`The English Patient': Fact Or Fiction?

NEW YORK - On screen, he is a brooding, handsome dreamer - a haunted desert explorer who pursues the woman he loves obsessively and collaborates with Nazis in a last attempt to save her life.

But the Count Laszlo de Almasy depicted by Ralph Fiennes in the new film "The English Patient" seems unsettlingly benign to Elizabeth Pathy Salett, whose father was a Hungarian diplomat in wartime Egypt. He remembered the real Hungarian count as an amoral man who collaborated willingly with Axis powers in North Africa.

Therein lies the dilemma that has dogged cinema since the silent-era "Birth of a Nation": Are filmmakers beholden to historical accuracy?

"Movies like this should be more faithful to what actually happened. You can't just say it's a fictional portrayal, because it influences millions of people," said Salett, who wrote an essay Wednesday in The Washington Post describing the film as "amoral and ahistorical."

In her essay, the Hungarian-born Salett - who runs a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. - recounts how, while watching "The English Patient," the Almasy character kept striking her as familiar.

"I was increasingly stunned to see unfolding before me the depiction of (a) passionate hero who bore little resemblance to the man my father had described to me," she wrote.

True, perhaps, but beside the point, say the filmmakers who adapted author Michael Ondaatje's novel. After all, said director-writer Anthony Minghella, "This is fiction based on fiction," a movie based on a novel.

"We did our research on the time, place, what was happening in that era, what the truth was. And we tried to reproduce that truth," producer Saul Zaentz said. "But human emotions, I don't think anyone knows what the truth is there."

The question, though, is relevant given the pop-culture juggernaut's increasing dominance of the collective consciousness.

In a market where nostalgia is simply another commodity, history becomes what sells best. And for this film, what sells best is a story of sacrifice and love.

The real Almasy, according to Salett's father's papers, wanted to use a desert museum as a front for Nazi espionage. Its goal: the occupation of Egypt. When the project was scotched, Salett said, Almasy blamed her father and put his name on a list of arrests to be made when Nazi Field Marshal Erwin Rommel occupied the country. Her family escaped in a car along a road near the Nile River - "one of my earliest memories."

"The film makes it look like he just gave a few maps to the Germans to save the woman he loved. And it makes it seem OK," she said. "That's not to say there isn't poetic license, but it needs to be either more historical or more clearly fictional."

Ondaatje has said he knew little about the real Almasy or what ultimately happened to him. And he was careful to include a disclaimer.

"While some of the characters who appear in this book are based on historical figures . . . it is important to stress that this story is a fiction," Ondaatje wrote. A similar statement appeared in the film.

That, say many scholars, should be sufficient.

"Her argument seems to be that a historical disclaimer is not enough," said Jim Welsh, editor of Literature/Film Quarterly. "But if you're dealing with a work of the imagination, the fact that it may have sprung from some sort of historical context is simply beside the point."