I just finished reading the script for Casablanca (1942), and realized that the real love story is between “Rick” (Bogart) and “Renault” (Claude Rains) who, at the last minute stroll off together to join the Free French. It is all about sacrifice, this movie, so perfect for both the military and the home front.
This blog is about the fascination that “love stories” have over politics, including what we think of war and other matters of social policy. I ask, what role do television and movies play in our willingness to fight for our Constitutional rights, or, alternatively, to escape into fantastic realms, whether these are apocalypses, various forms of utopian politics (on either Left or Right), sports, or trashy diversions such as soft porn television shows?
First, let’s delve into the politics of one of the most praised movies of all time, Casablanca, set in French Morocco, December of 1941. What I remembered from this movie was the love story, not the spin it put on French resistance since the shocking Fall of France in June 1940. I began to suspect its sub-text after I read historian Robert O. Paxton’s revisionist Vichy France (first published in 1972). Read Paxton’s various introductions to later editions of his books here, and you will get the gist of his argument, which decodes the movie under discussion, revealing it to be communist propaganda:
http://books.google.com/books?id=ciM0KTvWTV0C&printsec=frontcover&dq=Paxton%2BVichy%2B2001+edition+introduction&hl=en&sa=X&ei=sEhuVPapFoKgoQTSkoKQCg&ved=0CC8QuwUwAA#v=onepage&q=Paxton%2BVichy%2B2001%20edition%20introduction&f=false . Then read the script for the movie, which is also easily found online. Note that one of the chief writers was screenwriter Howard Koch (later blacklisted in the 1950s), who went on to write the script for the notoriously Stalinist Mission to Moscow (1943).
But first Paxton: he reveals that resistance to German occupation was not only weak, but that the majority of Frenchmen favored “neutrality” during the early 1940s, adjusting to the new world order which would be controlled by France, Germany, Italy, and Spain; long gone were the days of the Popular Front of 1936; much of French conduct during the Occupation and Vichy is explicable owing to anti-Communism. Moreover, most French feared the notion of a second front, for they were already subjected to bombing by England, their traditional enemies and imperial rivals. The depiction of “Renault” is improbable (he is a somewhat enigmatic policeman in the movie, who is suddenly willing to join with “Rick”—a café owner, who was previously an activist who went straight from opposing Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia to defending the Spanish Republic). Yet, in the movie, Rick is tough, cynical, and apparently unaffiliated, seemingly oblivious to persecutions visited upon Europeans on the lam from Hitler seeking exit visas to Lisbon.
Cherchez la femme to explain Rick’s apparent hard-heartedness. In Paris, Rick had a brief but torrid affair with “Ilse” (played by the Swedish Ingrid Bergman), who inexplicably left him. (We find out later that she was married to “Victor Laszlo”, the leader of the Czech resistance, played by the nobly represented Paul Henreid.) Later, Ilse will yield to passion once again, but Rick, returned to his preference of politics over romance, will sacrifice his temporary happiness so that both Ilse and Victor can escape Nazi-infested Casablanca. Reverting to type, he will kill a Nazi (Strasser). (For the depoliticized plot see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casablanca_(film).)
Even more improbably than the budding alliance between Rick and Renault, the clientele of Rick’s café rise up and sing the Marseillaise, thus linking Victor, France and Rick’s customers to Jacobin France, a favorite Communist tic. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Marseillaise. In fact, as Paxton insists, leftist Frenchmen were comparatively weak after 1848; it is preposterous that the customers would, by singing, so openly defy the German military who have entered Rick’s café.)
The romantic plot is not so devoid of complications either; strong Rick purifies weak Ilse of her impulse to stay with him in Casablanca by lying to Victor about their sexual encounter the night before; Ilse came to him solely to pick up the exit visas, he lies. “We’ll always have Paris,” the freedom fighter, restored to the correct posture, declares. And as part of the film’s subtext, the Free French have no communists, just adherents of the nationalist and superpatriot Charles de Gaulle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_nationalism).
I began this blog by complaining about the ubiquity of “romance” over politics, real history, and realism in the mass media. It is amazing to me that film critics are incapable of seeing through this escape mechanism. But perhaps not. Audiences would prefer to believe that [obsessive] love conquers all, even though mature persons of either sex understand that [adolescent] passion fades, to be replaced by friendship, responsible parenthood, or conversely, multiple affairs or divorce. As long as populist progressives control movies and television, Amor Vincit Omnia wins every time, along with self-sacrifice for the sake of “the People”–a different kind of love, but even more intense. Romantic love, by itself, is way too subversive.
For the source material, also probably written by [leftists?] Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, see Everybody Comes to Rick’s (also online, note that the heroine is an American named Joan Meredith, not a Scandinavian). It was sold to Warner Brothers for only $20,000.