“I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” wrote Siegfried Sassoon in 1917. “I believe this War, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. … I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolonging those sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.”
Sassoon, a decorated war hero and poet who had already lost his younger brother, Hamo, to the Great War, expected to be court-martialed after this statement was read before the House of Commons and printed in The London Times. In fact, he was prepared to face a firing squad for his treasonous words.
However, thanks to the swift actions of a sympathetic and influential friend, Robbie Ross, Sassoon instead was deemed “unfit for service” and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland to be treated for shell shock.
But Sassoon still couldn’t make peace with the war. In his opinion, too many had died unjustly. And his unsettled stance toward the conflict led to a lifelong search for absolution through poetry, romantic affairs with other men, the birth of his son and eventually, conversion to Catholicism.
Sassoon’s life is deeply cynical, though it does seem as if he has genuine affection for his friends and family.
As an older man, Sassoon converts to Catholicism (which his son scoffs at). He participates in a ceremony in which a priest tells him to love the Lord his God with all his heart, soul and mind (see Matthew 22:37-38). The priest asks if he renounces Satan, and Sassoon replies that he does. Then, lying prostrate on the ground, Sassoon prays for Christ to receive his soul, release him from his “prison of doubt” and grant him peace. Despite that dramatic conversion, Sassoon’s faith isn’t referenced again, perhaps begging the question of his confession’s sincerity.
Several scenes, including a wedding, take place in churches. We hear a poem that references God in heaven. We see crosses in cemeteries and parades. Several nuns serve as nurses. We hear “Silent Night” in both English and its original German. Someone is described as “older than God but without any of the influence.”
Sassoon and Ivor Novello (a composer) make out, both of them shirtless, in a bed. They are caught by Ivor’s other male paramour. And later on, Sassoon is devastated to learn that Ivor is actually in an open relationship with his male “life partner,” toying with other men whenever his partner is out of town.
Sassoon enters into homosexual relationships with at least two other men during the film (though we don’t see the physical expressions of these dalliances). One of these men eventually marries a woman. The other often dresses and acts effeminately (and serves as the maid of honor for Sassoon’s wife at their wedding). Men are objectified in conversation.
Sassoon dances with Wilfred Owen (another patient at Craiglockhart). When their commanding officer spots them, they say it’s supposed to be a joke for troop morale, but the officer says it’s indecent. (It’s hinted that Sassoon was in love with Owen but never acted on it.)
Sassoon confides to a doctor at Craiglockhart that he is gay and has had romantic relationships with men. The doctor confides that he is also gay, asking Sassoon to be discreet with the information since he could be arrested if it became public knowledge. Sassoon’s mother is also aware that he is gay. After meeting one of his boyfriends, she asks him if the relationship is serious (which he confirms) and states she doesn’t like the man.
Sassoon eventually courts Hester Gatty. They dance together and he asks for permission before kissing her the first time. He confesses to her that he is gay. Hester works through this with him, eventually marrying and having a son together (though a few of Sassoon’s friends tried to discourage him from this). However, later in life, they separate after years of discontent. (Sassoon imagines dancing with his wife, which then shifts to him dancing with all his past paramours, indicating that he was never truly satisfied with his heterosexual relationship with her.)
Throughout the film, Sassoon references how his friend Robbie (who is also gay) supported Oscar Wilde (a playwright who was famously prosecuted for having an affair with a Marquess’ son) during Wilde’s trial.
People talk about making love in strange locations. Someone vaguely describes an orgy. We hear a man’s funeral was filled with past lovers. A male character sings a song that references masturbation. A group of people sing a song about an extramarital affair. A man compliments his own figure. Sassoon is warned that an older woman “always asks attractive young men to stay the night.” That evening, when the woman propositions him, he politely declines.
Footage from World War I is cut into scenes throughout the film. These reels show explosions, dead bodies and gruesome wounds, displaying the real-life horrors of that war. Some of these shots are cut together with footage of cattle, metaphorically implying that soldiers are being herded to their deaths.
Sassoon and Hamo volunteer to fight in the war and are naively excited about the opportunity. However, after Hamo dies and Sassoon receives a medal for gallantry (which he doesn’t believe he deserves and eventually tosses into a river), Sassoon’s ideas about the war change. He writes poems describing the terrifying acts he sees and commits. He also writes about the trauma soldiers suffer from after battle.
Sassoon protests the war, refusing to fight any longer. He says he is prepared to face the firing squad for his actions. When he is transferred to a hospital to be treated for shell shock, he is told to wear an armband that shows he is a soldier being treated, not a conscientious objector (because the latter have been attacked in public).
We learn that Sassoon eventually did fight in the war again, but he is shot, and we see him recovering in a hospital bed. We see other bandaged soldiers in hospital beds, often screaming out in pain. Wilfred writes a poem about a soldier who lost his legs (and we hear this poem as we see one such soldier in a wheelchair weeping).
A commanding officer states his belief that homosexual soldiers should “do the decent thing” and take their own lives. We hear that one of Sassoon’s friends was killed just one week before the Armistice (which ended World War I). We hear about the deaths of other soldiers. A man says he tried to set fire to his mother once. Two men jokingly fantasize about killing an ex-lover.
God’s name is abused twice. Jesus’s name is abused four times. We hear the term “b–tard” once.
People drink throughout the film. A few people smoke pipes and cigarettes. Sassoon says his grandmother never took drugs but would drink on special occasions.
Sassoon’s protest against the war is treated as a nervous debility because his commanding officers don’t want troop morale to decline. He believes the war has become political, immoral and an unnecessary expense of human life. And when he states that he is “pro-human,” his superiors reply that morality is a luxury they can only afford in times of peace.
After Hamo’s death, Sassoon’s mother says that she dreads every phone call and telegram now, fearing the next message will be that Sassoon has died as well. He encourages her not to begrudge the future, but she says that a life without her sons isn’t a life to be enjoyed.
Several of Sassoon’s boyfriends are rude, exchanging snide remarks and insulting people behind their backs. One of these men gaslights Sassoon; and more than one of them purposely goads Sassoon’s jealousy. When Ivor insults Sassoon’s poetry directly, Sassoon points out that Ivor conveniently didn’t serve in the war and has no place commenting on war poems.
Later in life, one of Sassoon’s ex-boyfriends reaches out to him, seeking forgiveness and platonic friendship. However, Sassoon denies him this, still angry that they broke up via a letter written by the man’s doctor.
A man lies about having tuberculosis to his boyfriend. Sassoon and his son yell at each other during an argument.
A benediction is the blessing bestowed upon the congregation at the end of a church service. It literally means, “a good word.” So the use of the word here as this film’s title seems a bit ironic, since Sassoon never really finds peace or blessing.
After being traumatized by the acts he witnesses (and commits) during World War I, Sassoon attempts to absolve himself by protesting against it. He’s even prepared to die (therefore becoming a sort of martyr) for his beliefs.
When he is unable to perish on his own terms, he decides to live on his own terms. He pursues romantic (and sexual) relationships with other men during a time when homosexual acts were still punishable by law. Then, after being jilted by several of these lovers, he tries conforming to society’s standards by marrying a woman and having a child with her.
For a time, Sassoon is pleased with his life, enjoying fatherhood and delighting in his son. But as George grows up, the young man begins to forge his own path through life, often clashing with his father’s ideals.
Disappointed by George’s independence (and struggling to adapt to the modern world), Sassoon continues his search for clarity by converting to Catholicism. And while it seems that Sassoon’s prayer to be released from his “prison of doubt” is genuine, his desire to follow Christ isn’t, and he soon defaults back to his grumpy-old-man persona.
Benediction ends with Sassoon finding the salvation he was looking for by reconciling with his son and simply accepting life as it is. Which, for a film so deeply macabre, is about as dissatisfying as Sassoon’s lifelong search for liberation was.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.