Monday, 19 April 2010

The English Patient (dir. Anthony Minghella, 1996)

Well, this post was going to be on the next episode of Chelmsford 123, but unfortunately I've lost my source of Chelmsford 123 episodes, so I've had to come up with an alternative rather quickly. As a result, this post is based on my somewhat hazy memories of the film in question, so please forgive any glaring errors or omissions!

I'm torn about The English Patient. On the one hand, this is a film which features both Ralph Fiennes and Mr Darcy (sorry Colin Firth, but you will always be Mr Darcy!) and not only provides a chance to talk about the desert, but was filmed in the very bit of desert that I went to! On the other hand, it's very, very, very depressing. It's like either the novelist or scriptwriter thought of the most depressing story they could, then added to it's misery by killing off Sergeant Lewis into the bargain.

The bit that interests me here, of course, is the battered and much-doodled in copy of Herodotus that the Patient carries around with him. Herodotus seems to hold an intriguing place within the popular imagination. No popular culture hero that I can think of carries around a copy of Thucydides or sings his praises - Thucydides is considered simply too dull. A character who professed a great love for Thucydides would be a bore, a nerd/geek/dork/whatever, a person more interested in dead Greeks than in the living. On the other hand, plenty of popular heroes are very fond of Homer, and may own copies of the Iliad or the Odyssey. But that wouldn't be quite right for The English Patient either. Homer is too mythical, too unreal (and before anyone suggests that the Iliad is more 'realistic', remember that there's a talking horse in it) and, perhaps, too military. The English Patient is about war, but is is much more about romance and prejudice, themes not especially prevalent in Homer. A hero who reads Homer is a soldier or an adventurer, an Achilles, a Hector or an Odysseus, and the Patient (Count László de Almásy - no, I can't remember, spell or pronounce his name!) is none of those things.

So why does the hero here read Herodotus? Perhaps because Herodotus stands for a love of travel and a wide-ranging interest. Herodotus is certainly a more entertaining read than Thucydides, and he is famously open-minded, recording vast amounts of material even he seems to doubt and allowing plenty of space in his narrative for non-Greek peoples and characters. Herodotus was well-travelled and included an entire Book that's more or less a travelogue, and he recorded several of the most famous incidents in Greek history (Croesus and the Delphic Oracle, Thermopylae, Marathon, the 'wooden walls' and Salamis). Someone who loves Herodotus is broad-minded (very important in this story), fond of travel and interested in bizarre and unusual stories.

The Atlas mountains, at Chebika, where some of the movie was filmed.

Herodotus also occupies an intriguing cultural niche - not as well-known as Homer, more well known than Thucydides. Someone who has never read any Greek literature - me at age 16 for example - has probably heard of Homer and has some knowledge of the contents of the Odyssey if not the Iliad, may have heard of Herodotus but not really know what he wrote about other than Greek history, and might not have heard of Thucydides, or might not know what he wrote about (I've left out Xenophon, who would occupy a similar place to Thucydides, but without the reputation for crushing boredom). So a hero who reads Herodotus is someone with 'interesting' taste - someone who reads things that are classics and that are clearly interesting and worth reading, but not common reading material - just that little bit exotic.

Perhaps this is the appeal of Herodotus to authors (this is not the only story to have a hero who likes Herodotus. Neil Gaiman's American Gods, for example, also features Herodotus prominently at the beginning as a sign of education and interest, but I still haven't even got halfway through that book, so please don't make a comment that spoils it for me!). Herodotus is familiar - a classic text, studied by generations of schoolchildren, especially at the time The English Patient is set - but also just a little bit exotic, just a little bit less familiar than Homer might be. With Herodotus' text itself so interested in the strange and the exotic, the combination serves to make the hero 'interesting' in the best way, making his character more intriguing and less predictable than he might otherwise be.

This area is actually by a really big oasis, one of the biggest. Knowing this can make it hard to get into the tragic spirit at the end!

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