The Greatest films of all time: 37. Casablanca (1942)(USA)



Unfortunately Hollywood other than “The Great Dictator” of Charles Chaplin in 1940 right at the inception of the second world war, did not depict the horror of this war much on the world. It was not until after the end of the war, when such films like “The best years of our lives” was released. Throughout the whole war from 1939-1945, there were only “Casablanca” and “Mrs. Miniver”, but yet not directly, such as what had been well depicted of the casualties of war in for example “All quiet on the western front” about the WWI. “Mrs. Miniver” of William Wyler that won the major awards of the best picture, the best director, the best screenplay and the best actress awards at the Oscar in 1942, and was filmed in US, portraying marginally the impact of the war on the lives of petti-bourgeoisies of London, England during the bombardment of the city. But the film barely shows any real air raids on the city as one expected, but the shadows and the sounds of such attacks.


Before discussing the other war-related film of that year, “Casablanca” we need to review the history of cinema in those sensitive years and how this art medium failed to fulfill its duty towards recording and more so, disclosing the greatest war crimes of the modern time. During the war years while the Europe and the rest of the world in one way or another, even Africa were burning or affected by the war, Hollywood films were about entertainment. “The magnificent Ambersons” of Orson Welles in 1942, that again by many critics was considered as a masterpiece, was addressing the subject of industrialization at the end of 19th century and the change of culture and its impact on two wealthy families, totally out of touch with the reality of the time!


The next year of 1943 holds only “The life and death of colonel Blimp”, a British film, that although it was marginally about the second world war, it was also about WWI and the Boer War, in a satirical style with some Nazi’s sympathy and criticism of the British involvement in the war. Other major films of the war years was “Going my way” of Leo McCarey, not related to the war, but became the highest grossing picture of 1944, a musical comedy-drama about a priest, nominated for 10 academy awards, winning 7 of the major ones, including the best picture, the best director, the best actor and the best screenplay. The other major film was “Double indemnity” of Billy Wilder about an insurance fraud that while did not win any Oscars again in 1944, but was ranked number 38 in AFI 100 best American Films in 1998 and number 29 in the same list of 2007 edition. The other film was “Gaslight” of George Cukor again in 1944, a mystery-thriller about a woman whose husband manipulates her to believe that she is insane, again away from the reality of the war time.

“Brief encounter” of David Lean in 1945 was a romantic drama film about a married British woman on the eve of the war in 1938, confessing to her husband about her extra-marital affair, but not addressing any issue of the war. w “The lost weekend” of Billy Wilder in 1945 was about an alcoholic writer with seven academy awards nomination, winning four of the best picture, the best director, the best actor and the best adapted screenplay was one of the two only films in the history of cinema to win both Oscar and the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival, without addressing the second world war. “Spellbound” of Alfred Hitchcock in 1945, a mystery thriller in a mental asylum with the great acting of Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck was not again about the war.


Casablanca: Distinct among others

“Casablanca” of Michael Curtiz in comparison with the major films in interim of 1942-1945, right in the heat of the second world war, is perhaps the most important to address an impact aspect of the war. Although the film is far from depicting the crime and the casualties of the war, like the earlier “All quiet on the western front” of the first world war, it marginally achieves indirectly to show some damages of the war. Casablanca of Morocco, already a colonial of France from her 19th century imperial hunger, was a refuge for the escapees of the Nazi’s war, mostly bourgeoisies or petti-bourgeoisie to find a path of escape to America. Although in the film the refugee seeking path of Casablanca to Lisbon and America is historically wrong, nether less, that exotic town was such a hide out from Nazi’s prosecution and also a hide out to spend some good time away from the war in its night clubs and casino’s such as Rick’s (played by Humphrey Bogart).

In such a place as Casablanca, a reminder of “Casbah” in “Pepe le Moko” of 1937, and among all the rich refugees of the war, American Rick is doing per se business and does not stick his neck for anyone, until Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) walks in his bar. The film that to this point was sluggish with the macho gangster style playing of Bogart and with no drama or thrill, suddenly changes with the great performance of Bergman and a past love affair is revealed. The story from now to the end is center-pointed around these two protagonists and on their flashbacks of their affair in 1940 at the outset of the war in Paris, when Isla was in a lonely state of feeling while her husband, Victor Laszlo, a fugitive Czech resistance leader was in the Nazi’s concentration camp. She leaves Rick in a long disappointed wait in the train station where promised to meet him and leave together for a romantic life in a paradise destination, when she finds her husband has been freed.


Now Rick in Casablanca while he has already forgotten that brief lust or love, is faced not with the renewal of his love affair, but with a sacrifice to help Isla and her husband to flee from the Nazi’s who with the assistance of the Vichy French police were after them. The film from this point on is quite emotional, superbly played by Bergman who overshadows Bogart, who had not yet reached the acting level that in later years, he demonstrated in the films such as “African Queen” and “The treasure of Sierra Madre”.


There are a few elements in the film that makes it special and reason to like and remember. One that many other critics also point to, is the sacrifice that Rick has to make by suppressing his love, and through his connection let Laszlo with his love Isla escape from Nazis for ever. So he finally does this through his connection with the Vichy police captain, as Casablanca had not yet been occupied by Germany like France itself and was running free by the Vichy government of France, though the Nazis could prosecute the escapees who were in the town from all nations occupied by the Hitler’s military machine.


The last memorable scene of the film is in the airport, when Rick with sacrifice kills the Nazi’s officer who is trying to stop Laszlo and Isla to get on the plane and fly away, and it has been adapted in one way or another in many films in the later years. Another element or scene of the film that makes it patriotic and anti-Nazi is in the Rick’s bar when the German officers sing a German national song that soon rages all the others in the bar to respond by high singing the French song of “La Marseillaise” with Laszlo leading and quiet the officers down. Above all what is remembered the most of the film, is a love story that due to the circumstances was never fulfilled, and was performed the best by Ingrid Bergman, perhaps as her most enduring role.    

“Casablanca” stands out as a unique film in the early 1940’s in the midst of the war, a melodramatic thriller, related to the war with emotional and psychological content of human nature at a difficult time in history. Its cast as film portrays to be all from different lands hiding in Casablanca as a transit to seek refuge in America, are in fact all non-Americans other than Bogart and two more. Ingrid Bergman was a Swedish actress who had recently debuted in a couple of non-major films in Hollywood before her astonishing role as Isla in Casablanca. Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo was an Austrian actor, Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault of the Vichy Police was a British actor, Conrad Veidt as Major Heinrich Strasser was a German actor, Peter Lorre as Signore Ugarte was born in Austria-Hungry and so on with the rest of the cast of the film, who were immigrants or refugees to US. Even the director of the film, Michael Curtiz was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who had come to US in 1926 with some of his family still living in Europe and under the prosecution of Nazis.  


The film was recognized partially by the academy awards a year later in 1943 by winning the best picture, the best director and adapted screenplay, but it was appreciated more in the later years by critics, historians and many other filmmakers as an iconic of American cinema, so to be ranked on the top of many greatest films of all time lists such as number 2 in AFI’s 1998 and number 3 in its 2007 editions. A very modern close tribute to the film in another different atmosphere is the Sydney Pollack’s film “Havana” with Robert Redford and Lena Olin in 1990, a fresh recall of Casablanca.        


In closing remarks “Casablanca” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: “Casablanca” is original in its plot story, a melodrama thriller to address the impact of the second world war on people’s lives in a gentle style. Another aspect of the originality of the film that makes it unique is its heroism to address the war while at the time as detailed earlier, most Hollywood films were ignorant of such urgent fact.
  2. Technicality: “Casablanca” though did not invent any new cinematic techniques is one of the first films hinging more on theatrical dialogues and acting that with the superb performance of Ingrid Bergman makes it somewhat technical. Also the script and the story plot is quite smooth, flow through the whole film, so in this regard technical.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “Casablanca” has been so much that for different reasons it has been on more lists of the greatest films than any other film. It has been adapted and parodied in one way or another, one scene or another in the future films.
  4. Survival: “Casablanca” has survived well to this very day as it could still be enjoyed watching and also in its numerous review and accolade up to the present time.

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