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'Benediction' illustrates the impact of WWI on Siegfried Sassoon's haunting poetry


Lt. Siegfried Sassoon was a model British officer decorated for his daring and valor in the trenches of World War I, hailed by the soldiers he commanded as Mad Jack for his audacious nighttime raids. He was also a British gentleman who excelled at cricket and poetry. But while on convalescence from the front, Lt. Sassoon added up all the good men he'd seen lose their lives and decided he could no longer support war. He wrote his commanders a letter to say so. He wasn't court martialed but sent to a country hospital for treatment for his shell shock by doctors.


JACK LOWDEN: (As Siegfried Sassoon) What I feel cannot be talked away or soothed into silence.

BEN DANIELS: (As Dr. Rivers) Why?

LOWDEN: (As Siegfried Sassoon) Too many have died. Too much has been destroyed.

DANIELS: (As Dr. Rivers) There can be an easement of pain.

SIMON: That's Jack Lowden as Siegfried Sassoon in Terence Davies' new film "Benediction." And Terence Davies, the acclaimed writer and director of many films, including "The House Of Mirth," joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

TERENCE DAVIES: I'm very pleased to.

SIMON: This great poet, Siegfried Sassoon, threw his war medals into the Mersey River - an acclaimed poet who was at war with war and, to a degree, himself as well?

DAVIES: Yes, I think very much that. But the war turned him into a great poet. But the early poetry is very funny. I mean, when I went to audition at drama school - in those days, you had to do a piece of Shakespeare and a piece of your own choice. And I chose a piece by Sassoon called "Concept Interpretation," which is the first performance in 1914 of "The Rite Of Spring" in England. The previous year's had been premiered in Paris, and it caused an uproar. But of course, Britain was much too civilized and polite to be uproarious.

But he describes that entire concert and the entire people in that concert. And it's just the most wonderful, wonderful English - and in the gallery, cargoed to capacity, no tremors bode eruptions and alarms. They are listening to this not-quite-new audacity as though it were by someone dead like Brahms.

SIMON: Hmm. One of the many pleasures of your film is, in fact, Sassoon's poetry. It sounds like that inspires you even now.

DAVIES: Yes, it does 'cause poetry really is like music. You never forget it once it touches a part of you. And that's how it has to be used, I think, poetry. And indeed, music and film has to be used judiciously 'cause I think of all the art forms, cinema is closest to music. You go on that journey, and you have to believe it within the first two minutes. If you don't believe it in the first two minutes, you go home 'cause you won't go on that journey.

SIMON: You depict Sassoon, of course, after the war. And he's living, I guess we can say fairly, a kind of subterfuge of gay life in the arts and the show world of London. There's a complicated relationship with Ivor Novello, the great Welsh actor. Was it hard to be with someone who you didn't share even those kind of nightmares, who didn't know what perplexed him?

DAVIES: No, because I identified with Siegfried as I did with Emily Dickinson. They were outsiders. And you must remember that in this country, it was still a criminal offense to be gay until 1967, and he was part of the privileged class that got away with it. But I think the ultimate thing that I drew from the film - long after I'd finished it, I have to say - is that he was searching for redemption, and you can't get redemption from other people or religion or art. You have to find that within yourself. And I've been looking for it all my life, and I haven't succeeded either.

SIMON: You've been looking for redemption?



DAVIES: Well, because I come from a very large working-class family where ordinary sex wasn't even talked about, let alone gay sex. But when I was growing up, because my father had been so violent, my family would talk about it. And I would just listen, just listen. And you become adept at listening and feeling those memories. And I didn't realize it at the time, but it actually separates you from real life. You're not a participant. You're an observer. And when you're on the outside, usually, you're ignored (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. I wonder if we can fairly see this film and so many other great films that you've done as an attempt to fill in blanks, things you left unsaid, with other family members growing up.

DAVIES: Yes, I think that's very true. I think it's probably, along with "A Quiet Passion," my most autobiographical film.

SIMON: Yeah. May I ask, Mr. Davies, was it hard to get a film like this made? I'm imagining pitch meetings where an executive says, it's a dead English poet. Where are the superheroes?

DAVIES: No, it wasn't quite like that, but it did take six years to get to the screen. Thank God for the BBC and the BFI, who, in fact, invited me to write it six years ago. But when you're not in the mainstream, it always takes that much longer to get money because the industry is geared to making money, and it's geared around stars. It's the nature of the beast.

You know, I'm not - my films don't make vast amounts of money. You know, I can't command huge fees or huge budgets. And that's one of the drawbacks. Finance is always a corrosive thing, and I mean that in my private life as well. It's always a struggle.

SIMON: I'm sorry. You make such prestigious films that are so honored.

DAVIES: But they don't pay the mortgage, and they don't put bread on the table, alas. You know, I mean - and how can you compete with a film that cost $40 million? That's when you feel, is it worth it? I mean, that's when I feel that I'm still in the shallows, swimming around with the other small fry.

SIMON: Do you hope that your film might help people find Sassoon's poetry all over again?

DAVIES: Oh, yes. He's got to be read, yes. And if it does that, that would be the great prize, that people have found him and start to read him again because he wrote a lot of very good poetry, comic poetry. You know, he's got a very lovely sense of humor and a wonderful command of English, which just is - just so gorgeous. It's so gorgeous.

SIMON: Terence Davies' new film "Benediction." Thank you so much, sir, for being with us.

DAVIES: You're more than welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.