War Requiem

January 1989 (UK) — 92 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.78:1 — Musical Drama / Experimental
Jarman’s 7th feature, a shattering vision of war, using the music of Benjamin Britten’s monumental oratorio that combines a mass for the dead with the writings of slain World War I poet Wilfred Owen.

*PLEASE NOTE* I am in the process of revising this Jarman page, and all of my websites, to be completed in 2021. Thank you for understanding.

FILMS: Shorts | 1. Sebastiane | 2. Jubilee | 3. Tempest | 4. Angelic Conversation | 5. Caravaggio | 6. Last of England | 7. War Requiem | 8. The Garden | 9. Edward II | 10. Wittgenstein | 11. Blue.


War Requiem (1989) is one of writer/director Derek Jarman’s most deeply moving pictures. He juxtaposes original, silent dramatic scenes with archival footage of World War I, to bring alive Benjamin Britten‘s towering 1962 masterpiece, arguably the greatest choral work of the 20th century, and an impassioned plea for world peace. The film also reunites Jarman with award-winning actress Tilda Swinton, who here gives one of her most memorable performances, without uttering a word. Kino International‘s DVD has excellent image and sound, so crucial for Britten’s score. Following this brief introduction, there are sections on:

Jarman employs Britten’s own classic 1963 performance of his work — with the legendary soloists, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, and English tenor Peter Pears (Britten’s life partner and muse) — in a remastered edition that sounds more spectacular, and natural, than ever.

Britten brought his lifelong devotion to peace to this original composition, a massive orchestral setting of the Latin Requiem Mass text, interspersed with simple but shattering settings of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry [free online]. It is performed by three of the greatest singers of their era, for whom Britten specifically wrote these parts. Owen was the gay British infantry lieutenant who was tragically killed at age 27, in the final week of World War I.

Jarman interprets the six movements of Britten’s score in visually stunning, dialogue-free scenes that range from the heartbreakingly realistic to the surreal, often drawing on dramatic imagery from Owen’s poems. To take just one example, that is original with Jarman, in the film’s second scene, Tilda Swinton plays a nurse standing watch over Owen’s candlelit corpse. The moment is simple yet so deeply evocative that it moved me to tears, through the combined power of her heartfelt gestures that climax in a silent scream, Jarman’s visual mastery, and Britten’s haunting music.

The excellent cast includes Nathaniel Parker (Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, Wide Sargasso Sea, BBC series The Inspector Lynley Mysteries) as Wilfred Owen, Sean Bean (title role in Jarman’s Caravaggio, the James Bond film GoldenEye, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) as Owen’s star-crossed German counterpart, Owen Teale (the 1991 Robin Hood) as the Unknown Soldier, Patricia Hayes as the Mother (A Fish Called Wanda), and Laurence Olivier (director/star of Hamlet, Richard III) in his final appearance on either screen or stage.

This is one of the great translations of classical music into cinematic imagery. And it is a ferocious vision of the nature of war, that does full imaginative justice to Owen’s searing poetry and Britten’s unforgettable score.

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Jarman’s War Requiem is very much Jarman‘s War Requiem, a picture that further develops his earlier themes and artistry, but of course it could not exist without the choral masterpiece by Benjamin Britten, that it uses verbatim from the composer’s own definitive recording; and in turn Britten’s, and arguably the twentieth century’s, greatest choral work is literally inconceivable without the poetry of Wilfred Owen that comprises half of its text, in stark but revealing juxtaposition to the ancient Requiem Mass.

In this background section, we’ll look briefly at defining characteristics of Owen‘s poetry and Britten‘s score; then in the following analysis, we’ll explore how Jarman uses film to bring a new dimension to both the poet and composer, even as he creates a distinctively personal film.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) was born in Shropshire to English/Welsh parents who were devout evangelical Anglicans. He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and Shrewsbury Technical School, and later passed the matriculation examination for the University of London but not with the first-class honors required for a much-needed scholarship. He later worked his way through University College, Reading, where he began in botany but later concentrated on Old English Literature, thanks to support from the head of the English Department.

Following an illness in 1913, he lived in France, teaching English and French at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Already dedicated to poetry, he was preparing a (never-published) volume, inspired by Keats, with the wittily self-effacing title of Minor Poems — in Minor Keys — by a Minor.

You can get a sense of Britain’s, and Owen’s, pumped-up enthusiasm for World War I by listening to Edward Elgar’s 1917 cantata The Spirit of England — for Britten, a major negative example that he deconstructed in one layer of his War Requiem. Elgar’s music is a perfect match for the three 1914 Laurence Binyon poems that comprise its text, particularly “For The Fallen,” with its heavy beat, jingoistic images, and regimented rhymes, as seen in this brief excerpt:

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

Elgar’s cantata is as inspiring for war recruitment as his “Pomp and Circumstance” march is for school graduations, but after the initial martial thrill, you realize how antithetical it is to both Owen’s poetry and Britten’s multi-layered oratorio.

In October 1915, Owen eagerly enlisted in England’s famed Artists’ Rifles (over the years, some of its illustrious members included painter John Everett Millais, fine arts designer William Morris, poets Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne, and playwright/ songwriter Noël Coward).

Commissioned in January 1917, his patriotic enthusiasm soon turned to rage at war’s horrific waste, as he experienced it first hand. Six months later, he was wounded and, suffering from “shell shock” (today called post-traumatic stress syndrome), sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

While convalescing, he met the gay poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967), who shared his feelings about the war and who was impressed with his verse; they became devoted friends and perhaps lovers. Sassoon opened Owen to more of poetry’s range and, in the process, inspired the younger poet to revolutionize his approach. Although we now know how far the pupil outstripped his master, Sassoon’s verse also can be moving, as in his passionate, but platonic, elegy “To His Dead Body” (1918), presented here in full:

“To His Dead Body” by Siegfried Sassoon

When roaring gloom surged inward and you cried,
Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died,
Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head
phantoms of thought and memory thinned and fled.

Yet, though my dreams that throng the darkened stair
Can bring me no report of how you fare,
Safe quit of wars, I speed you on your way
Up lonely, glimmering fields to find new day,
Slow-rising, saintless, confident and kind —
Dear, red-faced father God who lit your mind.

Sassoon, something of a gay golden boy, also opened Owen to a larger same-sex world that included novelist E.M. Forster (Howards End), Oscar Wilde’s friend Robert Ross, the critic Edmund Gosse, and (pro-war) poet Rupert Brooke.

Owen knew of his passion for other males since childhood, and he had found solace, and inspiration, in a rich tradition of same-sex oriented poetry that included such canonical works as Shelley’s “Adonais” (1821 — memorializing the poet Owen felt closest to, Keats), Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1832–1849), and A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896). (Those works, like many others including Shakespeare’s sonnets, were part of the ‘mainstream’ because they were taught as works of ‘passionate friendship’ rather than homoeroticism that could, as Oscar Wilde found, land you in prison, under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885; the previous “buggery” law, instituted by that paragon of virtue Henry VIII in 1533, had mandated the death penalty — the mind boggles at the hateful stupidity that could ever have made love subject to capital punishment; today many countries still criminalize same-sex love, with seven mandating the death penalty.) Young Owen modeled some of his own poetry on these classics, likely feeling a measure of safety because all of the beautiful young man idolized in those elegies are dead. That is also the case with the Sassoon poem above, and with one of Owen’s most moving works, the 1917 sonnet “With An Identity Disc,” that was not included in his posthumous Collected Poems. It reveals both his self-effacement and deep capacity for love, clearly same-sex oriented but universal in its reach. Here is the complete poem:

“With An Identity Disc” by Wilfred Owen

If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the heart of London, unsurpassed
By Time for ever, and the Fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,

I better that; and recollect with shame
How once I longed to hide it from life’s heats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That keep in shade the quiet place of Keats.

Now, rather, thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed,
But let my death be memoried on this disc.
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it night and day,
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

Despite friends offering to find Owen a job on staff, he returned to the French battlefields in August 1918 as a company commander. In October he led troops to storm enemy strongholds, but was killed in action on November 4, 1918, one week to the day before the Armistice. Although he saw only five of his poems published during his lifetime, in 1920 his Collected Poems appeared. His expectation of being forgotten was not to be: At Westminster Abbey, his words are inscribed in stone to represent all of the Great War Poets: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” A later key line from the source is omitted (although Britten included, along with the rest, on the title page of his score for the War Requiem): “All a poet can do today is warn.”

Owen’s influence spread exponentially, especially among such leading modernist, and gay, poets of the 1930s as W.H. Auden (one of Britten’s closest friends and collaborators) and Stephen Spender. They marveled at how Owen, in his small body of elegiac poetry, brilliantly — and originally — combined so many traditions, including biblical fervor, Romantic sublimity (Keats, Shelley), French and English Decadence (Baudelaire, Swinburne), Victorian pathos (Tennyson) and avant-gardism (Gerard Manley Hopkins), even while subverting conventions, and moving, with visionary force, from the personal to the political. Inspired by his technical innovations, the poets of the ’30s deployed such key features of Owen’s verse as assonance and half-rhyme. Owen did not invent either device but his unique combination of them with his visceral subject matter highlighted their potential, like a fire in the night sky. Here’s a brief refresher on these two techniques.

Assonance is the repetition, within phrases, of vowel sounds; unlike rhyme, the end consonants are different. For example, “high as a kite” is assonance but “high as the sky” is rhyme. Owen presents a perfect example in “Greater Love.” The last line of the first stanza — “When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!” — actually includes a double use of assonance: Note the long “i” of “I,” “eyes,” and “my;’ as well as the short “e” of “When,” the second syllable of “blinded,” and “stead.”

Half-rhyme (also called slant rhyme) occurs when you keep the final consonants but change the preceding vowel sound. For instance, “curled” / “killed” is half-rhyme, while “curled” and “furled” is full rhyme. Owen provides a clear example of half-rhyme in, among many other instances, the first two lines of “Strange Meeting:”

The half-rhyme is “escaped …. scooped;” and note how the hard, grating “sc” sound makes the imagery even more vivid. To see how effective Owen’s verse is, here’s my clunky example of those lines with a “perfect” rhyme, that instantly turns them into doggerel:

It seemed that out of the battle I had trooped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped…

Besides highlighting these technical strategies in a bleak, revisionist portrayal of warfare, Owen resonated with the many gay leading modern poets as a man who had experienced and expressed the full range of intimacy that was shared between men in combat, from friendship to much more. Owen had earned his place in the long, distinguished tradition of same-sex war poetry that begins 2,500 years with Homer’s Iliad (Achilles and Patroclus), and includes, to name a few landmark examples, the Bible (David and Jonathan with their “surpassing” love), Virgil’s Aeneid (Lord Byron wrote a moving verse translation of the Nisus and Euryalus episode), and Walt Whitman’s war poetry in the Drum Taps (1865) section of Leaves of Grass, including the elegy “Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,” the tentatively hopeful “As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap, Camerado,” and “Reconciliation,” that anticipates Owen’s “Strange Meeting.”

As you can see, just from this brief introduction, Owen’s poetry is of exceptional power; but it has also expanded its reach beyond literature to inspire one of the sublime musical works of the last century, Britten’s War Requiem.

Owen’s Poetry Online

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped…

ImageIf you want to explore Owen’s poetry further, here are excellent, free online sources:

  • Project Gutenberg offers Wilfred Owen’s poetry [free online], although several major fragments are omitted; and
  • The Wilfred Owen Collection, in The First World War Poetry Digital Archive by Oxford University, includes a wealth of information about the poet, and his complete poetry, including all fragments, with photos of his original manuscript pages plus clear transcriptions. This is a definitive resource that lets you explore Owen’s work in as much depth as you choose. For people interested in Jarman’s attention to detail in War Requiem, you can compare Owen’s actual handwritten manuscript online to the letter-perfect reproductions, seen for just a second or two, in the film.
  • Perhaps Owen’s single most powerful and original work is the brief “Dulce et Decorum Est” (1917), about a World War I gas attack. (Britten did not set it to music, but it anticipates Jarman’s ironic, visionary narration in The Last of England.)

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Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten’s popularity and reputation, as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers, continue to grow with each passing year. He created masterpieces in every form of classical music, including operas like Peter Grimes (1945) and Billy Budd (1951), his unique “church parables” (combining Japanese Noh theatre and medieval English drama) beginning with Curlew River (1964), song cycles such as the Nocturne for Tenor and Chamber Orchestra (1958 — that features Britten’s other setting of a Wilfred Owen poem, “The Kind Ghosts“), orchestral music like the Sinfonia da Requiem (1940) and Symphony in D Major for Cello and Orchestra (1963 — for his friend the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, husband of Galina Vishnevskaya), and choral works like the Ceremony of Carols (1942) and War Requiem.

You’re welcome to read an introduction to Britten (1913–1976) in my review of the documentary A Time There Was… A Profile of Benjamin Britten. Briefly, he grew up in Suffolk in a supportive middle-class family — his father was a dentist, his mother an amateur musician — who recognized his precocious talent (over 800 compositions as a child), and saw that he had proper instruction. He was the only pupil accepted by one of England’s most renowned composers, Frank Bridge. He later studied at London’s Royal College of Music, then worked as a composer for radio, theatre, and cinema. During that pivotal time, the mid-1930s, he became a peace activist, befriended poet W.H. Auden (who wrote several texts for him), saw his first major public successes as a composer — including a tribute to his mentor in Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937), and fell in love with tenor Peter Pears (1910–1986), who would share the rest of his life and for whom he would write many of his vocal and operatic masterpieces.

Britten and Pears emigrated to the US from 1939 to 1942 before returning to England, where they lived for the rest of their lives, establishing a home and musical base of operations in the seaside community of Aldeburgh. In 1947, they founded the Aldeburgh Festival, that remains a celebrated annual event. Britten was renowned not only as a composer but as a pianist, conductor (whose favorite composers included Bach, Purcell, Mozart, and Schubert), and ethnomusicologist, who helped introduce Eastern music to a wider audience through works like the Balinese-inspired three-act ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas (1957). Britten received many honors at home and abroad, including a Life Peerage, making him Lord Britten.

England is renowned for, among other things, its churches, one of the most famous of which is Coventry Cathedral. Built in the fourteenth century, in the county of West Midlands, it was obliterated on November 14, 1940 during a Luftwaffe bombing raid. When the new structure, also known as St Michael’s Cathedral, was completed — built next to the ruins of the old — and ready for reconsecration on May 30, 1962, the church wanted to commemorate the occasion in singular fashion, by hiring the nation’s preeminent composer, giving him complete freedom to write any type of music he wanted.

Let’s allow Britten himself to introduce the War Requiem, quoting from his February 16, 1961 letter to the internationally renowned singer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, inviting him to participate in the world premiere (as quoted in Humphrey Carpenter’s 1992 book, Benjamin Britten: A Biography): “Please forgive me for writing to such a busy man as yourself…. Coventry Cathedral, like so many wonderful buildings in Europe, was destroyed in the last war…. [F]or the reconsecration of the new building… I have been asked to write a new work… I think [it] will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale Requiem Mass for chorus and orchestra (in memory of those of all nations who died in the last war), and I am interspersing the Latin text with many poems of a great English poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the First World War. These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass; they are, of course, in English. These poems will be set for tenor and baritone, with an accompaniment of chamber orchestra, placed in the middle of the other forces. They will need singing with the utmost beauty, intensity and sincerity….”

After hearing Galina Vishnevskaya sing at Aldeburgh later that year, Britten added a soprano part (since she couldn’t sing English texts, and he didn’t want to use Russian, he shrewdly gave her Latin passages). And as we know, not only did the singing achieve Britten’s goals of splendor, passion, and honesty, so did his monumental composition. The significance of the War Requiem extended to every aspect of Britten’s private and public life.

Britten, a lifelong pacifist, saw this work, as he mentioned to Fischer-Dieskau, as a chance for international healing, which is he why he wanted to see German, English and Russian (vocal) forces singing together. But like Owen, Britten also deeply felt the monstrous brutality and waste of war, that was made visible by the bombed-out ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral that had been pointedly integrated into the new structure.

Owen was an inspired choice for Britten, not only because of their shared desire for peace and (private) same-sex orientation, but because Owen was both an artist and heroic soldier. That deflected some of the old criticisms of “cowardice” leveled at Britten when he lived in the US during the early part of World War II, although he was granted Conscientious Objector status when he returned in 1942 to aid the war effort, albeit in non-combative ways.

Britten dedicated the War Requiem “in loving memory” to four of his and Pears’ dead military friends: Sub-Lieutenant Roger Burney, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve; Ordinary Seaman David Gill, Royal Navy; and Lieutenant Michael Halliday, Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve; and Captain Piers Dunkerley, Royal Marines: the first three died in combat, but Dunkerley actually survived the Normandy landing and the rest of the war only to commit suicide on the eve of his wedding (Humphrey Carpenter, in his Benjamin Britten: A Biography, suggests that Dunkerley had been in unrequited love with Britten). (ALERT! Polemical parenthetical: Although the intensely private Britten would have been aghast at the in-your-face activism of Jarman and groups like ACT UP or OutRage, he would certainly have shared their desire for justice and equality; and perhaps he would have understood that there was yet another kind of “war” being waged against GLBT people through the systematized homophobia that, even at the time of his oratorio’s premiere, still imprisoned men for “committing the crime” of same-sex love, that forced Wilfred Owen to keep his deepest longings locked up in his notebooks (some of which his family burned after his death to “protect” his reputation), and that perhaps led to his friend Piers Dunkerley’s suicide that might have seemed a better option to him than a sham opposite-sex marriage and so being another kind of casualty.)

Also like Owen, Britten often turned to the theme of lost innocence. It permeates much of his music, that frequently has an elegiac feel, including his works for children’s voices like the Children’s Crusade (1968; to a text by Brecht), several of his operas such as Billy Budd and Owen Wingrave (1970), and of course the War Requiem.

In 1961, when Britten was writing this oratorio, the world again seemed on the brink of disaster, but now with nuclear weapons that had the potential to end all life. That year saw Cold War tensions becoming ever hotter between the West and USSR, highlighted by the erection of the Berlin Wall and the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the US escalating its involvement in Vietnam. With an air force base just a few miles from Aldeburgh, Britten had the sound of bomber planes on maneuvers constantly in his head while writing his musical plea for peace.

Britten directly experienced Britain’s “chilling” relations with the Soviets when, on the eve of the War Requiem’s premiere, the USSR abruptly withdrew Vishnevskaya’s travel permit. In just ten days, Heather Harper learned the demanding soprano role. As is usually the case with this immense work, two conductors were used: one for the full orchestra, soprano and chorus (at the premiere, this was Meredith Davies, a specialist in British music) and the other to conduct the chamber orchestra, tenor and baritone (Britten himself). It was an absolute triumph, one of the greatest of the twentieth century; then a critic writing for Time & Tide, Peter Shaffer (years before writing Equus and Amadeus) called it “the most impressive and moving piece of sacred music ever to be composed in this country.” His enthusiasm was shared by critics and audiences alike. Perhaps sensing a good PR opportunity, eight months later the USSR allowed Vishnevskaya to visit England to record the work alongside Pears, Fischer-Dieskau and the London Symphony Orchestra, with Britten conducting. It sold 200,000 copies, unprecedented for a classical album at that time (let alone a double album), and swept international music awards, even winning three Grammys. Acclaimed performances around the world followed in steady succession; and it has retained its lauded and deserved position, despite the occasional backlash, to this day.

Now, let’s take a look at Britten’s immense achievement in the War Requiem. I avoid specialized musical terms (with one clearly-defined exception, the tritone), since this is essentially a film essay — but you can find an exceptional musicological analysis of War Requiem in Peter Evans’s academic study, The Music Of Benjamin Britten (it is one of the select Britten items, including his complete recordings, that I link to in my review of the documentary.)

Britten’s command of the Western musical tradition was second to none; and he relished the opportunity to try his hand at one of the most august, and demanding, forms: the non-liturgical choral requiem. Regarding the liturgical version, for centuries Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and some Lutherans have used the requiem to pray for the salvation of a dead person’s soul as s/he enters the afterlife. The name derives from the rite’s opening words: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine” (“Rest eternal grant them, Lord”). It is based on the so-called ordinary mass but removes the joyful sections (Alleluia, Gloria, Credo), replacing them with mournful passages. (Classical music’s requiems incorporate the horrific thirteenth century poem Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), but in the 1960s ecclesiastical authorities mercifully excised it from the liturgical rite; Britten uses only some of the milder verses.)

A site devoted to the history of the requiem lists over 2,100 composers, since the tenth century, who have written more than 3,300 separate works of this type (you can provide your own “iPod busting” joke). Of those, only a handful are performed regularly including, besides the War Requiem, Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor (1791), Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (1837), Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868), Verdi’s Requiem (1874 — that Britten noted was a major influence on his oratorio), and Fauré’s Requiem in D minor (1890). (Let me confess that these are also my personal favorites — here are additional famous requiems; if you would like to explore the broader tradition of choral music, try such diverse masterpieces as Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine, J.S. Bach’s B Minor Mass, Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Rachmaninoff’s Vespers, and Orff’s Carmina Burana.)

Besides the requiem tradition, Britten was inspired by Mahler’s stunning choral Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major (1907), popularly called “the Symphony of a Thousand” for its vast (budget-busting) orchestral and vocal forces. It also juxtaposes the sacred (the medieval Latin hymn “Veni, Creator Spiritus”) and secular (the closing scene from Part II of Goethe’s epic verse drama, Faust, finished in 1832 just before the poet’s death). But unlike Mahler, who keeps the “sacred” and “profane” separate within their two respective sections, Britten continuously, and incisively, juxtaposes the Latin mass and Owen’s searing poetry. On one level, this recalls the practice, begun in the ninth century, of composers adding tropes, their own original music, to the pre-existing chants used in liturgies. But Britten’s technique is far more resonant, both musically and with thematic implications — as was Owen’s use of long-establshed forms, like the sonnet, to inform his unique personal vision.

Britten structures his oratorio around powerful, at times overwhelming, conflicts on every level — this is a war requiem on many levels — from the text to his music to the staging that he specifies.

The War Requiem’s six movements — full text below — are named after the parts of the traditional rite. Performances typically run about an hour and a half.

  1. Requiem aeternam (“Eternal rest”) — 10 minutes
  2. Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) — 27 minutes
  3. Offertorium (“Offertory”) — 10 minutes
  4. Sanctus (“Holy”) — 10 minutes
  5. Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) — 4 minutes
  6. Libera me (“Free me”) — 23 minutes

Although Britten interweaves the Owen poems — often but not always — as a de facto commentary, the relationship to the mass is complex: conflicted, to be sure, but never in a cheaply ironic way. The essential contrast is between traditional religious devotion and fraught modern experience that encompasses a stunning range of emotions, from lyrical tenderness to apocalyptic rage; or looked at another way, the “war” is between humanity’s basest drive for destruction and our striving to fulfill our best potential, for understanding, peace, and transcendence. Notably, there is no simplistic ‘religiosity good, humankind bad’ dichotomy: one of the most sickening visions is of “guilty man’s” fate is described in the pious “Dies Irae” section, while the ultimate vision of healing comes between the two dead former-enemy soldiers in Owen’s “Strange Meeting” (Britten omits Owen’s reference to the men being in Hell).

Although Britten eschews such modernist avant-garde techniques as atonalism, and there are several gorgeous lyrical passages, the War Requiem is a visceral experience. On its simplest level, Britten strategically employs some literalistic sound effects, with martial brass fanfares, the (orchestrally created sound of) guns and cannons firing, and bells peeling. The vocal lines, especially in the main chorus, also reflect the anguish of war, with abrupt entrances and some shocking leaps.

On a deeper level, Britten uses rhythm in particularly expressive ways, as when he sets up a tension between the flow of Owen’s poetry and the instrumental beats that accompany it; or when he employs syncopation, stressing the weak beat rather than the expected strong one. The effect is subliminal but evocative. On a larger scale, there are passages when Britten has different groups of musicians — literally, but with metaphorical implications, in different locations around the performance space — simultaneously play contradictory rhythms. (This is many years before the polyrhythmic experiments of contemporary composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.)

A variation on his rhythmic techniques can be heard in the stunning Sanctus movement. Britten splits the chorus into eight sections, with each group chanting the same words but at different pitches and often at different times; what holds everything together here is a single underlying rhythm. (The technical term for this device is heterophony; it is often used in the Southeast Asian music that fascinated Britten). The movement, that also includes eerily jagged percussion, builds to a shattering climax and then, silence.

Britten also develops his musical vision through shifting — and unsettling — harmonies. The most important of these, and the one that unifies the entire work, is the interval known as a tritone. It’s named that because it contains three whole tones, such as C to F sharp; the effect it produces is so physically unsettling that the medieval church banned its use for being ‘the devil in music’ (diabolus in musica). If you’ve heard Bernstein and Sondheim’s song “Maria,” from West Side Story, the first two notes (on “Ma- ri-“) are a tritone; you can also listen to a tritone online. Britten’s use of the tritone accumulates in power, through its countless variations in the score, until it comes to seem like a figure of death stalking the benighted soldiers… and us. It also possibly implies a subtle but devastating criticism of the church, as one example of the many traditional institutions — economic, social, and ecclesiastical — that sanction, and profit from, a culture of war. When Britten does resolve the tritone into perfect harmony, well, you can’t help but feel the effect throughout your whole body.

Britten was as much a man of the theatre as the concert hall, and he wrote the War Requiem for the specific, expansive location of the premiere for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, knowing that future performances could arrange analogous layouts even in concert halls. Notably, the term ‘consecration’ etymologically means ‘setting apart,’ and that’s literally, and symbolically, what Britten does with his vast array of musical forces.

He gave full imaginative shrift to the dramatic spatial positioning of the many ensembles, from soloists to symphony orchestra, and the result — of different musical and spiritual worlds colliding — is breathtaking. (Let it be added that Jarman uses film to take those effects to yet another level.) Britten specified three distinct, separate areas:

  1. Nearest to the audience, both spatially and emotionally, are the tenor and baritone, who sing the passages based on Owen’s poetry, flanked by the small chamber orchestra. Despite the strong likelihood that they are dressed in formal concert attire, such as tuxedos, they essentially take on the characters of two soldiers in combat. The universality of Britten’s music transcends the specific historical context of Owen’s World War I verse. These are cries from the heart, inspired by battle poetry but suggesting even broader themes of human suffering and, ultimately, transcendence. Although Britten is not slipping in a crypto-opera here, these passages reveal him as one of the twentieth century’s masters of dramatic and psychological music.
  2. Behind the two male soloists are the soprano and the large (adult) chorus, who sing in Latin, backed by the full symphony orchestra, grand organ and piano. Although these performers embody the mournful ritual aspects of a traditional requiem — even as they suggest largest human themes of anxiety and guilt — their extraordinarily powerful music is sometimes modernistic in its use of complex rhythms and dissonance.
  3. From the far edges of the performance space, or even behind the scenes, come the high, strange sounds of the boys choir and small organ. They suggest a distant world, beyond conflict, suffering, and human limitations.

At the end of a great performance, when all of the musical and thematic elements come together, you may experience what the audience did at the 1962 premiere: a long silence followed by roaring applause, and no small amount of weeping. This is, in every sense, a transformative piece of music, a cry from the heart whose ultimate aim is to heal.

Although Britten’s War Requiem is sublime in its own right, Jarman transfigures it, and Owen’s poetry, through his visionary use of cinema.

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Analysis — Jarman’s War Requiem

Jarman embodies Britten’s multi-faceted score in one of the most compelling translations of classical music into film. Its power is increased by returning to Owen for dramatic inspiration — including a fictionalized version of the poet that ties the narrative together — while juxtaposing historical found footage. Jarman layers a simple but compelling story about Owen, two soldiers who affect him profoundly, and a nurse — onto the War Requiem, through visually stunning, wordless scenes that range from the realistic to the surreal.

Jarman and the War Requiem had already crossed paths a few times before. As a student in the early ’60s, he attended one of the first London performances; and in 1987 he edited parts of The Last of England, including the eerie sequences in the deserted warehouse, to its strains. Unfortunately, he could not use the score in the released film because the rights were too steep; having the orchestral Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes in The Angelic Conversation was one of the largest expenses on the minuscule budget. But he had a lifelong passion for Britten’s music; and when his producer friend Don Boyd told him in 1988 that both the Britten Estate and Decca Records agreed to let them make War Requiem, well, the answer was a foregone conclusion.

Although Jarman had recently been diagnosed with AIDS, he was in strong health, and eager to make his Britten film. But it’s poignant that, at a time when many of his friends were dying or dead, he would film a requiem. This was also one of his peak times as a GLBT equal rights activist, since the Conservatives had just passed the vile Clause 28, that forbade the teaching of “homosexuality” because it was “a pretended family relationship.” This film also gave him an opportunity to focus on a bedrock of Britain’s conservatism: the military. As the son of a Royal Air Force officer, who had been raised on a series of bases around the world, Jarman no doubt had his father, and military culture, in mind, filtered through Owen and Britten. However, Jarman’s views on the necessity of warfare were closer to the soldier Owen’s than the pacifist Britten’s.

The Britten Estate and Decca had been impressed with Jarman’s haunting segment (available complete on YouTube) in the 1987 opera anthology film Aria (additional episodes were made by Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Ken Russell — who gave Jarman his start in feature films, and others). Jarman had selected the romantic “Depuis le jour” (‘Since the day [I gave myself]”) from Gustave Charpentier’s opera Louise (1900), and — as with War Requiem — used the imagery and implied narrative in the lyric to create a simple but moving storyline. Not unlike James Cameron’s Titanic a decade later, although 190 minutes shorter, an elderly woman remembers the oceanside affair she had with the handsome young man (Spencer Leigh — the mute servant Jerusalemme in Caravaggio, and a soldier in War Requiem) she had loved as a young woman (Tilda Swinton, in yet another beguiling wordless performance).

War Requiem was a dream project, but it came with some strings attached. First was the proviso that Jarman must use Britten’s definitive 1963 recording exactly as it was recorded, meaning — for the only time in his career — he could not create one of his defining multi-layered soundtracks. Second, the total budget for this 35mm film, intended for theatrical release, was a mere £670,000, certainly not enough to stage even one convincing World War I battle scene, let alone much else. In order to get the film made, Jarman agreed to accept a deferred payment from eventual profits; but since there were none, he could literally paste his entire fee directly into his script: a single, token ten-pound note. Fortunately, Jarman was a past master at using creative invention to circumvent a pinched wallet. Jarman and Boyd assembled a first-rate production team, including cinematographer Richard Greatrex (Shakespeare in Love), editor Rick Elgood (Franc Roddam’s “Liebestod” segement in Aria), video editor John Maybury (writer/director of Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon), production designer Lucy Morahan (Young Soul Rebels), and costume designer Linda Alderson (Lawless Heart). Especially useful on such a quick shoot, finished in just three weeks, was Jarman’s well-established working relationship with many key crew and cast members; newcomers like Greatrex and Elgood quickly got into the swing of things.

Fortuitously, an eerily ideal location became available in the recently-closed Darenth Park Hospital (in Dartford, outside London). This massive Victorian edifice had dozens of rooms to choose from, including a mortuary, and maze-like corridors that extended far below ground, as well as a vast lawn. In the opening scene, it almost swallows up the wheelchair-bound Old Soldier (Laurence Olivier, in his final performance on screen or stage) and the Nurse. When he looks at an ancient photo in his wallet, and we see that it’s of the same nurse, it begins what seems a flashback structure that encompasses the primary action. Britten aficionados may also detect a reference to his opera Billy Budd: E.M. Forster’s libretto adds a narrative device to Melville’s original novella, by having Captain Vere, as an old man, look back on the events that form the main story.

Jarman and his gifted cast and crew began principal photography in early October 1998, with the Olivier scenes, and concluded on November 4, on schedule and within budget. Postproduction was intense, since the BBC mandated receipt of a print for theatrical release in January 1989 prior to a first television broadcast in late March for Easter. To meet the deadline, Jarman turned over editing of the massive found footage of wars, in the climactic Libera me section, to his life partner and collaborator Keith Collins and (future filmmaker) John Maybury, while he and Elgood together edited the majority of the film. War Requiem was critically acclaimed, not only by admirers of art cinema but by such Hollywood establishment papers as Variety, that called it “Jarman’s most mature effort… a moving and highly original cinematic visualization” of Britten.

Beginning with a prologue, prior to commencement of Britten’s score, Jarman establishes that he will take an essentially narrative approach to the oratorio. His original screenplay is grounded in the poetry and life — and afterlife — of Wilfred Owen, who appears as a fictionalized character throughout the film. (Jarman had wanted Daniel Day-Lewis for the role, but he became unavailable; along with Tilda Swinton, Nathaniel Parker as Owen provides many of the film’s most affecting moments — now an international star, with the The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, he’s also the brother of director Oliver Parker, whose Oscar Wilde films include An Ideal Husband (1999), The Importance of Being Earnest (2002), and Dorian Gray (2009).)

Jarman subtly highlights the homoerotic subtext of Owen’s poetry. Although Owen’s relationship with the Nurse is the most fully developed — she seems to be his sister; we even see them in flashbacks to their childhood — his key emotional relationships, in both life and death, are with the affable blond young man (called the Unknown Soldier in the credits) and the German Soldier (Sean Bean) whom he kills, then meets again in the afterlife.

Let’s look at the early scene, with the raw recruits, that includes Britten’s first setting of an Owen poem, “Anthem For Doomed Youth,” because it’s representative of Owen and Britten, as well as Jarman’s approach to them both. Notice how each of the artists depicts the cannon fodder, er, patriotic young working class men, in ways uniquely expressive of his medium. Despite the obvious textural differences, a common point between poetry (or fiction), music and film/the visual arts is rhythm; the finest artists, including these three, know how to use the arrangement of (verbal/ aural/ visual) flow to achieve both thematic and emotional richness.

Owen compares the enlistees to livestock, in his opening lines — “What passing bells for these who die as cattle? / Only the monstrous anger of the guns. / Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle / Can patter out their hasty orisons” [‘orison’ is a medieval word for prayer] — while echoing, with vivid words like “stuttering” and phrases like “rapid rattle” and “pattering out,” society’s rush to get them onto the battlefield ASAP. Britten literally underscores Owen’s imagery and meter with a rapid staccato rhythm — with the hesitation in Peter Pears’ distinctive tenor voice acting as a sort of brake to the imagery and music. Jarman shows us the mad gallop of the recruits lining up for inspection (by ironic contrast, there are several horses, on an upper level of this military “pen,” who just plod along).

Jarman also uses the scene to set up the initial meeting of the Owen character and the Unknown Soldier, who has something sharp in a boot that’s caused his foot to bleed — could it be a thorn, a very subtle foreshadowing of the Christ-related Crown of Thorns that he wears, surreally, near the end of the film in the Agnus dei section? Owen doesn’t mind helping the friendly, handsome, and clearly interested guy. In Hollywood parlance, they ‘meet cute’ in this witty scene — that plays off Owen’s irony and Britten’s propulsiveness — while also lightly satirizing the military’s pomposity (the puffy-faced officer) and the over-eager youths. (As we know, lightness doesn’t last very long in this world at war.)

I’m not going to put Owen, Britten, and Jarman cheek by jowl for every word, note, and shot — that’s for you, the individual viewer, to explore as much or as little as you like — but I did want to discuss an example, from early in the film, that demonstrates that both Britten and Jarman understand the earlier work(s) but also add unique layers of meaning, through the distinctive nature of their respective media — music, and film — and their own personal visions of themes. This is — separate or in any combination you choose to highlight — Owen’s poetry, Britten’s musical interpretation of Owen, and Jarman’s transformation of both earlier artists’ works into one of his most distinctive films.

Although some people who appreciate Britten will never accept a “movie version” of his greatest choral work — and the tacky special effects shots of choristers singing in front of huge shots of wartime carnage don’t help — in its own terms there are several elements in Jarman’s film that are both original and effective embodiments of the subtext, and sometimes even the text, of Owen’s poetry and the oratorio’s score. As you might expect from three gay artists depicting life in an almost entirely same-sex environment, there is a homoerotic thread, but it also reflects on the larger theme of personal identity.

A compelling aspect of both War Requiems and Owen’s poetry is how each artist manages to reveal the warmth and tenderness alongside the horror. Owen provides a suggestive motto for this motif in his jauntily macabre (traits that Britten perfectly captures in music) “The Next War” with the lines, “We chorused when [Death] sang aloft; / We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.” We see happy connections between the nurses, who laugh and share letters and play games (Swinton’s doing blind man’s bluff also metaphorically suggests the blindness of war); and there are some heartbreaking moments of the nurses trying to comfort the bleeding, dying men in their care.

Jarman reflects Britten’s frequent theme of the lost innocence of children, that runs throughout his work (a key example being his operatic version of Henry James’s haunting The Turn of the Screw — Britten’s extraordinarily diverse development of a single musical motif throughout that opera anticipates how he develops and integrates the tritone in this score), with scenes of Owen, the Nurse and another boy as children.

Like all of the nostalgic flashbacks that thread throughout the film, for both the English and German characters, it is shot in grainy Super 8. With the lower resolution being used to give a hand-painted feel, these are gorgeous but hazy visions of a past world. In one such scene, the young boys are dressed in military get-up while the girl is already in her whites — comically, grotesquely, and poignantly — considering the realities of war — they perform a silent requiem for a tattered teddy bear, that they then burn. Jarman also uses Super 8 to depict Owen’s memory of an innocent pastoral world, of lush streams and fields, in a style reminiscent his own early landscape paintings (that recall the visionary power of nineteenth century artist Samuel Palmer).

Yet nothing exists in simple isolation in War Requiem, as you can see in Jarman’s parallel series of hand-made shots of Boschian apocalyptic fury — yet, like Britten’s music at even its most overwhelming, there is a beauty in the horror.

Jaman’s use of Britten’s score is more subtle, as he employs a purposeful lag between the performers’ actions, revealing their emotional response to an incident, and the music. A striking early example occurs in the opening Requiem aeternam section, with the Nurse standing over the dead Wilfred Owen in his tomb. Through Swinton’s shattering performance, we see her rising pain and anger, climaxing in her throwing her head beak and (silently) screaming: but note how Jarman meticulously edits the film so that this release occurs a moment before Britten’s crescendo peaks. Instead of being some ill-timed edit, this effect of brief discontinuity between music and action — used dozens of times throughout the entire film — creates an even more visceral connection between what we see and what we hear. Instead of those elements merely duplicating each other, the brief gap provides a further emotional charge. On those rare occasions when image and music crescendo at exactly the same moment, as during the atomic bomb blast in the Libera me section, the effect is even more devastating for its rarity. This is also a good instance of the many brilliant subtleties in the film that become apparent upon repeated viewings.

Not all of the emotion, in this richly evocative film, is about pain. The most notable, and subversive, scenes of warmth focus on men in between battles, as in much of Owen’s poetry. Jarman includes many shots of the troops doing little things, like sitting close together, shaving each other, sharing personal items, cradling the wounded in their arms — and of course, helping each other with their boots. But this isn’t some romantic wartime fantasy. The relationship of Owen and the Unknown Soldier, despite its brief screen time, packs an emotional wallop because of the violence and death that surround them. And Jarman refuses to settle for a simpleminded narrative, just as Owen in his poetry and Britten in his music refuse to reduce and cheapen the complexities of war and its effects.

Perhaps on one level, the most shattering scene in the film — showing the deaths of the Unknown Soldier and the German Soldier — can be read as a sort of subtextual love triangle, that in turn reflects on even larger themes. In a roofless, burned-out chapel filled with snow, the Unknown Soldier sits at a dilapidated piano, that has miraculously survived, trying to play the literally frozen keys; above stands the shivering Owen on guard duty. (Here, Britten’s score spans the end of the Dies irae, with a heartbreaking soprano solo, and his bitter but beautiful setting for tenor of Owen’s “Futility.”) The handsome, innocent-faced German Soldier (Sean Bean, in a very different portrayal from his feral street tough in Caravaggio) almost seems to be cruising the Unknown Soldier: he puts down his rifle then starts playing at a snowball fight with him.

Then abruptly everything goes wrong, as Owen — doing his soldierly duty but also perhaps feeling a spark of jealousy at his special friend playing with another guy — shoots the German. The Unknown Soldier goes to help him, but the wounded German, as trained, lashes out, knifing him. Numb with rage, Owen bayonets the German. Unless you think Jarman was unaware of what a Freud-inclined viewer might think, he shows us, although largely out of frame, the thrusting motions of Owen penetrating the German — even as he inserts quick shots, both ironic and poignant, of the German as a little boy having a happy holiday with his mother. (Yes, these are the same men, representing the two sides of the war, who will have that “Strange Meeting” in the post-mortal final scene, and at last find reconciliation and peace.)

Now Jarman, thanks in part to Owen’s text (“move him into the sun”) and Britten’s score, achieves the seemingly impossible: he makes the scene even more affecting. He shows Owen kneeling in the snow by the dead body of the Unknown Soldier who’s entangled, one could say crucified, in a mass of barbed wire. Nathaniel Parker gives a brilliantly condensed performance, moving naturally within seconds from boredom to bestial rage to grief to numbness, as Jarman then inserts a brief flashback to memories of a childhood Christmas for Owen and his sister. Of course, war is responsible for the multiply tragic events, that are nonetheless brought about by individual men with long, complex and perhaps conflicted lives.

This pivotal narrative scene also highlights several of Jarman’s visual strategies. When the German Soldier uses a battered old bugle, all he has at hand, to fend off Owen, it’s quick enough to be funny rather than symbolically over the top. But recall the importance of the bugle image throughout the film. Of course, Owen’s poetry mentions that most martial of musical instruments, and Britten includes powerful passages for brass, not least in the Dies irae. Jarman, however, weaves it in as a resonant (little pun intended) image throughout the entire film, allowing it to accumulate both thematic weight and emotional impact.

We first see a bugle in an early ambiguous, even confusing, image: a close shot of one lying in a muddy pool of water (visually, Jarman the painter-turned-filmmaker a gorgeous contrast between the subtle brass color of the instrument, the brown of the water, and the golden flecks of light reflecting off both), that serves as the transition shot between the men digging trenches out of white clay (an obvious metaphor for soldiers digging their own graves, that Jarman makes more, um, palatable by having Owen, in hallucinatory sequences like the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice, in heavy chalky makeup, and all of the people in the afterlife, most notably the German Soldier, appear with mud-caked faces).

A moment later, we hear the (German) baritone performing “Bugles Sang;” and throughout the film, that instrument, although common to both sides, is most frequently associated with the German Soldier. One of the most evocative and mysterious images in the film comes near the end, when we see the German as a boy standing in a circle of muddy water, in the post-mortal limbo world, blowing on his (silent) bugle: the German has conflated his current, and eternal, situation with a memory of himself as a child — to borrow a line from the opening of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” it’s like something “out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire…”

Jarman then expands the image’s meaning by dissolving to a scene with the German as a man, surrounded by other dead soldiers, as he picks up the bugle, while the baritone sings a line than sums up the emotional core of War Requiem for Owen, Britten, and Jarman — its senseless, heartbreaking human toll, raised first to apocalyptic levels, and then to silence: “The pity of war, the pity war distilled” (those are also the last words spoken by the Old Soldier in the prologue, immediately before Britten’s score begins). The final image of this penultimate sequence shows the men washing in the waters that the bugle — representing art, the antithesis of war — seems to have transformed. Has the pool now become like the waters of Lethe, in the Greco-Roman land of the dead, that allowed men at last to find longed-for oblivion?

Some of Jarman’s visual metaphors are even more complex, as they bring out not only Owen’s imagery but an array of other references, creating a cinematic texture as dense as any in Britten’s multilayered score, or in Owen’s poetry that eclectically incorporates ancient literature, the Bible, Keats, experimental poets like Hopkins, and more. Perhaps the most revealing, and certainly the most bizarre, of Jarman’s heterogeneous scenes is, in the Offertorium section, for “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” a pointedly revisionist take on the biblical Abraham and Isaac scene, in which Isaac is most definitely not spared as the sacrifice: it ends, Abraham “slew his son / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Jarman’s ‘double scene’ is even more remarkable because not only is it an imaginative dramatization of Owen’s text, and Britten’s score, but he also tries to depict something unfilmable: the (increasingly surreal) process of Owen writing the poem. His whole body twists in the act of creation; his hands shaping images out of the air as if it were clay (in Greek, poēma, the root word of poem, literally means’ to make’ or ‘to form’) — then Jarman cuts, again and again, to his theatrical enactment of the poem’s drama. Since forewarned is forearmed, please note that what follows is the most highly speculative part of this essay, suggesting connections with such unlikely bedfellows as antigay British slang, Walt Whitman and Stephen Sondheim — if you like, you can jump past this contentious section.

What strikes the viewer first is the sod — literal but also not — that’s growing all around Owen, on a soldier’s helmet and, even stranger, his book. This is surreal, to say the least; and the scene suggests but pointedly never clarifies whether this is part of the film’s “real” fantasy scenes, in the dank post-mortal world (as ravaged yet serene as the one in, say, Cocteau’s 1949 Orpheus) where much of the second half is set, or merely a dream or hallucination. Owen’s face is ghostly pale; or is it merely covered in the white dust from the trenches that he and his fellow soldiers were digging in an early scene? [UPDATE August 6, 2010: Thanks to Jessica I., who writes: “… apparently the character is dead in this scene. There is a clip of Nathaniel Parker describing his experience working with Jarman on the film. Within this, he specifically talks about taking direction in this scene with the character being dead.”]

The grass, sprouting up everywhere, brings to mind two wildly divergent associations. One of them may refer to, of all things, George A. Romero’s visually imaginative horror/comedy anthology film, Creepshow (1982). Specifically, the second episode, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” written by and starring (!) horror-meister Stephen King (who also wrote the entire screenplay), is about a hapless hillbilly whose world becomes engulfed by a grassy plant (from outer space, of course). No Jarman biography has mentioned if he saw this movie, but he didn’t live exclusively in the rarefied world of Art Cinema (you can also imagine him delighting in that most unlikely, and politically subversive, masterpiece of ’70s American cinema, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) — in fact, the Owen ‘framing’ scenes could be seen as combining Romero’s trademark pasty “zombie makeup” with shots from his “The Lonesome Death…”).

Be that as it may, note the visual pun: the book’s pages, or leaves, are literally sprouting grass — a sly allusion to Walt Whitman’s lifework, Leaves of Grass, arguably the most influential poetic work of the past two centuries, as well as the clearest forerunner, in the Drum Taps section (as discussed above), of Owen’s homoerotic, and deeply humane, war poetry.

That brings us to the non-literal, in fact downright rude, slang meaning of sod, that would certainly have been on Jarman’s mind — and wouldn’t have escaped the notice of, say, Owen or Britten either. As a primarily British slur, ‘sod’ derives from sodomy. While not as toxic as the American slur f*gg*t, it’s still not a nice way to address your mates, or anyone else.

Consider the brilliance of Jarman’s image, that wittily juxtaposes one of the greatest, and most overtly gay, poets with an antigay slur, even while reminding of us the final resting place, beneath the sod, of Wilfred Owen and so many other innocent men and women sacrificed in war.

Now, from Creepshow (possibly) and Leaves of Grass (literalistically), we’re off to the theatre! A possible Britten/ Sondheim/ Jarman connection that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, including Tony Peake’s definitive Derek Jarman: A Biography. Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Company, Follies, Into the Woods), book-writer Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music), and director/producer Hal Prince (West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The Phantom of the Opera, Sondheim’s best musicals) in their masterpiece, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Broadway 1979, London 1980, Los Angeles 1981), seem to have inspired a key scene in Jarman’s film. (It’s worth noting that Sondheim’s music draws heavily on Britten’s distinctive style, in both his ‘English’ (most of the score) and ‘Eastern Asian’ (Judge Turpin’s number “The Letter”) styles.) The particular design features noted here, in relation to Jarman’s scene, relate specifically to Prince’s original staging and not to Tim Burton’s superb 2007 film of Sweeney Todd. Examples include the actors’ mask-like white makeup, the design of the heavy topcoats for the leering, overstuffed Victorian oligarchs — and how Jarman stages them on perches above and around the main playing area. And who can miss that close-up of the Sweeneyesque straight razor, that later Abraham swings in the same expansive arc as Mr. Todd before putting it to a use not recommended by the maker. The similarities are so striking that it seems likely that Jarman either saw the Best Musical-winning production, or had knowledge of it through perhaps a broadcast of the 1982 videotaped Los Angeles production (also directed by Hal Prince). Also of course, Sondheim is, like Owen, Britten, and Jarman, yet another extraordinary artist who is gay, much to the chagrin of, say, Clause 28 fans, who may even “love” his songs. This Sweeney Todd connection may seem even less unlikely if you consider that Jarman ends his film exactly as Hal Prince ended his stage production: with a woman (the post-mortal Mrs. Lovett) exiting the stripped-down playing area by closing a door: with a bang in Sweeney Todd but a far more gentle touch by the Nurse in Jarman’s film.

In striking contrast, Jarman next gives us the film’s most relentlessly straightforward sequence, in the Sanctus: an uninterrupted closeup of Tilda Swinton, braiding her hair (perhaps recalling the doomed Ophelia in Hamlet), as she descends into madness, revealing the psychological underpinnings of Britten’s searing melodic line for soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The Sanctus is traditionally set to music that is very different from the other parts of a requiem mass, because it is solely about praising God. Britten, with Jarman imaginatively following his lead, repeats the line “Pleni sunt ceoli et terra gloria tua” (“Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory”) with increasing intensity, literally underscored by the grating tritone, until it — like man’s obsession with war — reaches such a pitch of madness that it explodes. Actor, singer, composer and filmmaker, together, have hit ground zero.

Let’s end our discussion with the end of the film, marvelously simple yet typically dense and evocative. After we fade out on the soldiers finding peace in limbo, Jarman shows the German, now with a clean, radiant face, walking with a basket of poppies (historically associated with World War I, and generally symbolic of both death and rebirth) through rows of soldiers until he comes to the (literal) tomb of the Unknown Soldier, who is flanked by four guard, the Nurse and old woman. Jarman bookends the film with visual quotations. He opened by suggesting the dead soldier (Owen in the film) lying on a stone slab in the Royal Artillery Memorial in London’s Hyde Park Corners, by soldier/artist Charles Sargeant Jagger (1885-1934 — like Owen, he joined the Artists’ Rifles). Jagger’s sculpture also includes four bronze figures of artillery soldiers, and that may have partly inspired Jarman’s far bolder final quotation in the last scene: a living recreation (a la Caravaggio) of Piero della Francesca’s 1460 painting, “The Resurrection.”

Piero’s large canvas (200 cm x 225 cm) has four oblivious guards below Christ at the moment of rising from his tomb, with just one foot out so far. Jarman has the innocent, and as we’ve seen homosocial, Unknown Soldier as Christ, carrying the so-called Cross of St. George, that serves multiple duty in both history and this film. The flag has a red cross centered on a white background; originally the flag of Genoa, it was adopted in 1190 by England to try to curry favor with, and hence get protection from, the powerful Genoese fleet for English ships sailing the Mediterranean (four centuries later it was combined with Scotland’s St. Andrew’s Cross, ultimately becoming the familiar Union Jack — that Jarman uses to hilarious satirical effect in the film’s big musical production number featuring a grotesque Britannia, straight out of both a WW I-era music hall and his own Jubilee, with the action played against Britten’s score). Symbolically, the painting connects to the themes of death and resurrection, not to mention the obliviousness of so many people, even those at the scene of the action. Also significant is the precise moment of the action that Piero depicts: Christ is frozen between death and eternal life, with one foot literally in the grave — Jarman, although perhaps not Piero, would have detected the impious humor.

Also important is how Jarman uses a specifically Christian image, since both Owen and Britten were raised as observant Christians but as adults both renounced, at a minimum, the supernatural aspects of the religion. (One of Owen’s most visceral poems, suppressed from early published editions along with his most openly homoerotic verse, is the 1915 “Maundy Thursday,” that ends with the narrator kissing the acolyte: “Above the crucifix I bent my head: / The Christ was thin, and cold, and very dead: / And yet I bowed, yea, kissed — my lips did cling. / (I kissed the warm live hand that held the thing.)”; Britten told the War Board, during his petition Conscientious Objector status, that “I do not believe in the Divinity of Christ, but I think his teaching is sound and his example should be followed.”) Jarman now includes both the Nurse and old woman in the scene, further connecting the divine with everyday life, and with a more hopeful representation of humanity than the drowsy and/or drunken guards.

In a surprising move, that nonetheless reflects the fundamental love for humankind of Owen, Britten, and Jarman, the film now cuts to the Unknown Soldier alone but shorn of his Christ-like vestments — he’s discreetly wearing only a white loincloth, and a small beatific smile. The two kind-hearted women remain, while the guards and German soldier have vanished.

Soon the Nurse is alone, leaving a basket of pure white flowers; the altar now contains only a single candle — taking us back to the very first image of the film. It reminds us, in traditional symbolic form, of the brightness and brevity of our lives… in contrast to what endures — like war, on the one hand, and on the other, Owen’s poetry, Britten’s choral masterpiece, and Jarman’s film.

As we have seen, and felt, Owen, Britten, and Jarman have redefined the traditional heroic depiction of war; and each artist has done it by using his particular medium to its fullest effect.

Owen doesn’t celebrate epic battle scenes, like Homer or Virgil (or a hack World War I era versifier), instead he inverts the genre’s scope to focus on the intimate, often internal, feelings of the men who are used “as cattle.” Britten brings to full musical and emotional life Owen’s poetry while using it to contrast with and intensify the traditional requiem until, at the climax, it audibly explodes both the ancient musical form and the very nature of war itself. Jarman not only embodies those “inversions” of his predecessors through image, he achieves the seemingly impossible by taking Britten’s psychologizing, and heartbreakingly beautiful, musical interpretation of Owen and making it visceral in the unique way of cinematic drama: Jarman’s closeups, and eerie dreamscapes, take us yet further into the mind of his fictionalized Wilfred Owen to explore his inner world — one that has inspired generations of poets, and peace activists, as well as Britten’s sublime musical imagination.

Individually Owen, Britten, and Jarman are masters of their respective forms, but when their artistry comes together in the film War Requiem, the result is a transcendent achievement that reveals both the depths of man’s self-destructiveness and humankind’s resilient potential for understanding, healing and peace.

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Annotated Full Text of War Requiem

Following is the entire text of Britten’s oratorio, War Requiem. Jarman includes, note-complete, the definitive 1963 Decca recording conducted by the composer eight months after the premiere. You will find both translations of all Latin passages and notes on how Britten used Owen’s poetry, including the cuts he made. Although I include unique material (and a handful of typographical corrections), this section is indebted to the War Requiem project of Cyrus Behroozi and Thomas Niday at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), that also features a half-dozen musical excerpts; and Andrew Kuster’s article “Benjamin Britten’s Poetic Alterations” (from the February 2000 Choral Journal 40:7). Decca Records, that released this and virtually all of Britten’s recordings of both his own and other composers’ works, offers detailed information for each track of the 1963 album. Also of note, singer/composer John Davies has made a precise literal translation of the Requiem Mass text, that clarifies the standard English version.

Regarding Britten’s use of the nine poems by Owen — who was killed before he could finish revising most of them — six use the texts verbatim (“Anthem for Doomed Youth” / “What passing-bells…;” “The Next War” / “Out there we’ve walked…;” “Futility” / “Move him into the sun…;” “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” / “So Abram rose…;” “The End” / “After the blast of lightning…;” and “At a Calvary Near the Ancre” / “One ever hangs…”), but three are edited (“Bugles Sang” / “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air…;” “Sonnet on Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought Into Action” / “Be slowly lifted up…;” and “Strange Meeting” / “It seemed that out of battle…”).

I. Requiem aeternam

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Lord, grant them eternal rest;
and let the perpetual light shine upon them

Te decet hymnus, Deus in Sion:
et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem;
exaudi orationem meam,
ad te omnis caro veniet.

Thou shalt have praise in Zion, of God:
and homage shall be paid to thee in Jerusalem;
hear my prayer,
all flesh shall come before Thee.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine;
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Lord, grant them eternal rest;
and let the perpetual light shine upon them

NOTE: Owen’s “Anthem For Doomed Youth” — full original text
What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison
Kyrie eleison

Lord, have mercy upon them
Christ, have mercy upon them
Lord, have mercy upon them

II. Dies irae

Dies irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum
Coget omnes ante thronum.
Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Judicanti responsura.

This day, this day of wrath
Shall consume the world in ashes,
As foretold by David and the Sibyl.
What trembling there shall be
When the judge shall come
To weigh everything strictly.
The trumpet, scattering its awful sound
Across the graves of all lands,
Summons all before the throne.
Death and nature shall be stunned
When mankind arises
To render account before the judge.

Bugles sang, saddening the evening air;
And bugles answered, sorrowful to hear.
Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.
The shadow of the morrow weighed on men.
Voices of old despondency resigned,
Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.

NOTE: Owen’s fragmentary “Bugles Sang” — Britten used the opening lines but omitted the remainder of this unfinished poem, which is as follows:

[manuscript illegible] dying tone
Of receding voices that will not return.
The wailing of the high far-travelling shells
And the deep cursing of the provoking [illegible].

The monstrous anger of our taciturn guns.
The majesty of the insults of their mouths.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus judicetur.
Judex ergo cum sedebit
Quidquid latet, apparebut:
Nil inultum remanebit.

The written book shall be brought
In which all is contained,
Whereby the world shall be judged.
When the judge takes his seat
All that is hidden shall appear:
Nothing will remain unavenged

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronem rogaturus,
Cum vix justus sit securus?

What shall I, a wretch, say then?
To which protector shall I appeal
When even the just man is barely safe?

Soprano and Chorus
Rex tremendae majestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

King of awful majesty,
Who freely savest those worthy of salvation,
Save me, fount of pity.

Tenor and Baritone
NOTE: Owen’s fragment “The Next War” — used in full
Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death:
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, —
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, —
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against his powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death — for Life; not men — for flags.

Recordare Jesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.
Quarens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus:
Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce Deus.
Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.
Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.
Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis,
Voca me cum benedictis.
Oro supplex et acclinis
Cor contritum quasi cinis
Gere curam mei finis.

Remember, gentle Jesus,
That I am the reason for Thy time on earth,
Do not cast me out on that day.
Seeking me, Thou didst sink down wearily,
Thou hast saved me by enduring the cross,
Such travail must not be in vain.
I groan, like the sinner that I am,
Guilt reddens my face,
Oh God spare the supplicant.
Thou, who pardoned Mary
And heeded the thief,
Hast given me hope as well.
Give me a place among the sheep
And separate me from the goats,
Let me stand at Thy right hand.
When the damned are cast away
And consigned to the searing flames,
Call me to be with the blessed.
Bowed down in supplication I beg Thee,
My heart as though ground to ashes:
Help me in my last hour.

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to curse;
Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

NOTE: Selections from Owen’s “Sonnet on Seeing a Piece of Our Heavy Artillery Brought Into Action” — here is the complete poem:

Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great Gun towering towards Heaven, about to curse;
Sway steep against them, and for years rehearse
Huge imprecations like a blasting charm!
Reach at that Arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse.
Spend our resentment, cannon, — yea, disburse
Our gold in shapes of flame, our breaths in storm.

Yet, for men’s sakes whom thy vast malison
Must wither innocent of enmity,
Be not withdrawn, dark arm, thy spoilure [sic] done,
Safe to the bosom of our prosperity.
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!

Dies irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

This day, this day of wrath
Shall consume the world in ashes,
As foretold by David and Sibyl.
What trembling there shall be
When the judge shall come
To weigh everything strictly.

Soprano and Chorus
Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla,
Judicandus homo reus:
Huic ergo parce Deus.

Oh this day full of tears
When from the ashes arises
Guilty man, to be judges:
Oh Lord, have mercy upon him.

NOTE: Owen’s “Futility” — entire text used (spread over this and the following three Tenor sections).
Move him into the sun —
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Soprano and Chorus
Lacrimosa dies illa…

Oh this day full of tears…

Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved — still warm — too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Soprano and Chorus
...Qua resurget ex favilla…

Oh this day full of tears…

Think how it wakes the seeds —
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved — still warm — too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Soprano and Chorus
…Qua resurget ex favilla…

…When from the ashes arises…

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Soprano and Chorus
...Judicandus homo reus.

…Guilty man, to be judged.

— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem.

Gentle Lord Jesus, grant them rest.

III. Offertorium

Domine Jesu Christe, Rex gloriae,
libera animas omnium fidelium
defunctorum de poenis inferni,
et de profundo lacu:
libera eas de ore leonis, ne absorbeat eas
tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum.

Lord Jesus Christ, King of glory,
deliver the souls of the faithful
departed from the pains of hell,
and the bottomless pit:
deliver them from the jaw of the lion, lest hell
engulf them, lest they be plunged into darkness.

Sed signifer sanctus Michael
repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam:
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti,
et semini ejus.

But let the holy standard-bearer Michael
lead them into the holy light
as Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.

Tenor and Baritone
NOTE: Owen’s “Parable of the Old Man and the Young” — full text used, although the final line (“And half the seed of Europe, one by one”) does not appear in all published versions.
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And streched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so,
but slew his son, —
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Hostias et preced tibi Domine
laudis offerimus; tu suscipe pro
animabus illis, quarum hodie
memoriam facimus: fac eas, Domine,
de morte transire ad vitam.
Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
en semini ejus.

Lord, in praise we offer to Thee
sacrifices and prayers, do Thou receive them
for the souls of those whom we remember
this day: Lord, make them pass
from death to life.
As Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.

…Quam olim Abrahae promisisti
et semini ejus.

…As Thou didst promise Abraham
and his seed.

IV. Sanctus

Soprano and Chorus
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus
Dominus Deus Saboath.
Pleni sunt ceoli et terra gloria tua,
[Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
[Hosanna in excelsis.

Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.
[Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord.
[Hosanna in the highest.

NOTE: Owen’s “The End” — complete text used
After the blast of lighning from the East,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot Throne;
After the drums of time have rolled and ceased,
And by the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will He annul, all tears assuage? —
Fill the void veins of Life again with youth,
And wash, with an immortal water, Age?
When I do ask white Age he saith not so:
“My head hangs weighed with snow.”
And when I hearken to the Earth, she saith:
“My fiery heart shrinks, aching. It is death.
Mine ancient scars shalls not be glorified,
Nor my titanic tears, the sea, be dried.”

VI. Libera me

Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna,
in die illa tremenda:
Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra:
Dum veneris judicare saeculum per ignem.

Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death
in that awful day
when the heavens and earth shall be shaken,
when Thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.

Soprano and Chorus
[Tremens factus sum ego, et timeo
[dum discussio venerit, atque ventura ira.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna.
Quando coeli movendi sunt i terra.
Dies illa, dies irae, calamitatis
et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
Libera me, Domine.

[I am seized with fear and trembling,
[until the trial shall be at hand and the wrath to come.
Deliver me, O Lord, from eternal death.
When the heavens and earth shall be shaken.
That day, that day of wrath, of calamity
and misery, a great day and exceeding bitter.
Deliver me, O Lord.

It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”

NOTE: Owen’s “Strange Meeting” — Britten makes several changes to the original poem, that Owen never finished in definitive form. Here is the full text, with Andrew Kuster‘s notes on Britten’s alterations:
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, [Britten deletes]
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. [B. deletes]
With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained; [B. deletes]
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground, [B. deletes]
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair, [B. deletes]
But mocks the steady running of the hour, [B. deletes]
And if it grieves, grieves richlier [sic] than here. [B. deletes]
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,[B. deletes]
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery: [B. deletes]
To miss the march of this retreating world [B. alters to “Miss we”]
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint. [B. alters, *see below]
I would have poured my spirit without stint [B. deletes]
But not through wounds; not on the cess [sic] of war. [B. deletes]
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were. [B. deletes]
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now….”

*Britten’s text, replacing Owen’s lines 36–39:
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even the sweetest wells that ever were.

“None”, said the other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”

Boys, then Chorus, then Soprano
In paridisum deducant te Angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te Martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam
Jerusalem. Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere aeternam
habeas requiem.

Into Paradise may the Angels lead thee:
at thy coming may the Martyrs receive thee,
and bring thee into the holy city
Jerusalem. May the Choir of Angels receive thee
and with Lazarus, once poor,
may thou have eternal rest.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Lord, grant them eternal rest,
and let the perpetual light shine upon them.

[In paradisum deducant etc.

[Into Paradise, etc.

[Chorus Angeloru, te suscipiat etc.

[May the Choir of Angels, etc.

[Tenor and Baritone
[Let us sleep now.

Requiescant in pace. Amen.

Let them rest in peace. Amen.

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  • Written and Directed bz Jarman
  • Produced by Don Boyd
  • Executive Producer: John Kelleher
  • Cinematography by Richard Greatrex
  • Edited by Rick Elgood
  • Video Editor: John Maybury
  • Production Designer: Lucy Morahan
  • Costumes by Linda Alderson
  • Makeup & Hair by Peter King and Peter Owen
  • Music: War Requiem, Opus 66 by Benjamin Britten, recorded in a studio performance in January 1963 (the premiere recording) — soloists Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Pears, Galina Vishnevskaya; the Bach Choir and London Symphony Orchestra Chorus; the Highgate School Choir; organist Simon Preston; the Melos Ensemble; the London Symphony Orchestra; conducted by Britten; produced for Decca Records by John Culshaw.

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  • Nathaniel Parker as Wilfred Owen
  • Tilda Swinton as the Nurse
  • Laurence Olivier as the Old Soldier
  • Patricia Hayes as the Mother
  • Rohan McCullough as the Enemy Mother
  • Nigel Terry as Abraham
  • Owen Teale as the Unknown Soldier
  • Sean Bean as the German Soldier
  • Alex Jennings as the Blinded Soldier
  • Claire Davenport as the Charge Nurse / Britannia
  • Spencer Leigh as Soldier 1
  • Milo Bell as Soldier 2
  • Richard Stirling as Soldier 3
  • Kim Kindersley as Soldier 4
  • Stuart Turton as Soldier 5
  • Lucinda Gane as Nurse 1
  • Beverly Seymour as Nurse 2
  • Linda Spurrier as Nurse 3
  • David Meyer as a Businessman
  • Clancy Chassy as Young Wilfred
  • Jody Graber as the Enemy Child
  • Liberty Ross as the Young Girl
  • Other Children played by Leo Ross, Joe Baxter, John Jagger, and Alicia Ligenza

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Original Video Release (Used for This Review)

Kino International‘s DVD has excellent image and sound quality. I’ve long treasured the original CD release of Britten’s own classic recording of his work, but this DVD boasts even fuller and richer audio. There is no booklet essay, and the only additional features are a trailer and stills gallery.

  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Stills gallery. NOTE: Interestingly, none of these photos on the DVD are actual stills from the film; rather they are publicity shots, that provide yet another — slightly different — visual perspective.
Jim's Reviews / Jarman
Jim’s Reviews / Jarman

Reviewed September 2, 2008 / Revised October 19, 2020

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