The first time I saw was 20 years old, with a date on my arm and hope in my heart. Casablanca I Unsurprisingly, I watched it through the lens of romance. So too, for at least the first five viewings, should anyone watch this most beloved of American films. The journey of its central character, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), from a deep bitterness about love at the beginning of Casablanca to a noble sacrifice of love at its end, is one of the most compelling plots in the history of cinema. But after that, it is permissible to reflect on Casablanca’s political content, as film critics have been doing for more than 70 years.
If you have never seen Casablanca, then stop reading this column and get hold of the DVD, and return after you’ve watched it. The rest of us may reflect on the film as it would have appeared to moviegoers during its initial run. Casablanca debuted at New York’s Hollywood Theater on Thanksgiving Day 1942, not quite a year after the United States entered World War II. By February 1943 the film was playing in more than 200 moviehouses across the country.
At one level, of course, Casablanca is indeed an extraordinary romance. It centers on Rick’s Café Américain, whose clientele comes to drink, gamble, and attempt to buy and sell escape from Casablanca, in French Morocco, to Lisbon, in neutral Portugal, and departure to freedom in the New World. French Morocco is under the control of Vichy France, the authoritarian, pro-German rump state established in 1940 after France signed a humiliating armistice with Germany. Rick himself is hardened and bitter. It transpires that he came to Casablanca from Paris, where he loved and lost the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman). Ilsa suddenly appears in the company of her seeming new lover, resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world,” Rick later glooms in a fog of liquor, “she walks into mine.”
Laszlo is among those trying to escape to Lisbon, closely pursued by the menacing Nazi Major Heinrich Strasser (Conrad Veidt). In Casablanca, Laszlo enjoys a fragile safety, thanks to Vichy’s juris diction. But Vichy is virtually a German satellite, and sooner or later Strasser will find a way to seize him. Laszlo is saved only because Rick ultimately decides to discard his cynicism and, in an intricately planned gambit, ensure Laszlo’s escape.
Few could miss Casablanca’s references to prewar American foreign policy. Early in the film, Rick rebuffs an overture by the black marketeer Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) to go into business together. “My dear Rick,” Ferrari chides the café owner. “When will you realize that in this world today isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” The Vichy police prefect Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) warns Rick not to intervene on behalf of the weasel-like Ugarte (Peter Lorre), suspected of murdering two German couriers carrying letters of transit priceless to anyone seeking to flee Casablanca.
“I stick my neck out for nobody,” Rick responds.
“A wise foreign policy,” Renault says. Based upon those lines in the film, and its overall trajectory, some have theorized that Warner Brothers intended Casablanca as an argument in favor of American intervention in the war. But that is an untenable interpretation. Filming only began in May 1942, five months after Pearl Harbor, and when the cameras started rolling the script was still far from being complete.
Working at white heat—screenwriter Howard Koch remembered feeling that “the camera was a monster devouring my pages faster than I could write them”— the writers scarcely had the time to craft a subtle propaganda film. And director Michael Curtiz scarcely had the intention: he simply wanted to make a love story.
But as an affirmation of America’s goal in going to war, which was nothing less than to save the world from evil, Casablanca had real power. The film establishes early on that Rick once waged his own war against evil, running guns into Ethiopia and fighting in the Spanish Civil War, acts redolent of America’s intervention against Imperial Germany in World War I. But then, as the United States had after the Armistice, Rick retreated into a disillusioned isolation ism: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
Yet despite Rick’s initial refusal to facilitate Laszlo’s attempt to escape Strasser by flying to Lisbon with Ilsa—who turns out to be Laszlo’s wife—by the end of the film Rick has done exactly that, notwithstanding the fact that in doing so he is giving up Ilsa, the great love of his life.
“Welcome back to the fight,” Laszlo says. “This time I know our side will win.”
To protect Laszlo and Ilsa from being captured before their flight can lift off, Rick shoots Strasser. Then, with the plane safely aloft, Rick—joined by Renault, who has also recovered his idealism—walks off into the night to make his way to the Free French garrison at Brazzaville. “Louis,” Rick says, in one of cinema’s great lines, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The arc of the film, then, is an unmistakable journey from isolationism to intervention.
But audiences would also have viewed Casablanca in more personal terms. After explaining to Ilsa why he has decided that she should leave with Laszlo rather than remain with him, Rick continues, “I’m no 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.”
Like Rick, millions of Americans were making sacrifices on behalf of the greater good, either by leaving loved ones to go to war or by watching loved ones depart. And if by horrible chance the loved ones failed to reunite, then, like Rick, they could console themselves with their own equivalent of Rick’s declaration to Ilsa: “We’ll always have Paris.”
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.