(An essay I wrote for my History of Film class. I thought I’d post it here if anyone wanted to read it. Edited a bit so it’s not quite as formal.)
Casablanca currently stands third on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years 100 Movies List. When it was released in 1942, it won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Over 70 years after it’s original release, people are still talking and writing about it.
So, I mean, I guess you could say it’s made something of an impact on the film industry.
Over 70 years after it’s original release, Casablanca remains monumental because of the cultural and political significance it reflects from the 1940s, revealed through the enduringly tragic love story between Rick and Ilsa.
The film opens with a narration: “With the coming of the second world war, many eyes in imprisoned Europe turn hopefully, or desperately, toward the freedom of the Americas…. Here [in Casablanca], the fortunate ones, through money, or affluence, or luck, might obtain exit visas and scurry to Lisbon, and from Lisbon to the New World. But the others wait in Casablanca, and wait… and wait… and wait.”
World War II was inevitably on the forefront of the world’s mind when Casablanca was released. The American government supported and even helped fund the film, fully aware that “mass persuasion in the form of political propaganda would form a crucial front to the war effort.” Because of this, the conflict presented throughout the film weighs heavy with the political ethos of the time. Even more than that, it weighs heavy with the governments “need to convince the American public of the moral duty to rid Europe of Nazi tyranny”(Sennett 2, 4).
This political propaganda can be seen through the relationships among Rick, Ilsa, and Victor. Throughout the film, Rick is unable to fully commit himself to anything because of the heartbreak he experienced in Paris. He learned that if he keeps himself distant from everything, nothing can hurt him. At the same time, however, he feels the need to control his surroundings and those he does business with, if for no other reason than that “he has lost control over his past” (Bivins 135). Essentially, Rick finds himself caught between two conflicting approaches to life: should he give up and resign to the horrible hand life has dealt him, or should he film the tables on life by distancing himself from anything that can hurt him? He seemingly chooses the latter.
In many ways, Victor Laszlo is everything Rick could have been but isn’t. He has Ilsa, is actively fighting against Fascism, and passionately throws himself into the face of life’s struggles. In contrast, Rick lost the only girl he cared about and his willingness to fight along with her.
Ilsa is caught in the middle of the two men, and likewise, their two ways of approaching life. On one hand, she truly loves Rick and the life they had together. He represents the carefree days, the uncomplicated life pre-World-War-II; how could she not wish to return to that? On the other hand, she is in love with Victor’s cause, and feels that she must stay with him to fulfill some personal sense of duty. Indeed, the carefree days were glorious, but how can she mindlessly go back to them, to Rick, when there is a higher cause at hand?
In the end, Ilsa doesn’t make the decision. It takes “Rick’s understanding that Ilsa did not desert him and is still in love with him… to rediscover his commitment to fighting Fascism” (Sennett 5). His iconic final words, “Ilsa, 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. Someday you’ll understand that,” reiterate the higher cause that they all must fight for- something more important than “three little people” and their small problems. While this affectively closes the love story at the end of the film, it likewise pushes the political message through as well: sacrifice for the greater good of your country.
It is the combination of love and war and duty and sacrifice that makes Casablanca the timeless film that it is today.
I find myself almost nostalgic for a period of filmmaking I wasn’t even alive to experience after watching Casablanca. I feel like the industry is so often genre-based nowadays. There are romances (with sex and passion and lust and tears and emotions) and there are war movies (with blood and brotherhood and scheming and duty and sacrifice)- two entirely separate entities. Perhaps I’m just not looking close enough, but it seems as if they don’t blend like they did in Casablanca. In Casablanca, there’s no distinction; the mashup of genres makes the story impactful from a multitude of different angles! And that’s just grand!
Anyways, that’s generally all I have to say on that topic right now. Have a lovely evening, and go watch Casablanca if you’ve got the time.
With love, as time goes by,
Bivins, Thomas. “Loyalty, Utility, and Integrity in Casablanca: The Use of Film in Explicating Philosophical Disputes Concerning Utilitarianism.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 22.2-3 (2007): 132-50. Print.
Sennett, Alan. “Casablanca & US Foreign Policy.” Journal of Popular Film and Television (2009): 2-8. Print.