During our various discussions about the direction of The Burying Party, one question does stick in my own mind as pretty fundamental. What would Wilfred Owen have got up to if he had survived the war? It is often a question I have applied to other cultural icons of mine such as Hendrix say. It’s a tough ask in all cases. There is no empirical reason that can be applied. We have no evidence after death, only the testimonies of those who knew the man.
The problem, as Hilary Mantell so eloquently explained in her recent Reith lectures, as soon as someone dies they become the myth we want them to be in our own heads, albeit based on our own realities. When my dad died, it was a very personal tragedy of course and there was no doubt that he was a lovely man. However my interpretation of his life will be coloured by my own fond memories of going fishing on the River Conwy, teaching me how to bowl and those Christmas dinners at Bidston. My mum’s will be coloured by hers. My sister has lived eight years longer than me, so she was the only child until the naughty kid brother arrived.
Only recently we lost the legend that was John Noakes. Immediately we look skyward for answers. Our visions of our beloved John are festooned with the ascent of Nelson’s column in casual shoes without a harness, the near fatal parachute jump, ‘down Shep,’ and various other favourite TV moments that made our childhoods of that era special. Yet John himself would probably be just as ready to point to the friction that occurred in that period between he and his Producer Biddy Baxter, the horrendous contract he was forced to endure, culminating in the row which saw him nearly separated from his beloved dog.
The sources for much of Wilfred Owen’s life were derived from brother Harold. Even the major autobiographies by Hibberd and Stallworthy cannot ignore Harold’s efforts to record his legacy. Yet, Owen is not here to dispute certain interpretations of what it was really like to go to Birkenhead Institute and living in and around that industrial town during the Edwardian era. Harold was deeply unhappy there, so tradition follows then that Owen was too. Without any documents to counter these reflections other than school reports and additional spurious evidence, Harold’s recollections in tranquillity will have to do. But should we accept them?
As film makers, we will be as guilty as anyone else for placing our conveniently protective net over a man who was described by Dominic Hibberd as ‘deeply complex.’ However there are certain constants we can dare to assume as facts. We have the precious poetry which, whilst open to literary criticism, does give us an insight into what Owen himself described as the ‘pity of war.’ We know that Owen re-entered the fray not as a poet in some twee observational role, but as a soldier, an officer in charge of a platoon of men all wanting to go home to their families as soon as it was all over.
Here though is an analogy from a totally different world to illustrate the dilemma. When Pink Floyd were stroking their chins recording the album ‘Wish You Were Here,’ applying lyrics to the enigmatic anthem, ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond,’ in walked their troubled alumnus, Syd Barrett to whom the song was dedicated. All four members recall cringing that when asked ‘what’s the song about?’ all confessed to being imposters. In fact the majority of Nick Mason’s recollections were dismissed by fellow band mate, Roger Waters as ‘rubbish’ when he inspected the draft transcript. These five men were still on this Earth at the time.
So what chance have we got trying to interpret a time of a dead poet who lived when trenches in some foreign field became home, guns were a necessary appendage and the Bible was still a strong influence on many young men growing up? Even autobiographies can be tainted with some form bias, a desire to make oneself look good, to cast out the nasty myths that have haunted the writer in a lifetime in the public eye, the desire to elevate the author’s side of the story above anyone else’s memory of events.
My only connection with Owen and that of our Producer, Neil Perriam is that I went to the same school as the lad.
While empathy can help us to understand the psyche of a soldier, empathy itself is fraught with all sorts of problems. And yet we feel that empathy does help us as film makers. If you have to leave a dear friend (Sassoon) despite his deep protestations, how difficult a decision would that be, given that Owen firmly believed that dying for your country was a not an honour but a motor for propaganda?
Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.
Once you are there in this huge Theatre of War witnessing the constant barrage of machine gun fire, shells, explosions, would you half-heartedly fire a gun at a German hoping you would miss? Owen killed people. Let us understand that. Sassoon and Owen killed Germans. At The Battle of Joncourt in the previous month, Owen did not turn a German machine gun around and fire it at the sky whilst they tossed garlands of Edelweiss in his direction as a symbol of their thanks for sparing their lives.
We shall probably ruffle feathers, but we will also be grounded by The Why.
The question posed in my opening paragraph, was what would Owen have done with his life had a he survived? Personally I believe he would have turned his hand to plays and prose. He would have become a great writer, not just the most accomplished war poet. My evidence? It is scant as I hope my disclaimer embedded in this article clarifies. He had the knack though of breaking conventions, questioning the norm and demonstrating words with deeds. For those reasons alone, he deserves our attentions as we head towards the 100 anniversaries that ultimately led to his death on November 4th 1918.