Siegfried Sassoon’s poetic, political and spiritual declaration

Jack Lowden in Benediction (2021)
Jack Lowden as Siegfried Sassoon. Image supplied

Benediction
Written and directed by Terence Davies
Starring Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Tom Blyth, Kate Phillips, Geraldine James, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels
In cinemas

Siegfried Sassoon, who was to become one of the great anti-war poets of World War I, joined the British army together with his younger brother Hamo on the day Britain declared war, August 4, 1914. Sassoon’s optimistic patriotic fervour is one of the opening moments of Benediction.

He was to bear the cost of that decision for the rest of his life.

In Benediction we see the idealistic, enthusiastic youth slowly change into a pinch-faced, silent, bitterly isolated old man hiding his grief behind a wall of hostility. The narrative is framed by two handshakes, one early in the film with Sassoon’s lover (the other great anti-war poet, Wilfred Owen) and the other with his son towards the end of the film.

Between those moments there is Sassoon’s double anguish as he attempts to address his devastating wartime memories and express love at a time when homosexuality is illegal.

Within months of enlisting, Hamo died from a wound received at Gallipoli. Siegfried himself was repeatedly traumatised by trench warfare and the cruel loss of friends.

He witnessed the futile waste of human life as generals at far remove sent wave after wave of doomed youth to be slaughtered.

Grainy and jerky silent news reel footage of the trenches gives the viewer some insight into this bloodbath. Overall, an estimated 40 million people died in WWI.

Sassoon’s initial response was to be heroic to the point of recklessness, earning a Military Cross for outstanding valour. However, when disillusionment came it was both poetic and defiant.

“Love drove me to rebel,” he wrote, against those “cruel old campaigners” responsible for prolonging the terrors and condemning more young men to die “in the slime”.

He was hospitalised several times with serious injuries and diseases caught in the trenches.

In 1917, while convalescing in hospital he published a courageous public statement Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, denouncing the British government’s war aims and demanding a negotiated peace.

He tried to resign his officer’s commission and sparked a parliamentary debate. By refusing to rejoin his regiment he risked court-martial and execution.

But well-connected friends intervened and saved his life by having him sent for treatment, purportedly for shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital.

There he met Owen, who mentored him as a poet and, according to Benediction, became his lover. After WWI, in which Owen was killed, Sassoon championed his poetry and brought it to the widest audience.

Benediction portrays Sassoon’s post-WWI sex life at length. He was involved with some of the era’s most prominent theatrical stars and circulated in high society.

However, his betrayal by various lovers caused him heartbreak. In the 1930s, he married a woman artist and poet, Hester Gatty, and fathered a son, George.

One of the film’s significant moments is where Sassoon walks through a church gate with his bride-to-be. On it are inscribed words from the Book of Job that were on WWI graveyards all over Britain: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”

It seems that Sassoon was seeking to reconcile and transcend his experience of suffering, firstly through his poetry, then his sex life, then his marriage and later in his conversion to Catholicism. He was searching for peace, but how and why he looked for it in the Catholic Church is not explored.

However, if the whole of the church gate passage from Job is read, it comes close to describing Sassoon’s struggle to express his personal integrity in an unjust society: “… but I will maintain mine own ways before Him. He also shall be my salvation: for an hypocrite shall not come before Him. Hear diligently my speech, and my declaration with your ears. Behold now, I have ordered my cause; I know that I shall be justified.”

Writer/director Terence Davies has made some significant and possibly questionable choices in portraying Sassoon.

For example, the film infers that Sassoon failed as a writer following the war. Yet it was in that period that his highly successful novels and memoirs were published.

Twenty plus years of his life are missing and the heterosexual period of his life is nearly entirely vacant.

Also missing are his politics, which were distinctly socialist. He worked as an editor on the radical Labour Herald newspaper, the highest circulation newspaper in Britain and campaigned for the Labour Party.

Perhaps Sassoon’s life is simply too multifaceted to be contained even in a film that runs for over two hours. A multi-episode TV series may have been a better format.

However, Benediction succeeds as the portrait of a man whose courageous heart was shredded by the enormity of WWI’s carnage and who never found solace.

From Yemen to Palestine to Ukraine similar horrors are occurring today. Now is the time to hear Siegfried Sassoon’s poetic, political and spiritual declaration.

The trailer for Benediction can be seen here.