Casablanca was released in 1942. It starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid. It is universally regarded as being one of the top films ever produced in Hollywood. The song “As Time Goes By” was recently ranked by the American Film Institute as being the second most memorable movie song of all time (just behind “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz). Casablanca went on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. To say that this movie made major stars of Bogart and Bergman is an understatement. Their on-screen chemistry and movie storyline of star-crossed lovers helped make Casablanca one of Hollywood’s first great romantic blockbusters. But, truth be told, Casablanca is a war movie. It was made during war time for a very specific reason and made under certain absolute restrictions. Making movies during wartime was (and still is) different than doing so during times of peace. As this post will show, the old saw about “life imitating art” was very true in 1942.
World War II officially broke out in 1939. For the first half of the war, the Allied countries were back on their heels as Germany swiftly conquered country after country in Europe. One of the biggest prizes for Germany was when France surrendered and German forces occupied Paris and the surrounding French countryside. The only thing that stood between German control of all of western Europe was England. But there is a truism that seems to exist regardless of where in the world wars are fought. It is that although a country may be defeated in battle, it is never truly beaten as long as there are enough people to form an army of resistance. Resistance fighters may be small in number but their constant harassment of an invading army does wonders for the morale of the vanquished citizens and serves to remind them that their country lives on despite the colour of the flag flying atop important buildings nearby. So, by the time Casablanca was filmed and released in 1942, much of Europe was under Nazi occupation. Organized resistance movements existed in France, Poland, Holland and Czechoslovakia. But, at the same time, the organizational operations of conquered cities needed to continue so the German government installed puppet regimes in all conquered countries. The people who agreed to cooperate with the Germans became known as collaborators. Many collaborators were seen as traitors by ordinary citizens, as well as by resistance fighters. However, for those who opted to cooperate, they viewed their decision as being a pragmatic one that offered them the best chance of surviving the war intact. So it was into this nuanced context that the movie Casablanca was written, filmed and released to the world.
In the movie, Humphrey Bogart’s character owns a nightclub called Rick’s Café Americain. This club is a transit hub for all sorts of characters such as actual Nazi officers, French collaborators, resistance fighters, as well as ordinary citizens all trying to keep their heads above water. One of the things that Casablanca did that helped elevate it to the top of movies set during wartime was in how it showed the intricate web of politics that was constantly at play all throughout the war. Many war-themed movies seemed fixated on battles and soldiers and sacrifice and valour on the battlefield. Hollywood studios were actually tasked by the government to produce movies that helped with war time recruitment by creating heroic characters who defeated tyranny against all odds. Many of these movies were made under the auspices of the American Armed Forces and starred actors who had enlisted such as Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Rod Taylor, Jimmy Stewart and so on. These “morale” movies were also created to help ensure that public opinion tipped in favour of government policies when it came to the United States’ initial neutrality, and then their entrance into the war as a combatant. The final role that many of these movies played was in the creation of villains. As many have noted, perhaps none more forcefully than George Orwell in 1984, the creation of an “enemy” supplies much of the fuel to any nation’s war machine, and so there were many movies created and released during WWII that demonized German and Japanese soldiers as being heartless and evil. But, Casablanca seemed to present a more subtle view of the many moving pieces involved in the on-going conflict in Europe, and for that reason, it seemed to resonate more with many viewers. That having been said, Casablanca was released just as Allied forces were set to invade North Africa in an attempt to liberate Morocco (where Casablanca is located) from Nazi rule so, timing also played a huge part in the success of this movie.
The plotline of Casablanca revolves around the somewhat shady character of Rick, as played by Humphrey Bogart. He is the owner of the club but he is also someone who trades in a form of currency called secrets. Rick knows who the players all are and moves among them all like a chameleon, being who each needs him to appear to be. The story moves forward once Rick becomes in possession of two “travel documents” which allow the bearers to travel freely throughout the occupied territories. These documents are priceless to those seeking to flee from the Nazis: especially, for people who are Jewish. Consequently, whoever controls these documents can name their price, whether that price is in terms of money, jewels, property or sexual favours. Rick’s world is unfolding as usual until one day when a woman and man walk into the club. The woman is Ingrid Bergman. The man is her husband, Lazlo, who is a Czech resistance fighter. The two are happily married. However, as she enters the club, she sees Rick and immediately is taken back to a time when she knew Rick previously. Her reaction to seeing him again is to approach the piano player, Sam (as played by Dooley Wilson) and ask for a special song to be sung. That song is “As Time Goes By”. The playing of this song serves an important purpose in the movie. It acts much the same way the old Greek Chorus used to in the early days of drama. Back then, the Chorus was a group of characters whose role was to add commentary to help the audience understand what was transpiring on stage. In Casablanca, “As Time Goes By” serves to help the audience understand that Bergman and Bogart’s characters were not, in fact, meeting for the first time. Furthermore, in a previous place and time, they were very much in love. Suddenly, with the playing of one simple song, a complex love triangle erupts amid all of the political maneuverings that were already afoot in Rick’s Café Americain.
I won’t spoil the movie by saying any more in case there are readers who haven’t watched Casablanca and may wish to do so. However, I will comment on one final aspect of making this movie during wartime in 1942. I do not think it is breaking the “spoiler alert” code by stating that movies made during WWII in the US were not permitted to have overly sympathetic German characters. That is true of Casablanca, too. The US needed to have enemies for political reasons, so, as much as the screenwriters tried to create slightly more nuanced characters, it is not hard to watch this movie and know who to root for. But, in addition to adhering to guidelines regarding the characterization of Germans, the folks who wrote the screenplay also had to navigate around rules that existed regarding morality. For that reason, as much as it may have been obvious that Bogart and Bergman’s characters had been sexually intimate in their previous encounters, no mention of them being lovers was permitted because she was a married woman in the movie. Even in the song, “As Time Goes By”, the line, “and when two lovers woo” is quickly followed by, “they still say I love you” because it gave the appearance that the song was about a married couple, as opposed to two singles hooking up for an illicit encounter. If you have watched the movie or if you intend to, the manner in which the writers twist themselves into pretzels to maintain the integrity of a female character who was, obviously, a lover to two different men, is something to behold and very indicative of the times in which the movie was made.
Casablanca is a war movie like no other. The politics of living in wartime are laid bare for all to see. As well, the nature of the term personal sacrifice, which usually refers to soldiers on the battlefield in most war movies, is presented in a very humanistic manner here. Audiences became invested in the resolution of the love triangle amid the dangerous atmosphere of war. Lives definitely change as a result of everyone coming together in Rick’s Café Americain during the German occupation. Because, even in wartime, “you must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by”.
The link to the video for the song “As Time Goes By” from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Casablanca can be found here.
The link to the trailer for the movie Casablanca can be found here.
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