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Anyone who fails to enjoy the 1942 Warners Brothers classic Casablanca on the level of a love story may likely also fail to apprehend why the movie consistently ranks at or near the top of critical assessments of the best Hollywood movies of all time. The truth is that Casablanca is actually deserving of far more respect than it already receives precisely because the love triangle at its center holds the central political metaphor at work in the plot so tightly together that no amount of melodramatic intrusion can cause it to unwind. If one can’t enjoy Casablanca on the level great cinematic romance, perhaps one should learn to view the film through the prism of historical allegory.
First, a quick history lesson. The time: the late 1930s. The location: Europe. The issue: the unrestrained spread of fascist ideology by force.
The Nazi party that has taken power in Germany is making Europeans very nervous. They don’t yet know exactly what Hitler wants, but it’s beginning to look like a sure bet that most of the continent’s population is not going to like it if he gets it. The invasion of Poland sets off the most catastrophic era of the 20th Century. Hitler and his jackbooted thugs gobble up less militarily potent countries one by one and with a shocking ease. Like a stack of dominoes set up on end, the other powers of Europe fall under the brutal onslaught of fascism. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic Ocean, America’s confidence that what is taking place on the other side of the globe is an internal dispute that has nothing to do with them is beginning to fall apart like a house of cards facing a tornado. The situation is becoming increasingly clearer to increasingly more Americans. That whole Hitler thing is no longer just the problem of the Europeans that has nothing to do with a country struggling desperately to put the Great Depression behind them. There is a word to describe the collective perspective blanketing the American consciousness in the years leading up to the commencement of principal photography on Casablanca barely more than six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
America did not want to be drawn into the conflagration that Europe was experiencing for the second time in less than three decades. What is now referred to as World War I was still being referred to as the War to End All Wars when the official and unofficial American take on Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Europe that of not getting drawn into another bloody brawl between old world powers. Or, to put it another way: America stuck our neck out for nobody. Worth mentioning is that Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) says that very same thing to Capt. Renault (Claude Rains). Also work mentioning is that Rick’s Café is actually called Rick’s Café Americain.
Everybody comes to Rick’s. This is the sentiment Capt. Renault expresses, but what he really means is that everybody comes to Rick’s Café Americain. That café is meant to represent America; a place where everybody is free to wallow in the enjoyment of capitalist free enterprise and the more positive expressions of democracy. (Unless, of course, American happens to be in the midst of one of those periods in American history that pop up every thirty or forty years in which racist immigration laws prohibit certain “everybodys” from coming to America.) Rick’s Café Americain is a microcosmic expression of the larger metaphorical concept at play in Casablanca. Rick may be a beneficent despot as owner of his café, but even more so than the real country back home, the cafe truly does represent those words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. The café is the melting pot free from judgment that American propaganda claims it to be. The official line inside that café is that Nazi, French, British, Moroccan and every other type of currency is welcome.
The only color that matters is the color of money.
But then so is Rick and this is where the metaphorical enjoyment of Casablanca gets most interesting. The trivia has always been that the screenwriters of Casablanca didn’t decide until the last minute that Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) would fly off to Lisbon with Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried.) If that were true, the greatest romantic triangle in the history of film would not have the whirling power of a tornado capable of keeping the sum of its parts from flying out of control even once. What truly makes Casablanca the greatest love story ever filmed is that the entire premise would fly out of control and fall apart were it to end any other way.
Casablanca was a propaganda film meant to build up support for the American war efforts against the march of fascism and, somewhat amazingly, the love story that propels the narrative is absolutely essential to forwarding that propaganda.
Hard as it may be to believe, even in the months leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack, by which time it had become even to the sternest isolationists that Hitler was a psychopath on track to become a monomaniacal threat of historic dimensions and in the year between the Japanese attack and the premiere of Casablanca, there remained a substantial contingent of Americans waving the flag of isolationism led by a small coterie of highly influential and powerful people. Less than three months before the Pearl Harbor bombing, living legend Charles Lindbergh delivered a speech in Des Moines that could be confused with a speech delivered by Hitler in Germany at the same time in which he declared that “Jews in this country should be opposing [war with Germany] in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” Lindbergh was hardly alone in desiring that America stay out of the war tearing Europe apart. Henry Ford, Joseph Kennedy, William Randolph Hearst, the DuPont family as well as the heads of GM and Standard Oil all clung tightly to isolationism right up until it was considered so unpatriotic as to verge on treasonous not to do so.
It is near the beginning of Casablanca that Rick Blaine says, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” By the end of Casablanca, Rick Blaine has transformed his necessary business association with Capt. Renault into a beautiful friendship based precisely on the common interest of sticking out their necks for anybody under the brutal thumb of fascist imperialism. Rick is an isolationist no more. Capt. Renault has become the metaphorical embodiment of those Americans who either actively collaborated with the Nazis or looked the other way whenever they committed their atrocities. Like Lindbergh and Ford and Kennedy and Hearst and so many others whose isolationist stance was constructed upon a solid foundation of good business sense, Renault ultimately is forced into acknowledging that coerced compliance is the same as active support and either option is nothing less than a railway path to their own obliteration.
Casablanca can ultimately be viewed not as a great romantic story about whether Ilsa chooses Victor or Rick but a great romantic story about whether Rick will choose isolationism or activism.
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