“The English Patient” may be an epic romance movie, but it’s also an ancient tragedy.
This multi-Oscar-winning film, based on Michael Ondaatje’s novel, directed by Anthony Minghella in 1996, stars Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth and Juliette Binoche.
During World War II in Italy, the Canadian Army’s nurse Hana (played by Juliette Binoche) takes care of an English patient with no face, no past. And for good reason since the man was burnt alive in a plane crash and has no memory. Upset by the war’s horrors and wishing to look after this patient whose days are numbered, Hana invests a small abandoned Tuscan monastery. The beneficent loneliness of the nurse and her patient is soon shattered by the arrival of Kip (played by Naveen Andrews), a Sikh British Army officer – and a strange man with severed thumbs, Carravagio (portrayed by Willem Dafoe). As a beautiful love story unfolds between Hana and Kip, Carravagio keeps questioning the English patient, who gradually reveals his past through a series of flashbacks.
It turns out that the English patient is Hungarian. His name is Laszlo Almasy and he is a cartographer (for the record, Laszlo Almasy really existed but the fictional character is quite different, as Anthony Minghella only retained the name of the real Almasy). Ralph Fiennes portrays this citizen of the world who is as handsome as a god, mysterious, reserved, with no political dimension… and totally heterosexual (the real Almasy was homosexual).
Just before WWII, Laszlo is exploring the Sahara desert when his expedition is joined by an English couple, Katharine (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) and Jeffrey Clifton (portrayed by Colin Firth). Jeffrey is a cartographer-photographer, but above all is a husband madly in love with his bubbly, independent, educated and charming wife.
Despite the reluctance of Laszlo, who perhaps has the prescience of the fall of the lover he will soon become, a passionate relationship begins between Laszlo and Katharine.
The love triangle turns into a lethal trio on the cusp of an emerging WWII. We quickly suspect the unfortunate fate of these three people when Katharine tells the story of Candaules in front of an exclusively male audience. Candaules is the king of Lydia and believes that his wife is the most beautiful woman on the planet. He is so madly in love with her that he urges his guard Gyges to contrive to see her naked. The queen, guessing the presence of the intruder and feeling humiliated by the attitude of her husband, presents the next day Gyges with two choices: either he kills Candaules, becomes her husband and king or he dies executed for having seen his queen naked. Gyges kills Candaules, obviously. This ancient story, told by Katharine and which is obviously the counterpoint to the fatal fate of the protagonists of “The English Patient”, is told by Herodotus in his “Histories”.
Because we have to speak of Herodotus here, since this English patient has no other possession than this book which he cherishes, the “Histories” of Herodotus, annotated and strewn with notes and personal drawings (and which makes think of Hitchcock’s “Macguffin”, this symbolic object which accompanies the plot).
Since Cicero, Herodotus has been said to be the father of History because his only known work, “The Histories” is the oldest text written in prose that has come down to us from antiquity. A great traveler, Herodotus transcribed there many customary, religious or political information on the peoples he discovered by himself during his travels or of whom he heard about, whether it be the peoples of Babylon, the Caspian Sea, India, Libya, Egypt or Scythia. But his transcriptions are also zoological, botanical, geographical, so his work is an encyclopedia of its time.
The “Histories” relate the remarkable facts which occurred as well among the Greeks as among the Barbarians. Herodotus obviously has no other concern than that of memory – both for the Greeks and the Barbarians, even if books V to IX of the “Histories” take another turn, since these relate the Persian wars between Greeks and Persians and clearly set the Greeks in all their wisdom and discipline against the cruel and despotic Barbarians.
Even if Herodotus does not judge and only describes what he sees, even if he feels sympathy for certain non-Greeks, the Greeks will have, thanks to him, their Scythians, like others in other times will have their “savages” (God, I hate this word).
And even though the reading of the “Histories” should not be reduced to an opposition between Greeks and Barbarians, the fact remains that Herodotus’ writings reinforce the idea of a world at the center of which the Greeks serve as a reference.
The rereading of the “Histories” by the British Empire during the 19th century reinforces this very ethnocentric vision of the world – salvation necessarily coming from the colonization of native people – and to a certain extent founded the concept of occidentality.
This tension between occidentality and non-Western world is present in “The English Patient”.
Indeed, “The English Patient” only features people from the British Empire (they are English, but also from countries conquered by the British Empire, be it Canada or India) – except Laszlo Almasy – and this is what will cause his downfall.
There is a little bit of Herodotus in Laszlo Almasy, who sees himself as a traveler, an observer, an ethnographer and a cartographer. But an original Herodotus, if I may say so, an ancient Herodotus and not a 19th century Herodotus.
Herodotus’ “Histories”, which accompany the Laszlo of the desert like the burnt man in Italy, become a two-faced symbol: a neutral symbol of the richness of History for Laszlo Almasy, but also the symbol of a politicized History and an idealized occidentality.
“The English Patient” constantly plays on the tension between occidentality and the non-Western world and, we must be honest, is not very flattering for the West and its colonial rage (the nationality of the author of the novel, Michael Ondaatje, who is of Sri Lankan origin, might be a clue). Old Europe, leading people to death, seems from another age, with an outdated mentality.
The question of nationalities, which engages entire nations in a generalized conflict, absurdly dominates the fate of Laszlo Almasy, whose only fault is not to be English.
First rescued by a Bedouin tribe, the burnt Laszlo owes his life only to ancestral care while later, Hana will only be able to bring him relief and perhaps worse – with morphine.
Let’s be honest, this idealized occidentality seems quite moribund. The only ray of hope lies in the beautiful love story lived by Hana and Kip, that is to say a Canadian and a Sikh, who free themselves from an obsolete and deadly model by going beyond race, skin color and social rules.
Beyond this historical and colonialist vision, there is this ancient tragedy which leads three people to death, consumed by their passionate hearts driven by Eros and Thanatos. There is also a bit of the Trojan War in “The English Patient”. The amorous conquest of a woman ends in war and death – and even WWII seems to tune in with this intimate conflict.
Is it love or passion, as far as Laszlo and Katharine are concerned, by the way? I don’t know. There is between the two lovers nothing of transcended love that leads to the sublime, everything instead leads them to chaining and death. They are devoured by their respective passions, be it desire, jealousy, possession or fear – in short the most raw animality symbolized by fire, omnipresent and which is extinguished at the most tragic moment – and by the desert, organic and lethal for the human being.
They may be living enchained by their passions, but they are alive.
There remains a sumptuous tragedy, beautifully shot, beautifully photographed by Anthony Minghella. As these terrible lovers say, the heart is an organ of fire and we, people of flesh and blood, “are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men”.
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