Originally made to lend the war against the Nazis an air of Hollywood glamour, and directed by the ideologically baffling Michael Curtiz, who shortly thereafter would go onto make the openly pro-Stalinist Mission to Moscow, Casablanca might best be called a “pseudo-anti-fascist romance.” While it has aged better than most movies released in 1942, it is not a great, or even a particularly good film, certainly not one that deserves to be on the same list as Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, or Jean-Pierre Melville’s anti-fascist masterpiece, Army of Shadows. Its enduring appeal, most of which can be attributed to nostalgia for Hollywood’s “golden years,” also has a darker side. Casablanca is not only racist, sexist, and socially regressive, even for 1942. It obscures the real history of the French Resistance.
Let us, for example, look at Sam, the black night-club singer played by Dooley Wilson, and the historical context in which a real life Sam might have seen himself. In 1940, after Hitler had conquered most of western Europe, the Germans took 1,900,000 French prisoners, 10 percent of the total adult male population of France, back to Germany, where most of them stayed until the end of the war. Had it not been for black and Arab troops, Charles de Gaulle would not have had an army. Indeed, according to the BBC, “on on the eve of the Liberation of Paris, 65% of the Free French forces had been black Senegalese Tirailleurs.” There were also troops from Morocco, Algeria, and even Tahiti. As an African American in North Africa, Sam would have noticed the anti-colonial upsurge going on all around him, and would have probably considered himself to be part of it. This is not to say that every black American musician in Casablanca in 1941 would have been a revolutionary preparing to fight for Algerian independence, but he certainly would have had an opinion about it.
While there are a few indications that there might be something more going on with Sam than the dialogue reveals, an interesting early scene where a black woman sits next to the piano watching him play, seemingly oblivious to the Europeans all around her, Sam might be the only major character, and, indeed, the only character in Casablanca without a back story. He seems to have no existence outside of his relationship to Rick Blaine, to whom he has an extraordinary loyalty, right up until the end, when Rick and Louis go off to join de Gaulle’s troops in “Brazzaville.” Rick’s decision to put aside his apolitical cynicism, and to go off and fight for freedom, also seems to be a decision to leave his faithful employee, who is as much of a “gentleman’s gentlemen” and man servant as he is a musician, behind. Yes, Sam is a piano player, not a soldier, but the question remains. Was he with Rick in Ethiopia? Was he in Spain? Does the fight against fascism concern Sam at all?
Then there’s the behavior of Ilsa Lund towards Sam. Most people, even Casablanca’s most ardent fans, have traditionally been appalled when the 27-year-old Ingrid Bergman refers to the 56-year-old Dooley Wilson as “that boy at the piano.” In the famous scene where Ilsa tries to persuade Sam to play “Time Goes By,” a song about memory from a musician without a back story, she speaks to him as if he were a child she had to coax out of his shell. Sam, in turn, acts deferential and passive, behavior that might have made sense if they had both been in the Jim Crow South, but certainly not in North Africa at the very beginnings of the anti-colonial resistance against the crumbling French Empire. Ingrid Bergman is certainly a beautiful actress. Michael Curtiz also shoots her in an expert manner that’s been consciously echoed by Roman Polanski in Tess, Krzysztof Kieślowski in The Double Life of Veronique, and David Lynch in Blue Velvet, where he cast Bergman’s own daughter as the “damsel in distress” just so he could film her being abused by an American psycho. But Ilsa Lund’s casual racism makes it impossible for me to genuinely like her, even though her character is the moral center of the film.
Casablanca is as sexist as it is racist. Where only a few decades later, Jean-Pierre Melville would cast Simone Signoret as a dedicated French Resistance fighter in Army of Shadows, much more true to history than Casablanca, Ilsa Lund is reduced to the beautiful object who reflects the ideals of the men around her. “I’ve got a job to do,” Rick says to her just before she joins her husband Victor Lazlo on a flight to the United States. “Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.” Really? Why not? In August of 1945, there were plenty of French women who picked up guns and joined the Liberation of Paris. There were women who fought in the Spanish Civil War. There were women who fought in Ethiopia against Italian fascism. By 1941, Rick would have seen plenty of women with guns.
Casablanca is basically a morality play where an American every man, Rick, debates whether he should join his good angel, Victor Lazlo, or his bad angel Louis Renault. Forget about Major Strasser. He’s a minor character. Louis is the real mustache twirling villain of Curtiz’s film. As beloved as Louis is, he’s also a brutal thug. He runs up a tab at Rick’s place and tears up the bills. He blackmails Rick into letting him win at roulette. He fucks underage, yes underage refugee girls. In a Martin Scorsese film, he would have been played by Joe Pesci. In Casablanca, however, he’s played by the suave British actor Claude Rains, and everything is forgiven, not only because he has a change of heart at the end of the film, but because he’s so quotable.
“I am making out the report now,” he says, referring to the murdered Signor Ugarti. “We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”
War crimes are funny, aren’t they Louis?
I’m certainly not complaining that Louis is an entertaining villain. There’s no such thing as an entertaining melodrama without an entertaining villain. Victor Lazlo, on the other hand, is crushingly dull. Played by the 6′ 4” Paul Henreid, just about the only thing he has going for him is the fact that he’s tall. He’s supposed to be a Czech, and Henreid actually was from Austria Hungary, but there’s nothing very Slavic about him. He doesn’t seem particularly French either. He comes off more like “wooden Hollywood leading man from central casting.” It’s not only hard to imagine him leading a revolution on the strength of his eloquence. It’s hard to imagine him even getting laid. In real life, the 5′ 10” Ingrid Bergman might have picked him over the 5′ 8” Bogart, but I doubt it. Lazlo is exactly the kind of “nice guy” any woman would immediately dump for a bad boy like Rick or Louis. Even in the famous scene where he leads the patrons of Rick’s cafe in a thunderous performance of The Marseillaise to drown out a group of Germans singing Watch on the Rhine, the musicians won’t start playing until they get Rick’s permission. Can you imagine Charles de Gaulle, or Churchill, or Roosevelt, or Jean Moulin having to get a nightclub owner’s permission before taking over his band?
It’s possible that my failure to appreciate Victor Lazlo’s charisma might have something to do with the fact that I was brought up after the 1960s, when the anti-hero came into fashion, and replaced the traditional Hollywood “leading man.” But I don’t think so. Lazlo just isn’t a very well-written character. Ilsa Lund sucks up all of his goodness, a goodness that she was only supposed to reflect, not embody, and incorporates it into herself. That, of course, is what movie stars do. Everybody remembers Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. Nobody remembers Paul Henreid. It also hints at a reactionary core at the heart of a superficially anti-fascist movie. Ilsa Lund, and Bergman, represent the ideal of “moral goodness as physical beauty and physical beauty as moral goodness.” While that makes for good cinema, it makes for bad politics. It’s an aristocratic, not a democratic ideal. It becomes especially reactionary in a movie as racist as Casablanca, one puts the Nordic Bergman up on a pedestal and relegates the black Dooley Wilson to the role of a sidekick. That’s not what anti-fascism was all about. As a matter of fact, it’s what fascism was all about.
At the end of Casablanca, the United States, Rick, and France, Louis, walk off into the mist of “beautiful friendship.” It’s possible to read their “beautiful friendship” in a lot of ways. Maybe Rick decided not to get on the plane with Ilsa because he and Louis both suddenly realized they were gay, and had been all along. But I think that would be a stretch. I’d much rather read it as a political allegory. In 1942, the United States had already entered the war in Europe against Hitler. To be more accurate, they moved a few troops into the Mediterranean and continued to let Stalin do the heavy lifting on the Eastern Front. Indeed, early in the war, Churchill, and Roosevelt, seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.
If I were to write the often discussed sequel to Casablanca, I wouldn’t cast Rick and Louis as the heroes. They’d be much better as villains. Here’s how it would go. Sam will be a volunteer fighting for Algerian independence. Louis will be the film’s Colonel Mathieu, the ex-French-resistance fighter become torturer. You have to admit he’d be great in the role. Rick, in turn, after having getting back his American passport, winds up joining the CIA. He becomes an adviser to Captain, now General Renault, and a specialist in counterinsurgency. Eventually they capture Sam, who won’t talk, however many bribes they offer him.
“Fuck you white man,” he repeatedly tells Rick. I hated playing the piano for you in that sleazy night club. And fuck you too, you rapist French bastard.”
Finally, Rick and Louis decide to torture him. They strap him to a waterboard and begin. Sam holds out. They persist. Sam still won’t talk. He’s determined not to give in. Eventually, however, he begins to weaken. Rick and Louis can both see it in his eyes. They know they’re close. With a little more persuasion, Sam will talk. They momentarily retreat to another room to discuss their strategy for breaking the ex-piano-player, now anti-imperialist revolutionary. Rick decides to dunk him one more time. Louis says OK. They go back inside. “I regret what I have to do,” Louis says. “I did enjoy your piano playing.” Rick smiles. “I hope I don’t have to break your hands,” he says. Finally, just before he has Louis put the rag back in Sam’s mouth, Rick bends over and whispers into Sam’s ear.
“So,” he says. “Are you going to talk, finally, or should I play it again, Sam?”