“The window was open. Gorgeous sunlight streamed in, and yet a wind seemed to blow, mournful, a wind that swept the fields of mortality for a hundred centuries.”
Those beautiful lines are from Murder As A Fine Art, the excellent historical thriller by David Morrell that I read recently. In it Thomas De Quincey describes being a child and going to see the body of his beloved sister, Elizabeth, and the sorrow he felt viewing her corpse. Reading them, I instantly thought of the film of The English Patient, and had to watch it again.
There is also a wind in early in The English Patient, blowing Katherine’s parachute shroud as Almásy flies the plane over the desert. But it is the desert, the vast and seemingly endless sand, that evokes the endless fields of mortality. Looking down on the golden undulating folds, the sculptured shadows, the desert conjures all the dead lovers of the world, forever anonymous, stretched out to eternity.
This is an incredible rich, subtle, and poignant film. The acting is marvelous, the script intelligent, the cinematography extraordinary. The English Patient is a feast for the eye, the mind, and the heart. I was mesmerized from the first shots of the brush strokes until the poignant end of the film. I found it deeply emotional, but in subtle and complex ways, and also a film that stirred up ideas.
Particularly fascinating is that Almásy makes the choice that Rick in Casablanca turns from. Though he had affection for his comrades, the count’s one great loyalty is to Katherine. Perhaps his love blinds him to the magnitude of his betrayal. Perhaps he chooses the German side because, as he says, the English made him their enemy. Perhaps, given the world of fallen kingdoms he has lived in, he only sees that thousands will die, one way or another, in this war that is just one of endless thousands of wars. Finally, he chooses the one over the many, and devotes himself to trying to save the only person he’s ever loved. It’s selfish, yet heart-breakingly human.
It’s a choice which commands a terrible price in his own and in other people’s lives–death, torture, suicide.
It’s a hard choice to forgive, given how evil Hitler was, even if the count was as oblivious to that reality as he seems in the film. Since there was a real treasonous count with more mercenary motives, I’ve never understood why the character in the film wasn’t renamed. The Cliftons were, apparently, an English couple named the Claytons, so why not rename Almásy as well? He did not, after all, end his life as a crispy critter.
The English Patient not really a great romance. Katherine chooses duty over love (though duty was also Elsa’s first choice, it’s only when she sees Rick again that she succumbs to passion). Almásy, like Rick, dives into a bottle, but emerges to go on his desperate, fatal quest to save Katherine. As in Romeo and Juliet, it is his name which is her enemy. Cultural differences finally seem to sever the bond between Kip and Hana. Love does not conquer all, nor is its doom quite the same centerpiece that it is in Romeo and Juliet, though far more lives are consumed in the crucible of Almásy’s passion. Still, it is a great story about love, about passion, obsession, and human frailty.
On an even deeper level it evokes the inevitable currents of time. We begin in The Palace of the Winds, a cave so ancient we do not know the stories of those who painted their lives on its walls. Winds blow softly at the end, winds of motion, as the plane soars into the past, into death, and Hana leaving for her future in the truck. The trees flash past in a blur, and the breeze blows over her as she looks at the child who will one day be a woman, and have her own story of love and passion and sorrow.
I did read Michael Ondaatje’s novel, but don’t remember if Katherine’s words to the darkness were in the novel or only in the film.”
“We die. We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we’ve entered and swum up like rivers. Fears we’ve hidden in – like this wretched cave.
I want all this marked on my body. Where the real countries are. Not boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men. 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….”
Casablanca is on almost everyone’s favorite movie list. It shares a similar time frame and similar themes with The English Patient. It offers many of its protagonists the same choices.
If its darkness and pain are painted with lighter, broader strokes, still it has its share of desperation, thwarted love, betrayals, and broken dreams.
The film is such a perfect icon of Hollywood at its best, with its classy cast and witty dialogue, it’s stunning to discover that this pretty much flawless film was being filmed day to day with an unfinished script and that 3 directors were employed to give us the movie that we see as a whole.
It’s Hollywood in the 40’s, so it’s hard to believe that Rick wouldn’t have done the noble thing, but no one involved knew how it the story was going to end. Perhaps Rick might have tried to save Victor Laslo and failed. Laslo might have died heroically to protect his wife, and then Rick and Ilsa could have run off together. Laslo, noble fellow that he is, does not feel compelled to murder the wife who returned to him and the lover she abandoned, just because she really loves the other guy more. He knows he’s lucky to have her back.
Although the cast was kept in suspense, Casablanca ended as it does, of course, with Rick and Captain Renault strolling off into history and their beautiful friendship.
Saving the world is more important than love….
But before that we get the “hill of beans” speech. It’s actually a moment I really, really dislike, not the idea, but that Rick preaches those beans to Ilsa, after all she’s been through and all the hard choices she’s made. I mean really…?
Unless we’re irredeemably cynical, we accept that some wars are worth fighting, and some causes worth dying for, though we’re too often sold a bill of goods about which wars those are. But stopping Hitler was one of those, whatever ugly stories may get unearthed amid the heroic ones.
So Rick gives up Elsa and goes off to fight the war to end all wars (no…that was WWI, sorry). And we feel it’s right. As always in war there will be stories of loves that can’t be saved—but Rick and Elsa will always have Paris.
Postscript: I’ve been slowly replacing my DVDs with Blu Rays. In general, I’m choosing the most sumptuous ones first, or ones with a lot of special effects. Because the first couple of Blu Rays I got were far better than my DVDs, I assumed this would always be the case, but over time I found that perhaps only two thirds are better. Certainly enough films have shown significant improvement to continue my replacement policy, but it’s also disappointing that a few films show little improvement and a couple have actually been worse. That’s a long lead-in to say that Casablanca is one of the miracle transformations. It is unbelievably gorgeous in Blu Ray. Elsa’s jewels glitter. Rick’s Cafe American is filled with evanescent cigarette smoke, floating like lost dreams. Palm shadows weave an incredible backdrop to the action. It’s the favorite of all my Blu Rays.