Film Screening: The English Patient

In this lesson we are going to examine Anthony Minghella’s 1996 Film, The English Patient. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.

Pay special attention to the editing and how Walter Murch juggles two different storylines.

Purchase the The English Patient on Amazon

Director: Anthony Minghella
Writers: Michael Ondaatje (Novel), Anthony Minghella (Screenplay)
Cinematography: John Seale
Film Editor: Walter Murch
Original Music: Gabriel Yared
Producers: Scott GreensteinBob WeinsteinHarvey WeinsteinPaul ZaentzSaul ZaentzAlessandro von NormanSteve E. Andrews


The English Patient is a 1996 romantic drama film based on the novel of the same name by Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje. The film, written for the screen and directed by Anthony Minghella, won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Ondaatje worked closely with the filmmakers.

Set before and during World War II, The English Patient is a story of love, fate, misunderstanding and healing. Told in a series of flashbacks, the film can best be explained by unwinding it into its two chronological phases.


The film is set during World War II and depicts a critically burned man, at first known only as “the English patient,” who is being looked after by Hana, a French-Canadian nurse in an abandoned Italian monastery. The patient is reluctant to disclose any personal information but through a series of flashbacks, viewers are allowed into his past. It is slowly revealed that he is in fact a Hungarian cartographer, Count László de Almásy, who was making a map of the Sahara Desert, and whose affair with a married woman, Katharine Clifton, ultimately brought about his present situation.

As the patient remembers more, David Caravaggio, a Canadian intelligence operative and former thief, arrives at the monastery. Caravaggio lost his thumbs while being interrogated by a German army officer, and he gradually reveals that it was the patient’s actions that had brought about his torture. In addition to the patient’s story, the film devotes time to Hana and her romance with Kip, an Indian Sikh sapper in the British Army. Due to various events in her past, Hana believes that anyone who comes close to her is likely to die, and Kip’s position as a bomb defuser makes their romance full of tension.

In the first phase, set in the late 1930s, the minor Hungarian noble Count Laszlo de Almásy (Fiennes) is co-leader of a Royal Geographical Society archaeological and surveying expedition in Egypt and Libya. He and his English partner Madox are at heart academics with limited sophistication in the swirling politics of Europe and North Africa. Shortly after the film begins, both the morale and finances of their expedition are bolstered by a British couple, Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton that joins the exploration party. The Count is taken with the gorgeous and refined Katherine. When Geoffrey is often away from the group on other matters, an affair takes wing. The final months before the war’s onset bring an archaeological triumph: the Count’s discovery of an ancient Saharan cave decorated with “swimming figure” paintings dating from prehistoric times, the “Cave of Swimmers”. This period also sees the romance between Katherine and the Count rise to a sensuous peak and then seemingly fade. Katherine is plagued with the guilt of infidelity, while the Count shows a streak of jealousy along with an imbalance that will later haunt him.

The fall of 1939 and the war bring all excavation at the cave to a halt, and Madox and the Count go their separate ways. Geoffrey Clifton meanwhile has pieced together the outline of the affair, and seeks a sudden and dramatic revenge: crashing his plane, with Katherine aboard, into the Count’s desert camp. The wreck kills Geoffrey instantly, seriously injures Katherine, and narrowly misses the Count. He manages to take Katherine into the relative shelter of the swimming figure cave, leaves her with food, water, a flashlight, and a fire, then begins his scorching three day walk back to the nearest town and help. The town is held by the British Army, and the dazed and dehydrated Count, with his non-English name, is unable to coherently explain to officials the plane crash and Katherine’s plight. Instead he loses his temper during questioning and is thrown into military jail. He is sent in chains on a train “north to Benghazi”, escapes, finds himself behind Afrika Korps lines and quickly trades his desert maps with the Germans for petrol for Madox’s biplane, a De Havilland Tiger Moth, which he had left behind at the close of their archaeological expedition. By the time he returns to the cave, Katherine is dead – and in all but a physical sense, so is the Count. He manages to bundle Katherine’s body into the plane and takes off. Mistaking the Tiger Moth for an RAF reconnaissance aircraft, a German anti-aircraft battery shoots down the plane as Almásy pilots it over the desert. Horribly burned but alive, he is rescued by Bedouin tribesmen.

The film’s second phase shifts to Italy and the last months of the war. The Count by now is an invalid patient, and wholly dependent by this time on morphine and the care of his French-Canadian nurse Hana, detached from her medical unit and established in a battered but beautiful Italian monastery. That place becomes the focal point for more plot threads, some new and some unfinished from the North African phase, all themed around love, chance, and the backdrop of the war. Hana has seen a fiancé and a nursing friend die in the Italian campaign, and is left to wonder if her involvement with a British-Indian lieutenant will break her cycle of love and grief or simply continue it. A visitor to the villa named Caravaggio is in search for the disfigured Count that he believes played a role in his own ill-starred time in Egypt and Libya. For Caravaggio unwittingly stumbled into the wreckage of the Count-Katherine-Geoffrey love triangle, c. 1940–1942. He’s lost both thumbs in a grisly interrogation at the hands of the Nazis, and has since hunted down and killed those he believes responsible for his fate.

He believes the Count was part of a web of desert spying and intrigue, and knows that he traded maps with the Germans. He confronts him with news of Madox’s suicide, and posits that the Count killed the Cliftons. Only a full recounting at the villa of the Cliftons’ crash and the Count’s map dealings with the Germans to recover Katherine bring Caravaggio to understanding and forgiveness.

Hana, too, finds reconciliation at the film’s end. Her lieutenant survives a brush with death on the war’s last day and her hope in love is rekindled. The Count asks for, and dies of, an overdose of morphine from Hana.


In his book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002)Michael Ondaatje records his conversations with the film’s editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who won two Academy Awards for the film. Murch describes the complexity of editing a film with multiple flashbacks and timeframes; he edited and reedited numerous times and notes that the final film features over 40 time transitions.

The film was shot on location in Tunisia and Italy.


The film received widespread critical acclaim and was a major award winner as well as a box office success; its awards included the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama and the BAFTA Award for Best Film. Juliette Binoche won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, winning out over Lauren Bacall for The Mirror Has Two Faces (it would have been Bacall’s only Oscar win, and in her acceptance speech Binoche commented that she had expected Bacall to win). Anthony Minghella took home the Oscar for Best Director. Kristin Scott Thomas and Ralph Fiennes were nominated for Best Actress and Best Actor. Overall, The English Patient was nominated for 12 awards and ultimately walked away with 9. Its presence at the Oscars was so large that upon winning Best Original Song for Evita, Andrew Lloyd Webber joked “Thank goodness there wasn’t a song in The English Patient.”

The English Patient is one of only three Best Picture winners (Amadeus and The Hurt Locker being the other two) to never enter the weekend box office top 5 since top 10 rankings were first recorded in 1982. It is also the highest-grossing non-IMAX film (and second highest-grossing film overall) to never reach the weekend box office top 5.

The film has a “Certified Fresh” rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and consensus stating “Though it suffers from excessive length and ambition, director Minghella’s adaptation of the Michael Ondaatje novel is complex, powerful, and moving.” The film also has a rating of 87% on Metacritic, indicating “universal acclaim”. Noted Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert gave the film a 4/4 rating, saying “it’s the kind of movie you can see twice – first for the questions, the second time for the answers.”


"The English Patient" Quiz