Rick Blaine is a man among men. He spends all evening wearing a white dinner jacket, employs Antwerp’s leading banker as a pastry chef, turns away employees of the Deutsche Bank from his private room and gives his nationality as ‘drunkard’. He’s also achieved the status of legend by bundling Ingrid Bergman onto a plane when she was all set to run away with him, then going off to join the French army. If I could be a film character, I’d be Rick.

I refer, of course, to the only romantic film that’s ever been worth watching: Casablanca. I can’t hope to say anything new about this film, so feel free to skip the rest of this post; but I like it so much that I want to tell you why.

Released in 1942, one of a vast array of films produced by Warner Brothers that year, Casablanca was based on the unpublished stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett, which had been written in response to his experiences among refugees in France in 1938. The strong element of anti-Nazi protest that Burnett wove into his play survived its passage through the hands of several writers to completed screenplay format, and forms a tense and exotic backdrop to the story of underground resistance and star-crossed love that revolves around Rick’s Café Americain. The final title was influenced by the success of the 1938 film Algiers, starring Charles Boyer, Sigrid Gurie and Hedy Lamarr, and was chosen to evoke the same stylish, smoky vision of French Morocco, but Casablanca has long eclipsed Algiers on the cinematic map.

Perhaps the reason I’m so drawn to this film is that it admits some important truths. The romantic leads are unambiguously in love, but they are denied the conventional triumph of love over adversity that so often ruins this sort of story. The situation in which they find themselves can have no happy ending, but it can have a right ending, and their story revolves around how this is brought about: by admittedly reluctant and cynical but unswerving honour. It is this that lends the film’s conclusion a timeless quality, as the romantic hero steps aside – at great personal risk – so that the better man can keep the girl and she steels herself to support her husband’s work for a greater cause, against her inclination. In rewriting the story so that Ilsa Lund’s romance with Rick in Paris took place while she believed her husband to be dead, the screenwriters preserve the innocence of the three members of this romantic triangle and emphasise how circumstances have conspired against them all. The script makes it quite clear that their small problems are as nothing to the tragedy being played out on the European stage, and delivers a message that is as valuable now as it was then: it is more important to do the right thing than to achieve our short-term desires. More than that: sometimes there is only one outcome, and the only choice is how we reach it. It also reminds us of something that we too often forget: there are more important things than our individual concerns.

In terms of a film made in wartime and with at least some view to persuading its audience to fight the good fight, this strikes all the right notes. When a group of German officers sing patriotic songs in Rick’s bar, Victor Laszlo – Rick Blaine’s rival for Ilsa’s affections – asks the band to play La Marseillaise, and leads the entire clientèle in an emotional rendition. Rick’s brief nod of agreement is not the first hint of his admiration and support for Laszlo, nor his first act of defiance. This is a powerful scene, which emphasises Laszlo’s rôle as agent provocateur against the Nazis and encourages the idea that the German hold on Europe is weak. It also contains a lot of history about Franco-German relations, encoded in the two opposing songs. Originally the screenwriters wanted to use the Horst Wessel Lied, a specifically Nazi song that could be expected to inspire more opposition than a simply pro-German piece. In neutral countries the use of this copyrighted work without permission would have caused legal problems, so Die Wacht am Rhein was used instead, but this is not a Nazi song. It dates back to the Rhine Crisis of 1840, when it was feared that France might try to extend her borders to the German bank of the river, and it is a call to the Fatherland not to fear, because the guard on the Rhine is watchful. As such it makes a perfect complement to La Marseillaise, which is about fighting invading Germans and was originally entitled Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin (War Song for the Army of the Rhine).  In these two songs are embodied centuries of Franco-German antagonism and the huge significance of the river in European history. In some ways this actually works better than would a more direct opposition of French nationalism and German National Socialism, since it transcends the immediate political concerns of the moment and serves as a reminder that there is more to a world war than one unpleasant political system.

This sort of cue, obvious enough to be visible, but more powerful when the subtleties are observed, appear much earlier in the film. In one of the opening scenes, a man with expired papers is shot while attempting to escape from the police. He falls dead at the foot of a wall, on which is a Vichy propaganda poster. This depicts Marshal Pétain, the Vichy head of state whose name has become a byword for collaboration. His picture alone is the cue for an English-speaking audience, but the slogan that accompanies his image means “I keep my promises, just as I keep those of others.” The thought that went into these backgrounds and sets is enormous.

Over it all, though, looms the threadbare, world-weary honour of Rick, and Bogart’s wry characterisation. One of his first lines is “I stick my neck out for nobody” but it’s not long before the chief antagonist, Major Strasser, points out his habit of supporting the anti-fascist side whenever he becomes involved in a conflict. He rigs a game of Roulette to give a young Bulgarian couple enough money to avoid the disgraceful alternative payment accepted by the Prefect of Police. Finally he gives up his café, the woman he loves and his safety to aid the career of a man he hardly knows and leaves to join the troops opposing German expansion. A scene was planned that depicted Blaine and Renault aboard a troop ship, en route to participate in Operation Torch, the allied North African landings of 1942, but fortunately this was never shot. As it is, the film ends with an immortal line that was itself an afterthought, dubbed in a month after shooting ended: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

I think that this film offers some hope for the industry, because it demonstrates what can be achieved in spite of endless rewrites, legal problems, difficult shooting and rushed deadlines. Like Blade Runner forty years later, the final result seems so polished and complete that no evidence of its difficult birth is left to trouble the audience. It would be unrealistic to hope that all films would be easy projects, but it’s surely something devoutly to be wished that more of them could transcend the problems of their creation so successfully.

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