There have already been numerous portrayals of Edgar Allan Poe as a character in both literature and popular media, and Netflix’s “The Pale Blue Eye” is the latest film to do so. Based on the novel by Louis Bayard, the film presents our beloved Poe as a peculiar young cadet who receives his training at the United States Military Academy at West Point. It is at this Academy that the man meets a veteran detective, Augustus Landor, who is appointed by the military to solve the bizarre suicide of a cadet. Through time spent secretly serving as Detective Landor’s assistant, Edgar A. Poe makes new friends, experiences new losses, and ultimately solves the murder mystery himself. And unsurprisingly, themes of the occult and the macabre surround the two characters and the events that unfold in the film.
For starters, Edgar Allan Poe actually enlisted in the US Army in 1827 after lying about his age. He then also moved to the Military Academy at West Point, New York, and was actually a cadet there in 1830, which is the year shown in “The Pale Blue Eye.” However, there is no record of Poe actually being involved in solving any murder cases during this time, or ever in his lifetime. The characters of Landor and the Marquis family and all plot events in the film are fictional, first written by novelist Louis Bayard and later adapted for the screen by director Scott Cooper. By his time at West Point, Poe had already published his first book of poems, which is why characters in the film refer to the young cadet as a published poet. In reality, Poe wanted to end his time at West Point around 1831, and he intentionally court-martialed and was discharged from the army. After this, the man went on to practice poetry and literature, and later established himself as an immense figure in the history of literature and culture. In the words of the novelist Bayard himself, his work, and therefore this film, is almost like a Poe origin story, which is undoubtedly fictional but closely linked to his real life.
Despite having a truly warm and soft soul, young Poe’s words and outward expressions are always serious and even somber. The man finds the act of ripping someone’s heart out of his corpse poetically symbolic. He talks about death and despair with a fluency that is unusual among people. But it could also be argued that the strongly morbid and macabre imagery or tone with which Poe’s literary work is marked is not yet present in his character. It’s almost as if this Poe, in “The Pale Blue Eye,” was a young man before he became a mature artist of the macabre. Perhaps the experiences here will begin to lead you into that darkness. There is something about the death of Cadet Fry and the subsequent theft of the dead heart from him that amuses Poe, as he is the one who approaches the investigating detective and tries to get acquainted with him. The character of Augustus Landor is still unknown to the young man, so the only possible reason for him to approach the detective might be to learn more about the case. Actually, it’s not hard to imagine Edgar Allan Poe having fun carving hearts out of dead cows, sheep, and men. Once he starts working for Landor, trying to get more information within the Academy and the other cadets, a friendship, or at least a partnership, begins between the two men. Poe uses his brilliant English language skills to decipher the message on the small note in Fry’s hand, and at this very moment, he realizes that Landor is pretty handy as well. The fact that Poe comes to admire Landor for the veteran’s detective skills is evident, and he really fills the part of sidekick.
This admiration isn’t just on Poe’s side, either; it is also felt at one point in Landor. When the detective is informed that both Fry and Ballinger had fights with Poe before they were murdered in such horrific fashion, Landor becomes concerned. He confronts Poe about this and shows frustration that the cadet hadn’t told him all of this. Although Landor had broken up the fight between Poe and Ballinger the night before the latter’s death, the fact that a similar altercation had also occurred with Fry was unknown. In his mind, Landor obviously knows who did the murders, himself, but now he’s also worried about Poe. Everyone, including Academy officials, knew of this animosity between Poe and the dead cadets, and suspicion obviously fell on the poet. Captain Hitchcock actually tells Landor directly that they are more suspicious of Poe and just need the detective to find proof of all of this. When the plot about Artemus Marquis stealing the hearts for the hidden rituals for the treatment of his sister is revealed, Landor doesn’t have to think twice about blaming Artemus for the murders. So it’s not like Landor feels guilty when someone else is suspected of his crimes. Landor’s character, after all, is that of a hardened and sharp man, a veteran not only of his profession as a detective but of life in general. But he still watches over Poe because, by this time, Landor has also developed an admiration for Poe. It is worth mentioning that the young poet, played brilliantly by Harry Melling, has impressive charm and confidence. When all the confrontations and confessions are done, Landor actually admits that he wishes it was Poe that his daughter Mathilde ran into at the night of the Academy Ball instead of the three cadets who forced himself on her. Landor knows that Poe’s kind heart and respectful attitude are not common among men his age, and while he can, he enjoys the young apprentice’s company.
Poe’s character is also given adequate depth, as he is a crucial part of the plot. He shares with Landor the struggles he constantly has to face trying to fit in with society, something that continues throughout the poet’s life. At the Academy, his appearance, knowledge, and personality are the cause of ridicule and scorn. Cadet Poe’s appearance and poise stand out from the traditionally male figures that surround him. He is very different from Artemus or his friends Ballinger and Stoddard, but Poe’s charm can also make him a friend to them, which he does solely for the sake of the investigation. It is through this friendship that he first meets Artemus’s sister, Lea, and the attraction he feels is almost instantaneous. This also works both ways, as Lea’s fluency in French and her admiration for Byron’s poetry also captivate her, and she agrees to spend time with Poe. Perhaps most aptly, Poe takes Lea to a graveyard on their first outing together instead of the usual places for romance. When Lea has a seizure during this outing, she probably expects her date to flee the scene or fear for her safety, so when Poe helps her through the experience, she is even more moved. It can be seen that Lea was ultimately looking for someone willing to sacrifice himself for her ritual, and that Poe was an easy target for this. But such a consideration perhaps takes away from the romantic possibility that was actually present between the two characters. Lea really believed in the ritual she wanted to perform, so her love or admiration for Poe was probably very genuine as well. If she had only wanted to attract a man, then Ballinger would have been a much easier target. Of course, when Edgar Allan Poe is involved, the occult can’t be far away, so the whole part about the Marquis family being descended from Father Henri Le Clerc and them trying to cure Lea’s illness with black magic is pretty appropriate. The man was already interested in death and grim imagery in film before this, and perhaps this experience, which nearly killed him, only brings Poe closer to his gothic style and perspective on life.
In “The Pale Blue Eye,” Edgar Allan Poe as a poet is not nearly as important or crucial as he is as an individual. The young cadet expresses his desire to continue writing poetry in life, and seems confident of becoming a practitioner of literature in the future. He even tells Landor that he will make himself and his work memorable through poetry. But what he recounts most is the loss of trust and love that Poe experiences through the events of the film. Probably his first romantic relationship in life was with Lea Marquis, but she is killed when the ice house burns down, along with her brother Artemus. The poet is severely affected by this, but is even more appalled by the fact that his closest friend and companion at the time, Landor, had also let him down. Landor had not only turned out to be a murderer, but had kept this fact from Poe as well. Despite the cadet opening up to Landor about himself and his deepest struggles, he stayed away from Landor’s deepest secret. This secret is also deeply related to Landor’s grief, which is the loss of his daughter, and this seems to affect Poe more. The fact that Landor has kept his sorrows from him even though he considered himself a friend of the detective hurts him badly. If Poe hadn’t been so smart and attentive to minor details, he would never have found out about Landor’s crimes and sorrows. Ultimately, though, there’s a shadow of selflessness to this Poe character, and perhaps it becomes one of the most notable things about him. The people who open up to him and give him the companionship he secretly craves will find that Poe will do almost anything to help him. That’s why he agreed to be a live dummy for Lea’s ritual, and that’s why he also lets Landor last. With tears in his eyes and a broken heart, Poe burns the small note that could have proven Landor’s murder. This sadness may not be because he realized that he had been helping a murderer for so long; it’s because Landor had also made her believe his lies. This sadness is perhaps because Poe had not only lost a lover in Lea, but he had also just lost a friend in Landor.