Each week I write something about Cinema’s use of poetry. Taken together, I believe it leads to a deeper understanding of both film and poems. This week I tackle the poetry in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and specifically the use of William Blake’s poem, America: A Prophecy. I will also talk about the use of myth, and the “Tears in the Rain” soliloquy as an iconic echo of the Blake poem.
Blade Runner is an 1982 epic Sci-fi film noir, directed by Ridley Scott and scripted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Set in 2019 it is the epic tale of a ‘Blade Runner’ Deckard (Harrison Ford) whose job is to gun down 6 ‘replicants’ (bio engineered androids) used as ‘slaves’ for human’s needs e.g. mining, fighting or sex. Replicants have escaped from a spaceship, reeked havoc and threatened the company that created them (the Tyrell Corporation). The replicants are both fierce and childlike, with only four years of life to make sense of themselves. Their leader is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and he wants more life, more time.
Just like humans, the replicants, conscious of their mortality, want answers from their creators. When Roy and Leon (another replicant), arrive at the place where their eyes are created by Hannibal Chew, Roy misquotes the famous British poet and visionary William Blake;
“Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.” (In Blake’s actual quote the angels rise from the fires of Orc rather than fall.)
The quote is from Blake’s America: A Prophecy (1793) a narrative poem consisting of two parts, a 37-line section titled “Preludium” and a 226-line section “A Prophecy.” It has long, unrhymed lines inspired in part by Homer and the iambic pentameters of Milton. It is huge in scope, dark and action packed, much like the film.
Roy Batty sees himself as a fallen angel, he’s a rebel, maybe more powerful then his creator. He’s rebelling against the state of things in a fundamental way. It is such a human thing to do, mythologise. Blake’s poetry is steeped in creating new gods. In the poem America: A Prophecy, Blake created a new pantheon with Britain as the old god King– (the Tyrell corporation or even humanity) against the new angels (America) and the Orc. It isn’t The Lord of the Rings Orcs. The Orc here is the son of the creator god in Blake’s poem. Blake’s echoes Milton’s Paradise Lost but using the allegory of the revolutionary spirit of the new world.
Similar to Blade Runner’s Deckard and Batty, both the King and the ‘Orc’ of the poem think each other to be the anti Christ. Blake’s new myth is a formula for all revolutions, where the dragon is slayed by a messiah. Blade Runner as a film also creates an epic cinematic mythological drama, where Deckard (depending on the which cut of the film you watch) is a new Adam and Batty, is a doomed fallen Angel.
It is important that Hauer reversed Blake’s ‘rise’ with ‘fall’ because the quote occurs when Roy sees the creator of his eyes. Roy; a mechanical man can quote poetry, and controls his narrative destiny. To ‘rise’ he would be a devil from below mankind, but he sees himself as ‘super-being’ whose eyes saw ‘C Beams off the Tannhauser Gates’. It is this consciousness that makes Batty so compelling as the poetry loving replicant, a new god. Why is to ‘burn with the fires of Orc’ so important to Batty? He is Orc, the son of the creator, in Blake’s poem – the agent of revolution. Like Blake’s angels, Batty also feels love and howls like a wolf when his lover Pris is killed. Some of Blake’s words seem to narrate the film’s emotion;
“O what limb-rending pains I feel! thy fire and my frost/ Mingle in howling pains, in furrows by thy lightnings rent./This is eternal death, and this the torment long foretold.”
“Devourer of thy parent, now thy unutterable torment renews.”
It is raining when we first meet Deckard and it rains in Roy Batty’s final scene. Deckard and Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) are pitted against each other, angel to their devil, both struggle with dislocation, communion and existence itself.
Rutger Hauer’s role as poet of Blade Runner can not be underestimated. Hauer is on record for saying he felt the script was over written and not that great. It was Hauer that decided to use the Blake quote, to cast Batty as the angel, it was Hauer’s poetic sensibilities that edited his own script into what many (including top poet Don Patterson) regard as great poetry. In an interview talking about Blade Runner, Don Patterson noted the iambic patterning of Roy Batty’s ‘Tears in the Rain’ speech, and his pleasing use of specific details such as ‘attack ships’ and ‘C Beams’ even though we don’t know what they are. Here is a link to the iconic transcendent scene.
The rhythmic language here echoes words from Blake’s America.
“Crouch howling before their caverns deep like skins dry’d in the wind.”
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Just a comment. I have read in many other sci-fi books about “c beams” and they almost always were in reference to “constructor beams” which were used to move large pieces of equipment or parts in zero gravity. For example while assembling a space station a new pod would be maneuvered in place by a c beam then bolted in place by workers.
I often wondered about Roy changing the poem and your explanation cleared that up for me. Thank you.