Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 73 (May 1997): 10-12.
If it does nothing else, the success of the film version of The English Patient (nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture) proves that the secret to postmodern film technique lies more in the way the story gets packaged than in the story itself. Hide a commonplace sentiment behind layers of montage, bricolage, multiple viewpoints, time shifts, and dazzling cinematography and music. Keep the plot ends loose for the first third of the film. Cut back and forth from a ruined villa in World War II Italy, in which a mysterious "English patient" with a burned face is recovering from being shot down over the North African desert, to his remembered past. Make it disjointed and strange, like a Hallmark card cut apart and reassembled into a Cubist construction. But the Hallmark card nonetheless remains, and The English Patient proves that sentimentalism can survive endless adaptation—even postmodern film techniques.
Count Laszlo Almasy, the title character (his being called "the English patient" is meant to be ironic), was, before being shot down, a Hungarian on an international team mapping the North African desert on the eve of World War II. He is in an Italian villa because Hana, his army nurse, has defied her superiors in order to stay behind with him while he dies. When a mysterious Canadian named Caravaggio intrudes on the idyll in the ruined villa, it turns out that he and Hana come from within two blocks of each other in Montreal. Almasy protests, "Why should where we come from be so important? I don’t like it." Hana demurs, arguing that in wartime these things become important. The desert-mapping team is supposed to embody a fleeting cosmopolitanism, since it comprises Englishmen, Canadians, a Hungarian, and some Arabs. One of the team members says wistfully on the eve of war, "Countries didn’t mean anything to us out there, did they?"
The mapping team is joined by Geoffrey Clifton, a dashing aristocrat and pilot who later turns out to be secretly working for the British government in anticipation of war. Even though the film goes out of its way to show what a nice guy he is, he’s working for the old world that still believes in boundaries and borders, while Laszlo and Clifton’s wife Katherine enter into an affair that takes them into an emotional desert beyond all boundaries. Even though Katherine insists that the one thing she hates is a lie, she finds herself fornicating with her lover while, a short distance away, her husband plays Santa Claus to the British troops in Cairo.
There are references to numerous films and novels in The English Patient. A volume of Herodotus’ Histories plays an important symbolic part, Anna Karenina is mentioned, and there are references to Lawrence of Arabia. But the inverted parallels to the 1942 film Casablanca are most striking. In fact, The English Patient can be regarded, in part, as a deconstruction of Casablanca, an anti-Casablanca that turns all the assumptions of the older film on their heads. You could say that The English Patient answers the question that all Bogie-lovers have been carrying around for decades: What if Ilsa had stayed behind with Rick? But there is more than that. Imagine a Rick who willingly gives the letters of transit to Major Strasser, a Victor Laszlo who tries to kill Rick and maybe Ilsa too, and you’ve got the flavor of this film.
In Casablanca the good-guy husband is named Laszlo; in The English Patient it’s the tortured lover. A drunken Rick makes an ass of himself when Ilsa first visits him alone. A jealousy-crazed Almasy makes an ass of himself in front of a roomful of people after Katherine breaks off the affair. Ilsa says to Rick, "One woman has hurt you, and you’ll take your revenge on the rest of the world." Almasy revenges himself on the British for not helping him rescue Katherine by giving valuable maps to the Germans. Almasy’s last words to Katherine when he leaves her are, "I’ll never leave you." In their last exchange at the airport, Ilsa says to Rick, "Last night, I said I’d never leave you." Rick: "And you never will."
Casablanca was a brilliant piece of propaganda justifying formerly isolationist America’s participation in the good war. For all its sex appeal, Rick’s bitter self-pity was ultimately to be understood as regressive. Casablanca, too, was concerned with nationality. Remember Rick’s answer to Colonel Strasser’s question, "What nationality are you?" "I’m a drunkard." By the end of the film he’s emerging from his isolation and making necessary alliances, even with the morally questionable Captain Reynaud, who achieves his own regeneration. Reynaud teasingly accuses Rick, "Not only are you a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot." But of course, beyond sentiment or patriotism, Rick and Louis’ moral choices involve the recognition of a larger struggle between good and evil going on, not simply a struggle between countries.
It’s too much to call Katherine an anti-Ilsa; she’s more of an Anna Karenina, in that we never understand her motive for the affair. But Almasy is definitely an anti-Rick. Like Rick, he is a brooding loner. Rick, however, has an activist past. We know nothing of Almasy before he joins the mapping team, except for a few details the film encourages us to regard as misleading: he is a Hungarian count who speaks German and has a mysterious French document in his treasured copy of Herodotus. In Casablanca, Victor Laszlo tells Rick that he’s trying to run away from himself and can never succeed. In The English Patient, Almasy does succeed; his affair with Katherine is his running away from himself, to his and everyone else’s destruction.
In The English Patient, the fundamental things definitely do not apply. The characters in this film make choices, too, but then pretend that their choices simply happen to them. After Katherine breaks off the affair, Almasy broodily returns to his desert mapping. Geoff Clifton flies down from Cairo to pick him up, and crashes his bi-plane with Katherine inside. We’re not sure whether Clifton is trying to run Almasy down, or simply to commit suicide and kill Katherine. Almasy carries the injured Katherine to the nearby "Cave of Swimmers," which contains primitive rock paintings, and promises to return.
Almasy walks three days through the desert to get help. Instead of helping him retrieve Katherine, the British soldiers in Cairo distrust him because of his foreign name and arrest him. This ill-treatment (one British soldier calls him "Fritz") apparently is enough to justify Almasy’s handing over his maps to the Germans (after murdering a British guard and escaping captivity) in exchange for their help in returning him to Katherine’s cave. Never mind that thousands of innocent people will die during the invasion of Tobruk as a result. As Almasy retorts to Caravaggio when they discuss the incident later in Italy, thousands of other innocent people would have died somewhere else in any case. War happens. We’re all caught up in an inchoate swirl of meaningless events, and the best we can do is to grab the passion while we can. Almasy’s passion has lifted him above these petty concerns, and besides, the British were mean to him.
The subplot involving Caravaggio, a Canadian spy in Cairo who is caught and tortured because Almasy’s betrayal allows the Germans to photograph him, is awkwardly melodramatic. In revenge for his mutilation by the Germans, Caravaggio has tracked down and killed all who were responsible, with only Almasy left. Caravaggio would seem like a voice for moral responsibility when he protests to Almasy, "What you did had consequences!"—one consequence being that one of Almasy’s British teammates in the desert commits suicide when he learns that Almasy has sold out to the Germans. But Caravaggio declines to kill him in the end, presumably out of admiration for the depth of his passion. In one of the film’s less felicitous lines, Almasy says, "You can’t kill me; I died long ago." If this means anything, it means that an experience of passion like that of Almasy and Katherine lifts one above petty concerns like morality and personal responsibility. We’re meant to see that Caravaggio recognizes the fruitlessness of the quest for moral responsibility, or perhaps that his revenge is no more noble than Almasy’s. War and passion have happened to Almasy, and he’s not responsible; killing him would be pointless.
A short time later, Hana achieves her own transcendence of the fundamental things by giving Almasy a fatal overdose of morphine at his request. We are apparently to understand that she is maturing. Her motivation for staying behind with Almasy in the first place was that everyone she loved has been killed, and she wanted to hold onto at least one patient. But now she is facing her fears and realizing herself—by becoming a killer (albeit a sympathetic one).
Hana’s action is consistent with the only messages of the film: "No boundaries," and "We are the countries." A superficial reading of the film might see gestures toward a kind of cosmopolitanism or internationalism: the polyglot mapping team; the conversation between Caravaggio, Hana, and Almasy; and the remark about countries meaning nothing in the desert. Indeed, director Anthony Minghella has been encouraging some such interpretation in interviews.
But all this is a feint. The second message completely negates internationalism, or any kind of public involvement. The only character in The English Patient who comes close to Victor Laszlo is Geoff Clifton—both are nice guys selflessly working for a larger cause. But when it comes to his wife’s infidelity, Clifton cannot control his emotions or offer forgiveness as Victor Laszlo can. (It’s also true, of course, that Katherine’s betrayal is much less excusable than Ilsa’s.)
What’s really celebrated in this film is not cosmopolitanism or internationalism but a moral and spiritual isolationism more profound than that which Casablanca was trying to disturb. The lack of boundaries The English Patient celebrates is not that of cosmopolitanism but that of narcissism, the chief symptom of which is the inability of the self to feel or recognize proper boundaries of feeling.
With Katherine’s final diary entry—a lot of blather about how we should die with our bodies marked by all of our intense experiences (including, in a bit of gender blurring, "bodies we’ve entered")—the film descends rapidly into a bathos from which it never recovers. Katherine’s diary, read by the alternating voices of Katherine and Hana, provides the overinflation of sentiment. If "we are the countries," then our troubles don’t just amount to less than a hill of beans in a world that’s larger then we are. Instead, our tawdry love affairs and betrayals acquire the drama of armies marching and empires collapsing (as suggested by the way Almasy stores his personal mementos between the pages of Herodotus).
The point here is to make nationalism and mapmaking into symbols for a traditional moral order—the "fundamental things" of Casablanca. The film suggests that people who believe in maps and countries, those nasty things that uptight Europeans created and that caused World War II, are like people who believe that adultery is wrong. They’re both hung up on boundaries, unlike the brave new narcissists who know that the only things that matter in life are me and my intense personal experiences. There is really no more to the central point of this film than can be shown in a sixty-second ad for Nike, Calvin Klein perfume, or any other of the increasing number of products that can be sold by images of two faux-sweaty bodies rubbing together. That’s presumably why David Denby, on the Charlie Rose show, waxed eloquent about the "texture" of the film. Our visual expectations—and moral sensibilities—have been so influenced by elegantly nihilistic TV commercials that it reassures us to find them at the heart of such putatively complex, high-brow films as The English Patient.
David Aaron Murray teaches humanities and literature at Maryville University in St. Louis. He is currently working on a book about gnosticism and literary theory.