon the man and Sassoon the imagined figure.
Sassoon’s time at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh alongside WHR Rivers and Wilfred Owen is the focus of most of the film’s first act. Through no fault of its own, this does end up feeling a bit like a semi-remembered echo of the 1997 film adaptation of Pat Barker’s anti-war novel Regeneration, which itself explores the experiences of officers being treated for shell shock at Craiglockhart.
- Read more | 5 influential WW1 poets you should know about
Some aspects of Sassoon’s war service and his stay at Craiglockhart diverge slightly from reality. In the journalist Robbie Ross is shown as being a key figure in having Sassoon sent for treatment in the wake of Declaration – instead of being court-martialled – which downplays the role of his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves. Similarly, the wound Sassoon sustains towards the end of the war is shown as being to his arm and shoulder, rather than his head.
That said, Davies is clearly keen to leave hints of where he has drawn his sources from. The conversation between Rivers and Sassoon about their sexualities, with the strong implication that Rivers himself was also gay, is something that Sassoon biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson has written about. Similarly, the biography of Sassoon by John Stuart Roberts describes Ivor Novello as a man who “collected lovers as he collected lilacs”, and a line to this effect is uttered in the film.
The timeline of events within the film is often truncated for dramatic and narrative reasons, which is rarely an issue – for example the point at which Sassoon begins his affair with Novello appears to be moved from the early 1920s to around the end of the war itself. Other events become difficult to place against particular years, though hints about ‘the Hitler Youth’ serve as chronological markers.
But reflecting upon the film what becomes most interesting is the level to which it, understandably, assumes audience knowledge of particular people, events, and poetry.
Cameos without context
Given the nature of the circles Sassoon moved in, it is little surprise that a wealth of well-known socialites and literary figures make appearances in Benediction. The arguments and insults traded between many of them are often so barbed and layered as to conjure combat by prose; one reference to “quaint sense of humour” should be enough to raise the eyebrows of anyone who has studied Andrew Marvell’s 17th-century poem To his coy mistress.
But the ways in which they appear is notable. First World War poet Wilfred Owen, in particular, is brought into the narrative with an introduction and subsequent fade cut that might seem like fan service in a different genre – and similar can be said for TE Lawrence. But the underlying aspect of this is the fact that clearly the audience knows who these people are which adds a gravitas to a simple introduction that would seem deeply strange if witnessed in person.
This perhaps more than anything else speaks to the way the film nods at the knowledge of the audience. The film sees no need to fully explain that Owen is a poet or the role Novello played in Home Front music hall; the assumption is that we already know. And at times, this creates a feeling of events and people without context.
Owen appears and vanishes without real reference to Sassoon’s championing of his work post-war. Similarly, footage of the First World War appears at regular intervals to illustrate how damaged Sassoon apparently was by his service, but the footage itself – largely taken from the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme – has no real context either. It is used to showcase horror but struggles in ways similar to those outlined by Alice Kelly in her review of They Shall Not Grow Old. In Peter Jackson's film, footage of the war is cut into the narrative, often regardless to whether it relates to the time period or battles under examination at the time. Stripped of its context, it creates a vision of a war that was homogenous in its approach and awfulness.
- Read more | The Somme: was it really a monstrous failure?
The film is built around the ways in which Sassoon’s life and turmoil have left him a broken man in old age, but a degree of the explanation for this is outsourced to the audiences’ own understandings of events.
That isn’t entirely a criticism of Benediction, but it is an interesting indication of the extent to which the film utilises characters and events that viewers already have pre-formed ideas about. When you depict people and moments that exist within the popular consciousness then the understandings attached to them come along for the ride.
Dr Chris Kempshall is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Army Leadership, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He is a historian of the First World War as well as popular representations of history in modern media. He has authored numerous academic works, including The First World War in Computer Games (2015) and British, French and American Relations on the Western Front, 1914–1918 (2018)
More reviews of historical films:
- “A staggering tour de force – but an opportunity missed”: a historian’s review of the film 1917
- “An intoxicating triumph true to the grandeur of the poem”: a historian’s review of The Green Knight
- “It’s hard to square Prince Hal’s pacifism with what we know about Henry V”: a historian’s review of The King