Philosophy, Morality, and the English Patient

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THOMAS HURKA teaches philosophy, especially moral philosophy, at the University of Calgary. For a time he wrote an ethics column for The Globe and Mail.

The movie The English Patient, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje, won nine Academy Awards this year, including Best Picture. This last award normally goes only to serious movies, ones that address important themes. But looked at this way, The English Patient is a disturbing choice. It has a moral perspective on the events it describes, but it is a me-centred and immoral one. Philosophy can help explain why.

IN saying this, I don't assume that all art is subject to moral critique, a common view in the nineteenth century. At that time, people believed that even landscape painting and instrumental music have as their main function to improve their audience morally, and should be evaluated for how well they do so. I think it's obvious that many works of art have no moral content, so a moral commentary on them is irrelevant. But other works, especially of literature and drama, raise and explore moral issues. And when they do, we can ask how well they do so.

The English Patient has a moral issue at the centre of its plot. In an Italian villa at the end of the Second World War, a burn victim is slowly dying. His face is scarred beyond recognition, and he claims not to know his own identity. But one character, Caravaggio, has figured out who the patient is. He is Count Laszlo de Almasy, a Hungarian desert explorer who just before the war gave the German army crucial desert maps that enabled them to attack Tobruk and almost win the war in North Africa. Caravaggio himself was captured and tortured in that offensive. He thinks Almasy is guilty of betrayal and wants to bring him to account. Caravaggio has killed everyone else responsible for his capture and torture, and he now wants to kill Almasy. So a key question is: did Almasy act wrongly in handing over the maps? The rest of the movie addresses this question by showing what led to his choice.

Before the war Almasy was deeply in love with a married woman, Katherine Clifton. Much of the movie describes their passionate and all-consuming affair. But just before the outbreak of hostilities, Katherine was seriously injured in a desert plane crash that also killed her husband. Almasy, who was present, carried her to shelter in a cave and promised to return with help. His first attempt to get that help, from the British army, was rebuffed. Confronted by someone with no identification papers and a foreign accent, they instead arrested him as a spy. After escaping from the British, Almasy went to the German army. But to get their help he needed to offer them something in return. As the only way to keep his promise to Katherine, and from profound love for her, he gave the Germans the maps.

When he hears this story Caravaggio says he no longer has any desire to punish Almasy. The "poison," he says, has left him. And the movie's treatment of Almasy is now overwhelmingly sympathetic. Its emotional high point comes when Almasy, finding he has returned to Katherine too late, emerges from the cave carrying her dead body. Tears stream down his face; the photography is lush and gorgeous; the background music swells. As portrayed here Almasy is an entirely romantic figure. There is an equally sympathetic treatment as Almasy, having requested a morphine overdose, dies at the movie's end. Again both the camera and his nurse surround him with unqualified love.

After his escape from the British, Almasy faced a choice between a political end, resisting Nazism or at least not colluding with it, and a personal end, keeping his promise to Katherine. And the movie's treatment implies that his preference for the personal end was understandable and even right. This is implicit in the movie's most important line, a remark of Katherine's that it emphasizes by repeating: "Betrayals in war are childlike compared to our betrayals in peace. …