“This film has been edited and modified for family viewing.” This message comes up on Zee Studio and Sony Pix at the start of every movie, and this has bothered me for a long time. The futility of the entire exercise was really highlighted when one of these bright-spark channels showed The English Patient suitably modified for the “Indian family”!
Now it must clarified at the outset that watching crass Indian videos that degrade women, stereotype dangerous gender roles, and perpetuate outdated and regressive patriarchal values—something we horrifyingly refer to as “Indian culture”—is perfectly acceptable!
To get back to the film in question, at no level can The English Patient be classified as a “family movie”, no matter how much you tinker with it! Here’s a quick outline [**SPOILERS FOLLOW**]:
Based on Michael Ondaatje’s book by the same name, it is set around the time of World War II. The story is mainly a flashback of the tragic events surrounding the fate of a badly burnt plane crash victim. As he is tended to by a young nurse, Hana (the lovely Juliet Binoche), his memory returns little by little, and we learn that he is Count Laszlo de Almasy (the morosely intense Ralph Fiennes, who quite dazzles as a burnt shell of a man, making us see why he’d go on to make a fine Lord Voldemort), a Hungarian cartographer employed the Royal Geographical Society, mapping the Sahara Desert.
At a time of great political upheaval, Almasy has a passionate affair with Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of one of his English colleages (Colin Firth). The far-reaching consequences of that affair has tragic results for all those involved—some directly and some not.
Interspersed with Almasy’s story in flashback is the tale of the nurse Hana’s (unconvincing) romance with an Indian sapper (Naveen Andrews) in the British Army, and the mysterious David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian thief with no thumbs. Caravaggio, it is revealed, is after Almasy for revenge for losing his thumbs. In the final scenes of the movie he confronts Almasy, accusing him of being a German spy and of murdering the Cliftons, and tells him how he tracked him down to kill him.
To which the dying man answers: “You cannot kill me. I died many years ago.”
The last pieces of the puzzle fall into place then as Almasy remembers how he had carried the injured Katharine into a cave in the Egyptian desert, then walked three days to get help. But when he stumbled into a British camp and said his name, he was mistaken for a German and arrested. He subsequently escaped, and found that the only people willing to help him were the Germans. He exchanged his maps for fuel and flew the plane left by his partner to go back to Katharine.
But Katharine was already dead when he reached her, and in trying to take her body back, his plane was shot down.
There are some powerful themes in the movie, not the least of which is the concept of boundaries and nationalities. “I had the wrong name,” says Almasy to Caravaggio. And both he and Katharine died because of it. National boundaries and loyalties mean so little in the end, when a desperate man is helped by the “enemy”. And ironically, when a burnt Almasy is brought in, he goes in the records as “English Patient”!
Ownership forms yet another motif. Almasy tells Katharine how he hates “being owned” and she should forget him when she leaves. That annoys her. Later he playfully lays claim to parts of her body. Incidentally, both these scenes were cut away, and it destroyed the message portrayed by the movie. The viewer is left perplexed later when, as Katharine tries to break it off with Almasy, he says, “I want the things that are mine.”
And when she lies dying in the cave, she pens a note for him, saying:
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 someday you will carry me out into the palace of winds. That’s all I’ve wanted, to walk in such a place with you, with friends, an earth without maps.
A moving message in itself, but made many times more moving and powerful if watched in conjunction with the entire movie. In fact, the entire passionate love affair between Almasy and Katharine was chopped out in the TV version. Without being made aware of the intensity of that relationship, the impact of the film was much diminished.
The last thing The English Patient is is a “family” movie. Its message is very adult and the tone very sombre. Just the editing of anything overtly sexual does not make a film like this something to watch over dinner with your children.
Perhaps the people who take decsions on this could do well to dwell upon what exactly they define as “family viewing”. Why is vulgar dances and senseless violence all right, and affection between a loving couple not? I think they have the wrong end of the stick. The whole question of appropriateness was succinctly summed up by ESPN-Star presenter John Dykes many years ago when I interviewed him. I asked him what he felt about his young daughter accessing inappropriate content on the Net, and he replied: “I can deal with pornography. It’s watching violence and thinking that it is all right is what I worry about.”