Daily Archives: 12 March 2014

Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursed cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows—O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; . . . then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Stoic Films: The Great Escape

Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen

Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and Hicks (Steve McQueen) in The Great Escape

The Great Escape is a classic war film, inspired by a real-life breakout from the Stalag Luft III POW camp in World War II. Although the film took some typical Hollywood liberties with the story, it remains an excellent portrayal of the quintessential British stiff upper lip.

The story begins in 1943. The Germans, constantly hunting escaped Allied prisoners of war, decide to build a new high security POW camp where they can detain the most frequent escapees. Their plan is to keep all their “rotten eggs in one basket”. The camp has watchtowers covering all angles inside the perimeter, layers of barbed wire fencing, and listening devices planted in the ground to pick up the sounds of digging.

Almost immediately the prisoners start trying to escape, by hiding in trucks leaving the camp, and even marching straight out the gates. The prison guards immediately foil these impulsive attempts. The Kommandant tells the men that they will be in the camp for a long time, and should occupy themselves with the leisurely past-times on offer. Amongst the new arrivals are ingenious Squadron Leader Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and cocksure American pilot Hilts (Steve McQueen). Hilts is determined to escape as soon as possible, and attempts various quick getaways, only to be recaptured soon after getting out. His behaviour lands him in solitary confinement, “The Cooler”.

Bartlett is more patient, and sets about organising a complicated mass breakout involving three tunnels; Tom, Dick and Harry. The men have to dig deep to avoid the listening devices, and must find a way to deposit the large amounts of soil. Unlike Hilts, Bartlett understands the need to appear to be playing by the rules; if the men seem to be devoting themselves to past-times like gardening, choir practice and bird-watching classes, they can lull the Germans into a false sense of security. On the other hand, he tolerates, and encourages, Hicks to continue with his quick schemes; the guards would be suspicious if there were no breakout attempts.

Plot spoilers follow.

One of the tunnels has been discovered, and the other abandoned. The men put all their energy into the remaining one. Eventually they dig past the perimeter, and escape is possible. The forgers have created all the necessary identification documents, and the tailors have modified the men’s uniforms to look like civilian clothes.

As the men line up in the tunnel on the night of the escape, a terrible discovery is made. The tunnel is shorter than previously thought, and falls far short of the cover of the woods. Anyone who climbs out of the hole could be spotted by a guard. The entire operation looks like it is in jeopardy. Bartlett behaves very stoically in this moment. When someone asks how the length of the tunnel could have been so drastically miscalculated, Bartlett says that it doesn’t matter how; it has already happened and is therefore out of their control. He knows that he cannot change the facts of the matter, and does not let the situation dampen his resolve. He orders the escape to go ahead, as all the documents are dated to that day. This is their only opportunity.

By timing the movements the guards, the men emerge from the tunnel one by one, and make a dash for the woods. All is going well until one man trips, and inadvertently alerts the guards. The escape is quickly stopped. 76 men got away. Travelling in pairs or alone, the escapees must make their way to the neutral countries. Some hitch a ride, some take the train, some steal a fighter plane, and Hilts famously drives across the fields in a German motorbike, leading to the film’s iconic chase sequence.

In the end, all but three of the men are recaptured. As Bartlett and 49 others sit in the back of a German truck, expecting to be delivered back to the camp, he reflects on the mission. Although the have been caught, he believes that the escape was a success. They proved that the camp was not as secure as the Luftwaffe thought, they distrusted the German army, and most importantly, they led many soldiers on a chase which caused a large-scale distraction when those troops could have been fighting the Allies.

In the film’s bleakest moment, the 50 men are let out to stretch their legs, and are promptly gunned down by the Germans. Back at the camp, the remaining POWs are informed that Bartlett and the others were “shot while trying to escape”. They see through this lie immediately, but are powerless to do anything.

As a result of the escape, the camp Kommandant is relieved of his position in disgrace. As he is about to be escorted from the camp, Hilts is brought back, unhurt, and promptly sent to the cooler. The bittersweet ending is capped by a dedication to the real life 50.

The Allied officers in The Great Escape are prime examples of stoicism in action. They do not let imprisonment sink their spirits, and they remain resolute throughout the ordeal. That is not to say they all behave stoically; one man, Ives, cannot stand the oppressive conditions in the cooler. He lets the situation drag him down, and as a result of his desperation, his part ends in tragedy. Danny the tunnel digger (Charles Bronson playing against type) also faces great anxiety (he appears to suffer from claustrophobia), but tries his best to keep it under control. Eventually he has a breakdown, and almost jeopardises the operation, but with help and understanding from the other men, he is able to pull through.

The most impressive character in the film is Bartlett. As the leader of the escape, it falls to him to make the difficult decisions. He carries a huge weight on his shoulders, but always stays calm and collected in front of the men. His final moments on-screen cement him as a great stoic character. The Great Escape is a perennial feature on British television, where its “Keep Calm and Carry On” ethos is greatly admired, but one does not need to be British to appreciate the stoic undercurrent of this deserving classic.