A recent wrangle on Facebook taught me a useful lesson. Criticize icons of popular culture if you wish, but at your peril. The particular focus of the debate was the famous film “Casablanca” of 1942. I have seen it several times, and it is certainly a good yarn with a lot of (synthetic) local color reflecting common views about North Africa at the time.
I have also been to Casablanca, the city (in 1974), and of course it looks nothing like the film, which was shot on a Hollywood lot. That was generally true of movies with foreign themes in those days; location filming emerged only after the war as travelers demanded greater authenticity, In addition, the film relies on a series of cliches developed in earlier movies about North Africa, including “Morocco” (1930) with Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich, and “Pépé le Moko” (French, 1937; remade in Hollywood as “Algiers” in 1938).
There was also, of course, a significant contemporary reality. Like Lisbon, Casablanca served as a kind of waiting room for European refugees seeking to go to America.
There was also a vivid military and political context. Directly or indirectly, the Axis powers controlled North Africa, Allied strategy reckoned on the imperative that in preparation for the invasion of southern Europe this situation must be reversed. Accordingly, on November 8, 1942 allied forces landed in five major ports in Algeria and Morocco, including Casablanca. The film “Casablanca” was rushed into release in order to capitalize on these current events.
There are other issues involved. After the third or fourth viewing of “Casablanca,” I asked myself a simple question: What were the French doing in Morocco? The short answer is this. After a preliminary struggle with Germany, France occupied the country in 1912, imposing a protectorate. They proceeded to build cities on the French model, the biggest being Casablanca. While the sultan retained nominal sovereignty, the administration of the country was monopolized by the occupying power--personified in the movie by Louis Renault, the corrupt chief of police. In 1942 Vichy loyalists were running French Morocco. Still, the Free French forces headed by General Charles de Gaulle had their sympathizers among the colons, one of whom essays a stirring rendition of the Marseillaise in Rick’s Cafe.
As embodied by the heroic figure of Victor Laszlo, the overt political message of the movie is that one must struggle against dark forces in order to secure freedom. Indeed. But freedom for whom? Laszlo’s local effort was to form a cell of the underground, evidently for the benefit of Europeans only.
What about freedom for the Arabs? To be sure, few people thought about that issue in those days. Most people accepted colonialism as a matter of course. But not everyone did so. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, saw that after the war the colonial regimes of Britain, France, and the Netherlands must yield to a new reality. And so it was. After a brief struggle, the Dutch had to give up Indonesia. The British chose to wind down their empire in an orderly way, beginning by withdrawal from India. But the French remained obdurate, harvesting tragic results in Vietnam and Algeria.
Of course it would be idle to expect the film to include some speech to the effect that “the glories of the French colonial empire must be restored! The Arabs must know their place.” But the deep structure of the film is affirmation of the status quo, and that meant European colonial domination. France for the French; and Morocco for the French too.
Entranced by the love story and with little knowledge of the historical background, many admirers of “Casablanca” become upset, even enraged when the imperialist subtext is exposed to view. Reflection will show, though, that it is intrinsic to the film.
Thus we find the paradox of freedom for Europeans but not for the “natives.” Yet this paradox was not a new thing, for it was already evident in the French Revolution, which at first proclaimed liberty for all, but then turned out to be a vehicle for French domination of other peoples. Hence the problematic role of the Marseillaise in the film.
UPDATE (July 20). A friend notes the prominence of Communists in European resistance movements during WWII. He asks: could Victor Laszlo have been a Communist?
Chronology militates against this affiliation. Victor Laszlo was already involved with Ilse when she declined, out of idealism, to join Rick on the last train out of Paris. During this period the French Communist Party encouraged French workers to fraternize with German soldiers, following Stalin's orders. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had gone into effect on August 23, 1939, inaugurating 20 months of de facto Soviet-Nazi alliance. German tanks reached the Atlantic using fuel supplied by the Soviets. Had Laszlo been a Communist during that period he would have been required to desist from resistance activities.
Laszlo is not a Czech name, but a Hungarian one. The priggish Victor would likely have belonged to the Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia, which participated in the dismemberment of the Czech republic. In other words, he would have been an Axis agent! Of Austrian origin, Paul Henreid must have detected this discrepancy and should have protested, but perhaps he was just glad to have a job performing in a Hollywood movie.
Also, why did Rick leave Paris in June of 1940? As the holder of an American passport, he could have safely remained there for another year and a half.
Well, these speculations amount to the task of breaking a butterfly on the wheel.
I still believe, though, that the ideology of "Casablanca" is insidious and inconsistent.