What Is the Truth about the English Patient?

Article excerpt

Byline: RICHARD PENDLEBURY

IT is the British-made film that has taken America by storm. The English Patient, a World War II romance, has been nominated for 12 Oscars and promises to sweep the board at next month's ceremony in Hollywood.

Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje, the [pounds sterling]22million film stars Ralph Fiennes as Count Ladislaus Almasy, a dashing Hungarian explorer who, while providing maps for the Allies in North Africa, falls in love with a beautiful Englishwoman.

When his mistress, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, is stranded in the desert by an air crash, he assists the Germans in order to be reunited with her.

Almasy's story is unravelled in flashback as, following another plane crash, he lies horribly burned in a ruined Italian villa which is being used as a military hospital.

Stripped of all identity by the conflagration, he is assumed because of his perfectly cultivated accent to be an English patient.

American critics have rhapsodised over Anthony Minghella's film, which has its British premiere tomorrow and goes on general release from March 14. But there has already been controversy over its historical accuracy.

In fact, the real story of the man behind the English Patient is, if anything, more incredible than the movie plot.

Far from being temporarily forced into espionage by the love of a woman, Almasy was in all probability a ruthlessly efficient and ideologically-motivated Nazi agent. Certainly he won an Iron Cross from Rommel for leading a spymaster through Allied lines to Cairo.

Most intriguingly of all, his sexuality is open to question.

An Austrian film-maker says he has seen letters which prove Almasy was a homosexual in love with a German army officer.

Yet there was a beautiful young Englishwoman in the life of Ladislaus Almasy - and one who might well have encouraged the neutral Hungarian to work for the Nazi regime.

Certainly that is the story the Almasy family like to tell today at their ancestral home, Bernstein Castle in Austria.

The woman in question was Unity Mitford, whose infatuation with Hitler and all things Nazi caused great embarrassment to the British Establishment in the Thirties and Forties.

She spent much of the time in Germany and tried to kill herself when Britain declared war.

She also played a major role in the life of the Almasy family.

According to her older sister Diana, who married the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, the Mitford girls met the Almasys through their brother Tom.

Unity, who kept a flat in Munich, became a regular guest at Bernstein, from where she penned sycophantic letters to Hitler.

Ladislaus, who was by then in his forties, kept rooms at the castle but spent much of his time in North Africa.

A brilliant pilot - unlike his character in the film he never suffered a serious crash - he helped map out the desert, winning the respect of the Bedouin who called him Father of the Sands.

But what of his collusion with the Nazis?

`The Mitfords spent a lot of time at the castle,' says Alexander Berger-Almasy, the count's great nephew by marriage. `The family feel that the Mitford girls had a strong influence on Ladislaus.

`Unity probably alerted the Hitler regime about Almasy's expertise in the desert.

`I think he was put in a position where he was made to do things that he did not really want to do.'

If the family are to be believed, Ladislaus was an apolitical aristocratic adventurer who enjoyed the thrill of conspiracy and fell foul of Unity Mitford. He was an imperialist in his youth, taking part in an unsuccessful attempt to restore the Hapsburgs to the Austrian throne, but never a Nazi. …