Skip to main content

The lessons of 'Casablanca' still apply, as time goes by

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
July 8, 2012 -- Updated 0024 GMT (0824 HKT)
This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Casablanca," the 1942 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and directed by Michael Curtiz. In this still from the film, a plane flies over the upscale piano bar 'Rick's Cafe Americain.' This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Casablanca," the 1942 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and directed by Michael Curtiz. In this still from the film, a plane flies over the upscale piano bar 'Rick's Cafe Americain.'
HIDE CAPTION
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
'Casablanca' at 70
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nicolaus Mills: "Casablanca" turns 70; film had backstory, resonance that mirrored reality
  • He says Operation Torch had just resulted in Allies' capture of Casablanca; gave film currency
  • He says Bogart character had version of patriotism that was heroic, accepted ambiguity
  • Mills: Bogart's cool may no longer resonate, but Rick's complexity does

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

(CNN) -- This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Casablanca," and although we are a long way from 1942, watching the film's romantic leads, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, sacrifice their wartime love still touches us.

The backstory on "Casablanca" is a good one, offering complex lessons in patriotism even today.

Few films have benefited as much from the real-world geopolitics surrounding them as "Casablanca," which opened on Thanksgiving 1942, when the nation was well into World War II, at New York's Hollywood Theater. Just 18 days earlier in Operation Torch, the Allies had invaded North Africa with a force of 65,000; among the cities they quickly captured was Casablanca.

A film that had finished production on August 3 suddenly became inseparable from actual events, as Jack Warner, whose studio produced "Casablanca," acknowledged in a November 10 memo, observing that the "entire industry envies us with picture having title 'Casablanca' ready to release, and feel we should take advantage of this great scoop."

(Editor's note: Warner Bros., like CNN, is a subsidiary of Time Warner).

"Casablanca" was helped even further by the politics surrounding Operation Torch, which at its outset involved getting French Vichy forces in North Africa to accept a ceasefire through a deal with Adm. Jean-Francois Darlan, who had collaborated with the Nazis after the defeat of the French army in 1940. The intrigue of "Casablanca" thus had its real-life counterpart in intrigue Americans had read about in their papers.

"Casablanca" reminded Americans of how completely their thinking had changed in the months since Pearl Harbor. Prewar America had much to apologize for in its international affairs. In 1939 the United States government failed to aid the Jewish passengers on the German ocean liner St. Louis when they were denied entry into Cuba and forced to return to Europe, and two years later the country was still not anxious to face facts about the wars raging in Europe and Asia.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills

In August 1941 the House of Representatives only reluctantly voted to renew the peacetime draft, passing it by a single vote, 203-202.

Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine is the embodiment of an America that has finally grasped the threat of fascism. On the surface, Rick is little more than the owner of a café in French Morocco, who insists, "I'm the only cause I'm interested in." But as his personal history emerges, Rick turns out to be anything but the cynic he pretends to be.

Before arriving in Casablanca, Rick fought on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War and ran guns for Ethiopia in its fight against Mussolini. At his café he has made a point of hiring European refugees. He has a Dutch pastry chef, a German refugee headwaiter, and a bartender from the Soviet Union. When a young Bulgarian woman asks for his help in getting her and her husband to America, Rick comes to their rescue by allowing them to win the money they need for papers at his gambling table.

The turning point in "Casablanca" occurs when Rick's former lover, Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, shows up at his café with the Czech resistance leader, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), her husband. Rick faces a dilemma. He still loves Ilsa, who acknowledges that she also loves him, but if he wants to help Laszlo escape from the Nazis, he cannot resume his relationship with Ilsa, who is Laszlo's main support.

Rick's solution to his dilemma comes when he tells Ilsa that she should stay with Laszlo, then supplies the two of them with stolen letters of transit that will get them safely to Lisbon.

Rick's refusal to put his own needs before those of Laszlo -- and by extension the war effort -- reflects his priorities and his patriotism, but what makes Rick's sacrifice so powerful is that it is unaccompanied by chest pounding or sentimentality.

"I'm no good at being noble," he tells Ilsa, "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."

To help Ilsa and Laszlo escape, Rick must shoot the ranking German officer in Casablanca and reach an arrangement with the corrupt French chief of police. Neither decision bothers Rick, who at the end of "Casablanca" heads off to a free French garrison with the police chief while telling him, "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

The remark is filled with irony and humor, but remains serious. It reflects Rick's refusal to let the ambiguity of his choices get in the way of his waging war to the best of his ability.

Today, "Casablanca" speaks to audiences very differently from how it did in 1942 or even when it was part of the Bogart revival that began in the late 1950s at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge. "Casablanca's" call to arms and Bogart's cool no longer resonate as they once did. But what does resonate in our post-9/11 world is Rick's complexity. Rick is a loner who won't let his idealism get the better of his pragmatism. He will not give in to the Germans, who are the real power in Casablanca, but he refuses to do anything that needlessly exposes him to arrest. He walks a moral tightrope with understated brilliance.

These days it is easy to imagine Rick applauding America's decision to aid Libya's rebels, worrying about our ongoing war in Afghanistan, and wondering what we might do to get other countries to help us stop the bloodshed in Syria.

Given Rick's choice of friends, it is clear that he would not be overly fastidious about choosing allies -- if he believed their cooperation could save lives.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT