I have been given the unenviable task of discussing ‘Casablanca’ today. I say unenviable, partly because I know practically zilch about films and therefore am woefully unsuited to the role of film reviewer, and partly because this film has often been ranked as one of the greatest, if not the greatest films, of all time. It is as if Cedric were to set about reviewing the footballing career of Diego Maradona.
I did not, however, shirk from the task this time. Despite my vast ignorance of the subject, I am keen to express some of my opinions. Occasionally, greatness can inspire greatness in others, and so taking some comfort in that thought, I have decided to plod on and see what I can come up with.
What makes this film so interesting to me is that it is not only set during World War II but also produced during World War II. It premiered in November 1942 in the middle of the conflict. That is almost three years, before well-known Austrian mad-man, Adolf Hitler, killed himself in a bunker in Berlin. Moreover, it is almost two years before the Normandy Landings. Hitler had of course by then made his two colossal blunders that would eventually cost Nazi Germany everything: the commencement of operation Barbarossa and the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22nd 1941, and the declaration of war on the U.S.A. on 11 December 1941, but it was still not yet clear that the allies would win. The tide was turning but the ship had not yet been sunk.
Theatrical release poster, 1942
So, audiences would have received this film at a time of great uncertainty, searching for hope. I do not wish to get into the plot too much, partly so as to avoid “spoilers” and also partly because on a few points I am confused myself. To lay down the bare essentials however the film “Casablanca” is unsurprisingly set in the town of Casablanca, in French Morocco. The location is significant on two counts. Firstly, at the time, refugees from across occupied Europe were using Casablanca as a staging post from which to travel to Lisbon and thence to the U.S.A. and freedom. Secondly, we are in French Morocco, a colony of a country who had surrendered to Nazi might.
I do think the film is at least in part an exercise in propaganda. This is not to say it is bad art. Far from it. The beauty is that it can be viewed simultaneously as a very personal story too. This is after all a tale about the overcoming of cynicism, about doomed love and about self-sacrifice. The main characters the disillusioned Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, and the beautiful Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman are three-dimensional, living people. The basic plot is simple: Rick Blaine must choose between his love for Ilsa or the safe passage of both her and her husband, resistance leader Victor Laszlo to the new world via Lisbon. It is a moving tale of love and love’s heartache and could just as easily have been set in any place and at any time.
But the choice was a contemporary setting and the reason is clear. Everything at the time was to be directed towards the war effort. Film-making like any other industry was expected to support the cause. The film, then, is propaganda as well. Propaganda about the U.S.A, the land to which all the refugees in the film are fleeing, where all their hopes are pinned. Propaganda about the importance of the war effort over private interests. Propaganda about the allied world, where jazz can be heard, where black people and other ethnic minorities are visible (think of the wonderful character of Sam), and where good humour is in ready supply.
Dooley Wilson as Sam
It is of course also propaganda directed towards the peoples of occupied Europe, and above all to occupied France. At no point is that made clearer than in the brilliant scene at Rick’s bar where the customers singing the Marseillaise outcompete the German soldiers’ stale nationalistic anthem. The Marseillaise is of course not just an anthem of the French people, but also an anthem of the French Revolution, and therefore a song for all men, all free men that is.
I suppose what was conspicuous to me as a Brit watching, was the absence of my fellow countrymen from all this. But of course, that is not quite true. The character of Captain Louis Renault, though technically French in the story, is played by an English actor (Claude Rains) who makes no attempt to assume a French accent. Though the character does illustrate some French attributes, his wit is undeniably the wit of an Englishman, just as Rick’s humour is inseparable from the streets of New York. All the main western allies therefore find some role in this film.
Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault
The humour is as brilliant as the romance is heart-wrenching. This really is a film that can make you both laugh and weep. The screenplay is inspired. There are so many classic lines, it is hard not to gasp in astonishment at times. The wit is essential. At this time people needed humour more than ever. They needed to laugh at the enemy, they needed to laugh at the situation, in some ways all they had left was their courage and their good humour. For they had to go on fighting. Go on Fighting for the world that this film in some ways stands for, the world of dissidents, the world of freedom and jazz, a world in which individual “human life was” not “cheap”.
The world they fought for survived and like a phoenix was reborn from the ashes of World War II taking on new life. I am not especially left-wing, but I do sincerely believe in the liberalism that this film encapsulates. Just as much in fact as those claiming to be the Victor Laszlos of today. In some ways in recent decades we have felt this liberal world order slip from our grasps ever so slightly. At times this has been because the liberal order has become corrupt and complacent, and therefore from time to time there has been justification for it receiving flack. Still, we must not to allow it to be lost completely. By watching ‘Casablanca’ we can remind ourselves that it is worth fighting for.