Movies That Everyone Should See: “The English Patient”


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.


English_Patient_CoverIn 1992, Sri Lankan-Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje released his third novel, “The English Patient”.

“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.

English Patient Plane Crash

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.

English_Patient_Cave_of_SwimmersLászló 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.

English Patient Bazaar scene

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.

shot0057While 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.

shot0062Yet, 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“.


Daniel Fogarty


51 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “The English Patient”

  1. Always glad to support these series of posts, Fog. I know this film works for a number of people, and they’re passionate about it. TEP doesn’t work for me, though.

  2. I really liked this movie when I saw it. I was very impressed. It’s one of those films you can’t look away from, even though it is pretty long. I thought Ralph Fiennes was fantastic here and was really upset to hear that he hadn’t won! Ah well.
    I really liked how they emphasized names. How he reminds her that he name is MRS Clifton and then later he can’t get anyone to help him because his name sounds kind of German. Names seemed really important in this film, even if they may not have intrinsic importance they still affect how other people see you or reveal how things actually are. I just thought that was cool.
    It’s amazing to read all the problems that this movie had getting off the ground! Very glad it did though.

    • Yeah, me too. Its a really epic love story, and a great film.

      Names, borders, maps, military allegiances… all kinds of artificial labels seemed to pop up and come into play here, didnt they?

      You mentioned Fiennes not winning the Oscar. I’ve never seen Shine, and I love Geoffrey Rush, but wow… he better have been lights out, cause Fiennes was incredible here!

  3. When I go back and look at all the Best Picture winners from the Oscars starting with the most recent, this is the first film I come to that I still haven’t seen. Some day I will fix that.

  4. I love this movie! The story is amazing.. I never knew it was adapted from a novel though. I have to find it and give it a read. As awesome as The English Patient is, I always found it a bit heavy for the emotions. Recently, its been sitting on top of the Bluray waiting to be watched, but I haven’t yet found the courage to see it again. It was the movie that made me fall in love with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche 🙂 Great post Fogs!

    • Definitely not a “light” watch. LOL. Something you have to gear up for a bit. It definitely holds up though, I was very impressed by it this time as well. Give it another go when you get around to it!

      And thank you as always, Kim! For the compliment AND the comment! 😀

  5. Not my type of film, but it is a great film that people should watch. The ‘could have been in it’ names in it make me cringe. The casting was great and I don’t think it would have won as many awards if others had been in it. It wouldn’t have set the right tone. Willis? Really? No, I’m glad he was talked out of it. Connery, again, not a good fit. I hate to admit that I’ve never been a Demi Moore fan.

    • Thanks for your support then, in spite of the fact you didnt connect with it completely yourself, UN. The cast was great, I still cant believe Fiennes didnt win an Oscar for it…. and we TOTALLY dodged a bullet with those could have beens… Dafoe was perfect in that role. 😯

      Thanks again!

  6. I saw this in high school at the theater with my girl and the time. Even the two soda bottles filled with capt. and coke we had with us could not save this one. I found it one of the most boring, stuffy, and overly long films I had ever seen. I have never revisited it after the horrible taste it left in my mouth.

    • Yeah, not going to appeal to the Capt and Coke teen crowd.

      I tended to have better taste with the movies I smuggled my booze into…. maybe that was the issue, you just didn’t have a good sense for that kind of thing. LOL 😉 Although if you brought a date to this thing, you should have been all set!

  7. Great writeup Fogs! I love this one. I like what you said here… “The English Patient” is a sprawling, tragic, romantic epic. YES indeed and it’s got three amazing performers: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas who are all splendid in their roles. I’m sad to hear people find it boring… seems that love stories, especially tragic ones bore people, they’d prefer their war films bombastic and bloody I guess. I for one love how this film explore what war does to people, to relationships… I don’t agree with infidelity and it’s often destructive more than anything, but that’s how life goes sometimes. In any case, glad you chose this one as your MTESS!

    • Thanks Ruth! Appreciate the support here…

      Yeah, the acting here is phenomenal. I was really impressed. Surprised that Binoche was the only one who won an Oscar.

      Your right about it being a little sad that more people cant connect with it. It definitely is slow, and emotionally heavy, but it really is a beautiful movie, I wish it didnt have the bad rap that it does! 😦

      • Yeah, but at least both KST and Fiennes were both nominated. It’s too bad that people don’t appreciate such a beautiful film, but I think films that demand such an emotional immersion can turn people off, not sure why. It’s odd too that films that won numerous awards also get a bad rap, I’m already seeing that with ARGO. Ah well, I LOVE it, I don’t care what people think. I was defiant when The King’s Speech won too, I know lots of people hated that it won.

  8. While the film had many great scenes and may be the best desert movie outside of “Lawrence…” it is not one of my favorites. Key to the success of the film are the lovers, Fiennes and Thomas, and there was no spark between them. I didn’t buy their all or nothing passion and so the film, for me, failed. That’s the trouble with English lovers on film, they can be a bit chilly!

  9. Okay, now I’m convinced to finally see this movie. Now to be honest I’ve probably seen it but only in bits and pieces. I’ve never set down and watch the whole thing through. But the Fogster has spoken so its on my watch list.

    • Give it a shot, Keith. It’s pretty epic. Definitely highly acclaimed too. But it’s divisive, a bit, a lot of people think its drags.

      To me though, if you can be “patient” with a film (forgive the pun), you’ll love it!

  10. Nice review. As you know I wasn’t overly crazy on The English Patient. I liked the performances but found the movie to be too slow. Though I admired the film as a whole, I would have preferred Fargo to win Best Picture.

  11. Couldn’t agree with you more….Fantastic post. I love the dialogue. The screen play and novel are utter gorgeousness. “K: I know you’ll come carry me out to the Palace of Winds. That’s what I’ve wanted: to walk in such a place with you. With friends, on an earth without maps. The lamp has gone out and I’m writing in the darkness.”

    • LOL! 😀 Glad to have your support Cindy, and thank you for the compliment.

      The dialogue is great, it really is a very beautiful movie, no doubt about it! Sad and beautiful at the same time…

    • Absolutely an epic. It’s an enormous story… and the fact that everyone’s actions have such consequences lend it all a greater scope as well… everything just seems so… monumental. 😯

  12. Haven’t watched this one yet, but will have to seek it out now.
    Great post.

    Every night I cut out my heart. But in the morning it was full again.
    -Count Laszlo de Almásy (Fiennes)

    • It’s worth it. It’s definitely a “Tragic Romance”, but its so epic, it’s hard not to get sucked in. As you can see, a lot of people didnt care for it… it definitely has a hater contingent out there!

  13. I remember going into this one with extremely high hopes. I’m a fan of Fiennes and Minghella, the story is fascinating. But the movie fell flat with me as well. It’s a beautiful looking film, but it doesn’t have the passion that fills Lawrence of Arabia, which it will inevitably always get compared to.

    • Sorry to hear you didnt connect with it. Yeah, due to the desert, this one will always be compared to Lawrence, no doubt. BUt aside from the desert and the wartime setting, obviously they’re very different flicks.

      I’m not suggesting that this one is on Lawrence’s level, but its still an epic film. Definitely one everyone should check out.

  14. I’ve always found this film to be one that split audiences. It was too long and drawn out for some but I have to admit, I thoroughly enjoyed. I can see why you’d include this one Fogs. Good call and great write-up as always.

    • Absolutely. A lot of people have no patience for it, or didnt but into the romance enough (which I’m hearing here), but I did… I thought this movie was incredible. Thanks for having my back on this one, Mark, I appreciate it! 😉

    • You should give it a chance one day. It’s a really serious movie, in my opinion. Something you should have under your belt one way or the other (because, similar to “Titanic”, this one has a huge hater backlash)

  15. I was forced to read the book in high school, and then we watched the movie afterward. All I can remember is thinking, “FFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUUU!!!!!!!!!!!”

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