Almásy: What do you love?
Katharine: What do I love?
Almásy: Say everything.
Katharine: Hm, let’s see… Water. Fish in it. And hedgehogs; I love hedgehogs.
Almásy: And what else?
Katharine: Marmite – I’m addicted. And baths. But not with other people. Islands. Your handwriting. I could go on all day.
Almásy: Go on all day.
Katharine: My husband.
Almásy: What do you hate most?
Katharine: A lie. What do you hate most?
Almásy: Ownership. Being owned. When you leave, you should forget me.
“The English Patient” would win the Canadian Governor General’s Award and the Booker Prize for fiction in England, and would go on to become an enormous international best seller. It has been translated into 300 languages, and sold over five million copies.
For the first ten years of his career, he was a poet. He was acclaimed, but not well-known. His first prose work was actually a volume of combined poetry and prose entitled ”The Collected Works of Billy the Kid” (1970). Apparently it enraged ex Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who reportedly held a press conference to denounce it.
Ondaatje was on his way.
Ondaatje begins writing by thinking of images, and then exploring them, to see where they lead. For “The English Patient”, he thought of the image of a plane crash, and a nurse talking with a patient, and began to follow them, to see where they’d lead.
What he needed, however, was a character who would be in the plane. He had a friend whose father worked in British intelligence during the war, and it was through him he learned of a man who took German spies into Cairo through the desert. The real Count Almásy.
László Almásy was a Hungarian desert specialist and aviator. He explored Libyan and Egyptian deserts in the 1920s and 30s. In 1933, he discovered a cave in the Sahara with paintings dating back to prehistoric times, including figures of people swimming. “The Cave of Swimmers” (which works its way into the film) is estimated to be over 10,000 years old.
When Hungary joined the Axis in World War II, Almásy was recruited by German military intelligence and joined the Luftwaffe. From there, he advised Rommel’s Afrika Korps on desert warfare. Almásy also assisted German spies in infiltrating Cairo, for which he was awarded the Iron Cross.
Using the real Almásy as an inspiration, Ondaatje had his central character.
“The book, as everybody knows, defies adaptation in a way, it’s not really a story, it’s not really a conventional novel, it’s more of an anthology of thoughts and ideas and feelings and extracts and literature. It’s an amazing, amazing book. And the only way that I could construct the screenplay was in a way to abandon the book, and go and learn myself about all the issues that are covered inside of the novel.” – Anthony Minghella
Director Anthony Minghella had been a fan of Ondaatje’s for years. He obtained a copy of “The English Patient” as soon as it was released, and read it immediately, finishing it in a single night. As soon as he was finished, he knew he wanted to turn it into a film. He called Producer Saul Zaentz the next morning to sell him on the project. Zaentz was a fan of Minghella’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply”, and had expressed interest in working with him in the future. So, when Minghella called, Zaentz both read the book and attended a reading that Michael Ondaatje gave near his home.
Zaentz would turn into such an advocate for the project that he would eventually put up $6 million of his own towards the film, in exchange for final cut.
Originally, the film was set to be financed through 20th Century Fox, but disagreements arose over casting. Fox preferred a more well-known actress to play Katharine instead of Kristin Scott Thomas, and Demi Moore was lobbying hard for the role. After the producers refused to give in, Fox backed out of the film. This left the project’s future uncertain, right on the verge of production. Within a few weeks, however, the film was picked up by Miramax, and “The English Patient” moved forward once again.
The part of Caravaggio, which eventually went to Willem Dafoe, was full of “casting could have beens” as well. Sean Connery was circling it, but eventually pulled out. Bruce Willis was offered the role, but was talked out of it by his agent. While 20th Century Fox was involved, they pushed for John Goodman, Danny DeVito, or Richard Dreyfuss.
There was no controversy surrounding the casting of Ralph Fiennes, however. Fiennes had recently done “Schindler’s List” and “Quiz Show”, his star was riding high. He proved to be a gamer as well, insisting on full body burn makeup, even for shots where only his face would be in frame. The process took five hours each day.
It would be worth it in the end.
The film is a romantic, wartime epic, telling the tale of several individuals, all intersecting around a man found critically burned after a plane crash (Fiennes). The nurse who tends to him (Juliette Binoche) pulls him off of the military convoy transporting him (he’s close to death, and the traveling is too harsh on him), and tends to him in shelled out monastery in the Italian countryside.
The man is not only badly burned, he has no memory. He can’t recall his own name, or what happened to him. His story and identity are both a mystery.
While he’s infirmed, the nurse reinvigorates herself. She saw friends die the war, to the point where she believed she was cursed. The peace and beauty of the monastery, though, slowly begin to heal her. As she cares for her patient, she begins to garden, and to recuperate. She also winds up falling in love with soldier, a Sikh (Naveen Andrews) who’s working removing mines from the area.
A thief in league with the Allies, Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), believes he knows the burnt man. Caravaggio was captured by the Germans and interrogated… they cut off his thumbs. He’s found and killed the man who maimed him, the German spy who took the photos used to identify him, and now he’s seeking out the man who helped German spy infiltrate Cairo.
He believes that the burned man is that man.
Through flashbacks, we begin to see the story of “The English Patient”. He was a cartographer at the outbreak of WWII, charting the desert, when he began to have feelings for the wife of a fellow team member (Kristin Scott Thomas). The two fought their feelings for each other, but her husband (Colin Firth) left her alone for a time, and the two were led into temptation. A car accident forced them to camp in the desert overnight, and a sandstorm forced them to stay together. Eventually she discovered notes he had taken while watching her, and his feelings were revealed.
It was too much for the two of them to resist, and they began a passionate affair. Ultimately, though, they knew that their indiscretions were impermanent. They couldn’t continue them forever. When the affair ended, both were deeply hurt, but the truly tragic consequences began when her husband discovered the truth and sought out revenge.
“The English Patient” is a sprawling, tragic, romantic epic.
War, of course, is shown to have its cost on life and love. It takes the innocent, divides and destroys lovers, and leaves a swath of desolation and human wreckage in its wake. Even after the cessation of hostilities, it’s still taking its toll on people, as they seek out revenge, pay the price for their actions, and sacrifice themselves in the pursuit of healing the affected.
But love is shown to be just as deadly, if not more. The emotional danger of connecting with others is put front and center. The pain of love is fatal, here, as scorned lovers strike back, and men show they would kill to save the woman they love. Ultimately, a broken heart proves more painful than a body charred by fire.
Yet, the film also revels in the beauty of love, and shows its hopeful side, also. Hana and Kip (with their own, parallel, painted cave), risk falling in love as well, only with a far more hopeful, happy outcome. In spite of seeing the burned, wistful condition love can leave you in, Hana opens her heart. In the end, she’s rewarded with a love that’s worth remembering… and chasing after.
It’s a rounded picture of love in both its grandeur and danger. It shows love’s splendour and its potential for pain. It’s a complex portrait of romance that few films deliver.
“The English Patient” was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won nine, including Best Picture, Best Director (Minghella), Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (John Seale), Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Score and Best Sound. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas were both nominated for lead actor and actress, respectively, but did not win (the other award it did not win was Best Adapted Screenplay).
It would go on to gross over $200 million at the box office, without ever entering the top five on the charts. It’s one of only three Best Picture winners (along with “Amadeus” and “The Hurt Locker”) to never enter the weekend box office top 5.
It’s a film that lodged itself in the pop culture lexicon both positively and negatively (when “Seinfeld” famously mocked it), but it’s undeniably an incredible, moving film. Full of powerful themes of war, love, hope and loss, “The English Patient” is ultimately an unforgettable movie.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.