Casablanca vs. The English Patient Comparing


Casablanca and The English Patient; both recipients of the Best Picture Award at the Oscars, and both compelling tales about sacrifices in times of war.  These similarities allow for easy comparisons to be drawn between these two excellent films. However, comparisons made regarding the moral standing of the movies fall short in representing both films on equal terms.  Specifically, I’m referring to Thomas Hurka’s opinions expressed in his editorial The Moral Superiority of Casablanca over the English Patient.  Although both films tackle the moral implications of choosing between loyalty to personal commitment or to a higher cause, the two pieces of media deal with this issue in ways so different it isn’t right to conclude that one is superior to the other.  

Discussions of loyalty and love are central to the plot of both films.  In Casablanca, Rick choses to sacrifice his love for Ilsa to allow her and her resistance leader husband to escape to America, thus prioritizing a higher cause over his personal affairs.  Count Almasy in The English Patient approaches his struggles differently, as in order to retrieve his dead lover’s body he surrenders maps of Africa to the Nazis.  In doing so he disregards the effects his actions would have during the war.  When the movies are compared just as I have done in these last sentences (and Hurka did in his editorial), it may seem that Rick’s decision has the high ground, but many important plot points have been abandoned that make Hurka’s statement regarding The English Patients’ “moral bankruptcy” completely unjustified.  

In his writing, Hurka gives no mention to the storyline of Hana and Kip in The English Patient, which I feel brings the film back from the brink of its so-called moral failings.  Hana is a Canadian nurse helping heal soldiers in Italy, and Kip is a Sikh engineer who is tasked with the dangerous job of clearing mines and unexploded bombs.  They find themselves in a love affair with each other while staying in a Italian monastery and looking after Hana’s burn victim patient, who is really Count Almasy.  By the end of the film, Kip gets reposted as he has cleared all the mines in the area, but the lovers promise to meet again.  I feel that the stronger parallel between the two stories is Rick compared to Hana and Kip.  Both characters in The English Patient leave their home countries to help in the fight for a greater cause, which is a sacrifice much like Rick’s in Casablanca.  All three characters feel that the situations they are in call for them to prioritize political decisions over personal ones. By disregarding the sacrifices Hana and Kip made for their country and the importance the characters place on the whole rather than the personal, Hurka misses the point of the film and is unfair in his comparison.

When judging a character’s morality from a perspective that is removed from any situation remotely similar to what the character is going through, forming opinions can be very easy.  I hold great doubt that many people who judge Almasy’s decision would have the backbone and strength to sacrifice their personal well being and happiness for the greater good.  This is another reason Hurka’s article fails to be a serious critique.  In the real world, it is unfair to expect that everyone upholds perfect morals and I feel that Almasy made the decision that he felt was right according to his worldview and past experiences.  It is unfair to judge a character for making a decision that you would likely make yourself.

Casablanca and The English Patient; two films that are fantastically shot, strongly acted, and assume equal standing in the field of morality.

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