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CASABLANCA

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For our weekly cultural article, we will be looking at the film Casablanca. Released in 1942, Casablanca delves deeply into themes of morality and human sacrifice, tentatively exploring both the good and bad aspects of humanity.

BACKGROUND

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The American Film Institute ranks Casablanca as the second greatest film of all time (ranked behind Citizen Kane).

The fact that Casablanca is still so revered, even after seventy-five years,  is nothing short of a miracle. The film was made on a tight budget in the style common to the studio system of the time, having been made on set with a studio director, studio writers, and studio actors.

Its script has been voted by the Writers Guild of America as the greatest ever written. That, too, is a miracle. The script was based on a play that was never performed: “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”, by Murray Burnett (1910 – 1997) and Joan Alison (1901 – 1992).  The task of adapting the play to film was given to three separate screenwriters, who completed their task in three different locations.  Julius G. and Philip G. Epstein (1909 – 2000; 1909 – 1952) would finish theirs just a few days before filming began. Howard Koch (1901 – 1995), on the other hand, wouldn’t hand his in until filming was well underway.

And even then, scraps of dialogue and scene rewrites were being rushed to the set, the ink still wet on the page.

THE FILM

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Perhaps one reason for its long lasting success is its refusal to be categorisedCasablanca is one part war film – being presented against the backdrop of the Second World War, one part love story – Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) are embroiled in a bitter love triangle, one part political thriller, and one part allegory – presenting both the best and worst aspects of human nature.

Another reason is the stellar cast it boasts: Humphrey Bogart (1899 – 1957) – considered the greatest film star of all time by the American Film Institute, Ingrid Bergman (1915 – 1982) – one of film’s most naturally beautiful women,  Claude Rains (1889 – 1967), Sydney Greenstreet (1879 – 1954), Paul Henreid (1908 – 1992), and Peter Lorre (1904  – 1964).

SUMMARY

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Naturally, no one thought Casablanca would be a hit, people weren’t even sure if the allies would win World War Two.  However,  as Alrean Harmetz wrote in Round Up the Usual Suspects: the Making of CasablancaCasablanca seemed almost destined to be a film classic:

“There are better movies than Casablanca, but no other movie better demonstrates America’s mythological vision of itself – tough on the outside and moral within, capable of sacrifice and romance without sacrificing the individualism that conquered a continent, sticking its neck out for everybody when circumstances demand heroism. No other movie has so reflected both the moment when it was made – the early  days of World War II – and the psychological needs of audiences decades later.”

I believe Casablanca‘s long lasting success boils down to its depiction of the goodness of human beings in the wake of great evil. Early in World War Two, Casablanca was Vichy France, and therefore Nazi German, territory. In the film, Casablanca is depicted as a world of corruption, a crossroads where Nazis, members of various resistance forces, criminals, spies, and traitors come together. It is a fascist society where the oppressors imprison millions, where human life is a commodity to be traded for benefits. No one cares about anyone, save for themselves.

The imprisoned respond to their imprisonment in different ways: some fight against it, others try to escape it, and others try to profit from it. In one scene, a man is shot dead trying to escape. He falls under a poster of Marshall Philippe Petain (1856 – 1951), the Chief of Vichy France. We learn he was clutching a Free France handbill.

Desperate attempts to escape to freedom are understandable. But the film also presents us with an array of lowlifes and criminals, and, remarkably, even asks us to express pity for them. Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) is a shrewd and callous gangster who, it is suggested, profits from the sale of human beings.

The total disregard for human life is depicted in a scene where Ferrari offers to buy Rick’s friend and piano player, Sam, portrayed by Dooley Wilson (1886 – 1953). Rick refuses, saying “I don’t buy or sell human beings.” “Too bad”, Ferrari replies, “that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity.”

Then there’s Signore Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the North African black market dealer who represents disorganised criminal who profits from the misery of others. Rick ignores his pleas for help as he is arrested for murdering two German couriers in order to steal non-rescindable, French General Marshal Weygand signed, letters of transit.

Ultimately, Casablanca is a film of redemption and human sacrifice. It asks its audience to not only imagine winning the loves of their lives but asks them to imagine giving them up for the greater good.

Rick starts out as a cynical and resentful anti-hero. “I stick my neck out for no one”, he tells us at one point. By the end of the film, he has been transformed into a selfless hero. “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”, he tells Ilsa.

In the end, Casablanca shows the power of sacrifice and brotherly love over tyranny and evil. Even when everything is lost, hope can be found among those few human beings who are willing to put their personal needs aside and sacrifice themselves for others.

THE PROBLEM WITH PACIFISM

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Otto Von Bismarck, the great Prussian Statesman, once observed that it is better to profit from the misfortunes of others than to learn from one’s own mistakes. With the current threat from North Korea, it would perhaps be wise to learn from the annals of history, and not repeat the mistake of following a pacifist agenda.

We like to see nature as a wise and fair judge which rewards the good, protects the weak and punishes the wicked. In reality, it is a callous and unpredictable maiden.  It should come as no surprise, then, that history shows the human-race to be inherently blood thirsty, violent, and cruel.  This violence is derived not only from competition over resources and mates but also from our social natures. This is an aspect of our character we share with our primate cousins. A team of researchers at Yale University, headed by psychologist Laurie Santos, revealed that primates treat outsiders with greater suspicion and disdain than members of their own group. This trait can also be observed in modern humans, as Santos observed: “one of the more troubling aspects of human nature is that we evaluate people differently depending on whether they’re a member of our ‘ingroup’ or ‘outgroup.’ He went on to explain how this leads to violence: “pretty much every conflict in human history has involved people making distinctions on the basis of who is a member of their own race, religion, social class, and so on.”

In 1942, C.S. Lewis published the essay “why I am not a pacifist.” For Lewis, the question of pacifism was a moral one. Take murder, for example, no one can intuitively argue murder to be wrong under all circumstances, but it is possible to make such a claim using rational arguments. Pacifism, then, is the irrational belief that violence can only be used for evil, and never for good. If this is the case, defeating a tyrannical power like Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany is evil because it necessitates the use of violence, stopping a man raping a woman is evil if doing so requires the use of physical force, and executing a serial killer is immoral because it violates his right to life. Any individual who takes such a position is not a moralist, but a coward and a fool. This type of peace is that of “Ulysses and his comrades, imprisoned in the cave of the Cyclops and waiting their turn to be devoured” (Jean Jacques Rousseau, a Lasting Peace Through the Federation of Europe and the State of War).

When Patrick Henry, an American attorney and politician, gave his famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech, he asked: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” Pacifism presents nature as passive and just when, in reality, it is unkind, capricious, brutal, unforgiving, ruthless, bloodthirsty, and cruel. With the threat of North Korea looming over our heads, it may serve us to remember that those who do not conform to the laws of reality are always destroyed by them.