The ‘vow to a dying soldier’ cliché

In war, people die. Rather a lot. On camera, people die to propel the main character towards some noble goal that sensible people would otherwise avoid. To prove my point, I have three examples for you:

In the most recent Robin Hood film, Russell Crowe’s ‘Robin Longstride’ promises a dying ‘Robert of Locksley’ that he will take a message to the man’s father. It is presumed that the promise was only meant to ease the man’s suffering. However, Robin accidentally pricks his finger while doing it, and suddenly acquires a sense of obligation.

In Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom’s ‘Balian’ is taking a road trip to Jerusalem to pray for his late wife. However, when he accidentally gets Liam Neeson’s ‘Godfrey of Ibelin’ fatally wounded, he lets the man knight him, and takes on a tonne of responsibility while sensible soldiers like Jeremy Irons’ ‘Tiberius’ are abandoning ship.

In Sharpe’s Eagle, Sean Bean’s ‘Sharpe’ watches as a superior officer orders a comrade, Major Lennox, into a tactically unsound advance, which sees the major fatally wounded, his unit wiped out and, (!!!) the flag captured. When Sharpe and his men get there, the dying major begs that a French flag (an eagle) be planted in his grave. While Sharpe never vocally agrees to the deal – and his superiors interrogate him on that point – he does, eventually, capture an eagle.

At first I thought that this was based on some notion of chivalric honour. Balian is knighted, and Robin Longstride assumes the identity of a knight. But actually, chivalry really isn’t what we’ve made it out to be, and that’s partly the Victorians’ fault.

According to lordsandladies.org, the Song of Roland breaks down chivalry into tenets, such as ‘fighting for the welfare of all’, and ‘persevering to the end in any enterprise begun’. Chivalry was a big deal back in the day. I have heard one (possibly apocryphal) tale of a PoW, who was allowed to go home to collect his own ransom, because he gave his word that he would be back. That is way more civilised behaviour than exists in any modern conflict.

However, there’s an issue here. Godfrey of Ibelin, Robert of Locksley and Major Lennox are all ‘good’ men. In fact they are, arguably, better men than the heroes. Balian murders a priest, Robin Longstride escapes from the stocks before running across the dying Locksley, and Sharpe is up for duelling a fellow officer, despite his general’s orders. There is a sense that the heroes each ‘owe it’ to the dying man to honour his last request, because he was ‘a good man’. This, then, isn’t chivalry.

The codes of chivalry simply require that a knight will ‘keep faith’, there is no sub-clause about whether the other guy was good enough to deserve good treatment. But then, none of these men have been raised as noble knights. Sharpe and Longstride are professional soldiers, while Balian is a blacksmith (the extended version explains that he is a Da Vinci-level polymath, but the studio cut is more believable). These guys respect people for their actions, not their background.

However, a high level of loyalty and respect did run between real-world comrades as well, even when they weren’t knights. One nice example of honour between fellow soldiers is the burial club culture of ancient Rome. This was basically a co-operative insurance scheme, where each man paid into the kitty, and when one guy popped his clogs, the collective purse paid for a respectable ceremony, along with all the appropriate sacrifices and monuments. When you might die in some corner of a godforsaken province at any moment, knowing that you’ll get a good send-off made it a little more bearable.

Robin Longstride and his comrades-in-arms get upset when they realise that Robin has accidentally pricked his finger, theoretically swearing a blood pact. Historical blood pacts are not uncommon, and have happened in many parts of the world. The red sticky stuff was regarded with a degree of reverence, and blood pacts were considered irrevocable. Robin shrugs off the association, but subsequently keeps faith since he was ‘going that way anyway’.

Oaths are powerful things, and when you factor in the multiplier of a dying man’s last request, they can carry a real emotional resonance. Of the three stories, I think the Sharpe storyline uses this motif the most subtly. Sharpe never verbally agrees to capture an eagle. He knows it would be a bloody hard job to accomplish. But still, he will fight to do right by a good man who died in a bad way.

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