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Tuesday, November 27, 2018

November 27, 2018: In Love and War: The English Patient

[On November 26, 1942 the great Casablanca premiered in New York. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that film and four other wartime romances!]
On the limits and lessons of an anti-Casablanca story (SPOILERS for The English Patient in what follows).
I remember distinctly the moment I showed my parents The English Patient (1996) on home video (this post focuses entirely on the film, as I don’t know the book well at all). I had fallen in love with the movie in theaters, and couldn’t wait to share it with two of my favorite people. My Mom shared my enthusiasm, but much to my surprise my Dad kind of hated it. Casablanca has long been one of his favorite films, and he argued that The English Patient makes the case for precisely the opposite lessons from those I highlighted in yesterday’s post: for self-interest and romance as more important than communal solidarity in times of war, as indeed the best ways to resist the dangers and divisiveness that war inevitably brings. Although neither of the film’s beautiful but doomed romances—between Ralph Fiennes’s Almásy and Kristin Scott Thomas’ Katharine in the past and Juliette Binoche’s Hana and Naveen Andrews’ Kip in the present—endure, both are certainly idealized, not only as iconic loves but as alternatives to the ugly realities and effects of war.
I think that my Dad’s take was a fair critique (and my love for Patient doesn’t mean I’d put it on Casablanca’s level), but I would add a couple important elements to the discussion. For one thing, as I wrote in this long-ago post, the film situates its emphasis on personal and romantic needs as a direct (and to my mind compelling and important) critique of the kinds of “us vs. them” mentalities that guide nations far too often and never more so than in wartime. Such collective solidarity is of course inevitable when a nation is fighting against others, and is easier to stomach when that conflict seems as righteous and necessary as did the Allies’ fight against the Axis powers during World War II. Yet as I’ve highlighted many times in this space, even “good wars” like that one can produce horrific excesses, both those directed at the enemy and those targeting imagined enemies on the homefront. When The English Patient’s Hana argues, “There’s a war. Where you come from becomes important,” Almásy responds, “Why? ... I hate that idea,” and I tend to side with him in that exchange. Perhaps there will always be wars, but we can still work to resist their worst effects, and a story like The English Patient might help us to do so.
Yet in truth, every action that we take during war has the potential for negative effects, and any of us who pretends to be certain about what those effects might be for any particular situation is likely to be surprised and disappointed. And The English Patient likewise reflects those painful realities, as the actions taken by Almásy and Katharine in the course of their romance—and especially those taken by Almásy as he rejects national allegiances and alliances in order to try to save his love’s life—have catastrophic effects on many around them, including some of those about whom they care most. That doesn’t mean that we’re not meant to sympathize with Almásy’s actions or see them as the wrong choices, and so my Dad’s critique of the film’s emphasis still holds water. But I suppose what I would say is that these actions might be romantic, but they’re not romanticized—or at least that the film offers a realistic representation of what such romantic relationships and choices can and too often do mean in a world at war.
Next romance tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other wartime romances you’d highlight?

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