Study Guide

The English Patient Introduction

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The English Patient Introduction

Release Year: 1996

Genre: Drama, Romance, War

Director: Anthony Minghella

Writer: Anthony Minghella; Michael Ondaatje (novel)

Stars: Juliette Binoche, Ralph Fiennes

We miss the days when love stories were torrid

Modern-day love stories are just too dang cheerful. Unless they involve kids dying of cancer, you can be sure that the main characters of today's love stories will end up happily ever after and skipping through fields of daisies, or being adorkable and planning their themed wedding.

Whatever happened to the romantic tragedies of the past, when love was passionate but doomed, or true but prevented by messed up families, or just plain forbidden?

The English Patient brings torrid back. 

It's one of the romantic-est and tragic-est of romantic tragedies. It's also one of the sexiest. Released in 1996 but set circa World War II, it hearkens back to the golden days of Hollywood cinema when lovers were doomed from the start. In this case, a mapmaker has a hot-hot-hot affair with a married woman, and (not surprise), it ends terribly.

The English Patient was directed by Anthony Minghella and produced by super-producer Saul Zaentz. (He has a cape and everything.) Minghella is famous for his book adaptations, including Cold Mountain (2003) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). This blockbuster also made a bonafide sex symbol out of Voldemort-to-be Ralph "Rafe" Fiennes, who stars alongside Kristen Scott Thomas (Mission: Impossible) and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, American Psycho).

This film won all of the accolades:

  • The Golden Globe for Best Picture—Drama
  • 12 Academy Award nominations and 9 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Binoche
  • $231 million worldwide against a $27 million budget
  • A shout out in Seinfeld

Yeah, you know you've made it when you're the plot of a Seinfeld episode.

What is The English Patient About and Why Should I Care?

We're devoted Seinfeld fans. We've watched every episode approximately five times—not just because it's hilarious, but also because it gets so many thing so right. Show mad respect to soup chefs. It's not a lie if you believe it. The bottom of the muffin is inferior.

But Seinfeld is totally, completely, unforgivably off the mark about one thing: The English Patient is an awesome movie. In fact, much like Elaine Benes' date, we "don't know if we can be with someone who doesn't like The English Patient."

Because, really, what's not to like? This movie has everything.

Torrid, heated sexcapades. Tender, sweet romance. War. Despair. Betrayal times a billion. Spies. Plane crashes. Explosions. Homicidal jealousy. Cave paintings. The crazy skull-imploding beauty of the Sahara Desert. This film weirdly got pigeonholed as a "date movie," but it's equally a "war movie" and a "spy movie." We counted: there are more violent moments than kissy-kissy moments—by a long shot.

So let's puncture all of Elaine Benes complaints about this movie, shall we?

#1: "It's too long."

Yeah, it's a long movie. It's long because it contains so much plot. Seriously, some multi-season HBO shows cram in less totally fascinating narrative twists and turns than The English Patient manages to do in less than three hours.

#2: "Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert."

Here's the thing: this movie contains three different stories. That English patient guy? He's only one of the characters. This movie also has the story of a Quebecois nurse in Italy, a Sikh who defuses bombs, a spy who gets his thumbs clipped off by the Nazis, and a British intelligence officer who's undercover as a rich boy idiot.

#3: "Sex in a tub doesn't work."

Oh, Elaine. No one has sex in a tub in this movie. They have sex in sumptuous hotel beds, an abandoned monastery, and in a spare room at a Christmas party.

Final score—Elaine Benes: 0. The English Patient: 9 Academy Awards. (Oh, and 3 more nominations.)


Count Laszlo de Almásy was based on a real man. Although most of the movie is highly fictionalized, Almásy did assist the Germans during the war, helping them across the dangerous Sahara desert. However even the love story is complete fiction. In real life, Almásy was actually homosexual, and in love with a male German soldier.

The Cave of Swimmers is also a real place. When he discovered it in 1926, Almásy speculated that the region used to have an abundance of water, hence the art of "swimmers" on the cave walls.

"It sucks." "I hate it!" "It's too long." "Quit telling your stupid story, about the stupid desert, and just die already! Die!" These aren't snippets of reviews from movie critics, but various outbursts by Elaine Benes (played by Julia Louis Dreyfus, on Seinfeld)who would rather starve to death in a cave herself than have to watch this movie again. Seinfeld centered its 151st episode around this movie in 1997.
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The English Patient Resources


Miramaxing and Relaxing
Kick back and watch choice The English Patient clips on the Official Website.


Booker Club
The Guardian read the Booker Prize-winning novel as part of their Booker Club book club… and spoils the novel's ending, which is dramatically different than the one in the movie.


Romance in the Sand
The American Film Institute named The English Patient #56 on its list of 100 Greatest Love Stories.

Raise Your Thumbs, If You Have Them
Caravaggio couldn't give the movie any thumbs up, because he has none. But Roger Ebert would give it an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Your Eyes are Getting Heavy…
Peter Travers calls The English Patient hypnotic… and he doesn't mean that the movie will put you to sleep.

Brought to You By the Letter "E"
What do Elmo and The English Patient have in common? Both are the work of Jim Henson's Creature Shop. No, you didn't miss a Big Bird cameo, but the Creature Shop supplied the prosthetics for Ralph Fiennes in his burned state.


Trailer Crash
Dig that velvety "In A World"-style voiceover.

A Rose for Juliette
Charlie Rose interviews Juliette Binoche about her soggy script (she cried all over the final pages).

What Do We Know Her From?
Over ten years later, Kristin Scott Thomas is still best known for The English Patient, even though she said au revoir to American cinema and now only does French cinema.


Remembering Minghella
When Minghella died, Terry Gross re-played her interview with the director, which is a real breath of fresh air.

Re-formatted For The Big Screen
Some writers aren't keen on the adaptation of their books. But Michael Ondaatje, actually likes the film adaptation of his book because it preserves the passion from his pages. And how.


Say Cheese
Here it is: the one moment in the movie where Almásy really smiles: a moment rarer than seeing a unicorn.

So Close, Yet So Far
This "For Your Consideration" ad shows a scene from the movie that perfectly captures Almásy and Katharine's relationship—intimate, yet apart.

Swimming Lesson
This minimalist movie poster is inspired by the Cave of Swimmers. Which characters do you think are like the swimmers?

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