The Netflix movie The Pale Blue Eye is a murder mystery that takes place at the United States Military at West Point.
The Pale Blue Eye is a gothic mystery thriller film written and directed by Scott Cooper, adapted from the 2003 novel of the same name by Louis Bayard. The film features an ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale, Harry Melling, Gillian Anderson, Lucy Boynton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Harry Lawtey, Simon McBurney, Timothy Spall, and Robert Duvall. Its plot follows veteran detective Augustus Landor in 1830 West Point, New York, as he investigates a series of murders at the United States Military Academy with the aid of Edgar Allan Poe, a young military cadet.
In 1830, alcoholic retired detective Augustus Landor is asked by the military to investigate the hanging of Cadet Leroy Fry at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Landor is a widower who lives alone since his daughter Mathilde ran off a few years previously.
After Fry was hanged, his heart was removed from his body. In the morgue, examining the corpse, Landor finds a small fragment of a note clutched tightly in Fry’s hand. Also, marks on Fry’s neck and fingers suggest that he did not hang himself, but was murdered.
With the officers’ permission, Landor enlists the help of Edgar Allan Poe, another cadet at the academy who has expressed an interest in the case. Poe and Landor deduce from the writing on the note fragment that it was summoning Fry to a secret meeting. After a cow and a sheep are found in the area, butchered and with their hearts removed, it is deduced that the murder could be linked to black magic rituals.
Another cadet, Ballinger, goes missing and is later found hanged, with both his heart and his genitals removed. A third cadet, Stoddard, who was a colleague of the two victims, then disappears, and it is presumed by Landor that this man had reason to believe he was next in line to be killed.
Landor and Poe begin to suspect the family of Dr. Daniel Marquis, who was first brought into the investigation to perform the autopsy on Fry. Particular suspicion is placed on his son Artemus and his daughter Lea (who suffers from random seizures).
While visiting Dr. Marquis’s house, Landor finds an old officer’s uniform; a man impersonating an officer had been involved in the mutilation of Fry’s body. Landor confronts Dr. Marquis, who admits that he had resorted to black magic to cure Lea of her seizures, and initially she appeared to improve.
Poe is enchanted by Lea and volunteers to do whatever she wants. However, he is drugged and wakes to find that Artemus and Lea are about to cut out his heart, in accordance with the ritual to cure Lea. Landor manages to arrive in time to rescue Poe, but the building catches fire and Lea and Artemus die.
Thinking that the case is now solved, the military thanks Landor for his service. However, Poe, recovering from his near-death experience, notices that the handwriting on the note fragment found in Fry’s hand matches that of Landor. Threading together all the information that he has gathered, it becomes apparent that Landor was in fact the killer of the cadets. Poe confronts Landor with his conclusion.
It transpires that two years previously, Landor’s daughter Mathilde was raped by Fry, Ballinger, and Stoddard after attending her first ball. Traumatized by the experience, she later killed herself by jumping off a cliff. Landor did not disclose this to anyone but pretended that she had run away.
Distraught, Landor set out to avenge his daughter. He left the note for Fry, luring him to a lonely spot before hanging him. However, a patrol happened to walk by, so Landor was forced to leave the body there. Lea and Artemus later stole the heart for their ritual. After killing Ballinger, Landor mutilated his corpse to make it appear that the cadet had been murdered by the same “madman” who had desecrated Fry’s body.
Poe tells Landor he has two notes with handwriting samples that can link Landor directly to the murders, but before leaving, Poe burns them. Landor is later seen standing at the cliff where his daughter leapt to her death. He lets her hair ribbon float away in the wind, saying “Rest, my love”.
West Point References
Although the story is fiction, it does contain accurate references to West Point.
- The Superintendent is Sylvanus Thayer
- The “second in command” and nominal Commandant of Cadets is William “Haughty Bill” Hitchcock
- The Assistant Tactical Instructor is John Locke and the other, who is not mentioned, is Charles Ferguson Smith. Smith is the subject of my biography Teacher of Civil War Generals – Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant.
- Benny Havens was a popular off-campus hangout where cadets would drink and carouse.
- Poe was given demerits by Locke on a regular basis.
- Poe entertained his fellow cadets with ribald stories.
The “Real” Edgar Allan Poe at West Point
The following is an excerpt from Teacher of Civil War Generals – Major General Charles Ferguson Smith, Soldier and West Point Commandant:
There are many stories, anecdotes, and fantasies about Poe’s exploits at West Point. He became notorious for cutting mandatory drills, skipping classes, and making “nocturnal visits to Benny Havens.” One night Poe stumbled back to his barracks and sprawled on his back on the steps of his tactical officer’s quarters. “When the tactical officer awoke and inquired as to who might be outside his door, Poe allegedly responded in verse: On Linden when the sun was low/All bloodless lay the untrodden snow/And dark as winter was the flow/Of I SIR, rolling rapidly!” Cadet Poe was eventually court-martialed and dismissed from the Academy. Some attribute his discharge to his frequent trips to Benny Havens or his “uncontrollable urge to hurl baked potatoes across the Academy mess hall.” Another story blamed his dismal on reporting to a parade naked except for his crossed white ammunition belts and hat. One account said that Poe, in a fit of rage, threw his tactical officer off a cliff into the Hudson River and was subsequently charged with murder.[i]
[i] William F. Hecker, editor, Private Perry and Mister Poe, The West Point Poems, 1831, Facsimile Edition (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), Introduction xvii-xviii..