Not a Hill of Beans

This year one motion picture dominated the Academy Awards, winning nine Oscars, including Best Picture. The movie was The English Patient, and if you’ve seen it, you may have found the plot strangely familiar. That’s because the film has several parallels to the classic film Casablanca. But it also shows how much our culture has changed since Casablanca was released more than half a century ago. The English Patient tells the story of a Hungarian count who is found, badly burned, in the North African desert during World War II. After being rescued, the count recalls, through a series of flashbacks, his love for a married woman—the wife of one of his colleagues. The echoes of the film Casablanca are found in the World War II setting, the desert locale, and the fact that in both films the protagonist falls in love with a married woman. And in both films the protagonist is forced to make a choice between his personal desires and a greater good. That is where the two films part company. In The English Patient, the lovers have little concern for anything outside of themselves. The count’s betrayal of his colleague foreshadows his ultimate betrayal of the Allied forces to the Nazis. The message is that, to the count, his love affair with another man’s wife is more important than the lives of all the Allied soldiers who fought in North Africa. But the characters in Casablanca behave very differently. They subordinate their personal desires to a greater cause. In one memorable scene, a confused Ilsa tells her lover, Rick: “I don’t know what’s right any longer. You’ll have to think for both of us—for all of us.” Rick thinks hard—and then sends Ilsa back to her war-hero husband. Who can forget that memorable scene at the film’s conclusion, moments before the lovers part forever: As they stand on the tarmac of the fog-shrouded airport, Rick tells Ilsa: “I’m not good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s a moment etched in film history—a moment when those “three little people,” as Rick puts it, rose above their own tormented hearts to serve a larger cause—of duty, honor, and liberty. Actress Lauren Bacall calls Casablanca “a testament to a bygone era”—an era when private desires were not given absolute priority as they are today, but were subordinated to transcendent ideals. That’s why Casablanca still inspires us 55 years after its original release. It grips our moral imagination. As my associate and film critic Roberto Rivera put it, “We all want to believe that we could be Rick—that we would do the right thing even at great personal cost.” This is the definition of great art—it makes us want to do the right thing. So if you were planning to go to the theater to watch The English Patient, I’ve got a better idea. Stay home and rent the video of Casablanca and use it to teach your children how to recognize true heroism and self-sacrifice. Who knows—it just might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship... with great drama.


Chuck Colson


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