Café Americain: "Casablanca" and the Influence of America upon the Outcome of WWII

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NOTE: The following has been written for one of my courses here at film school, and I thought it might be interesting to just post what I've written. Remember though, before anything else, I love Casablanca as a movie. Now, I believe that you can read too much into things, and perhaps that's what I've done here, but thenn I'm getting marked on it, so who the Hell really cares? Just remember that, above all things, a movie has to work as a movie.

Café Americain: Casablanca and the Influence of America upon the Outcome of WWII

ILSA: "You have to think for both of us. For all of us."
RICK: "Alright. I will."

Casablanca (d. Michael Curtiz, 1942)

Oh, what a romantic – and political – moment! The beautiful Scandinavian woman, speaking on behalf of herself and her European husband, pleads with the hardened [but ultimately sentimental] American protagonist, begging him to exert power over a situation that has passed well beyond her control – and to think that he actually says yes! This is the seminal moment in Casablanca, a film that – through its highly suggestive use of dialogue, production design, and diagetic music – creates a microcosm of the world at war, in which America is revealed to be an already-emerging [if initially reluctant] superpower.

Until the attack on Pearl Harbour took place in the December of 1941, the United States of America had remained generally aloof in regards to the going-ons of World War Two. There were a number of valid reasons for this, of course – not least the fact that the vast majority of American citizens were opposed to US involvement in Europe [a poll taken in 1939 revealed the approximate figure to be somewhere in the vicinity of 94%]. The incident at Pearl Harbour finally provided the United States with the opportunity to "push the button," even if their retaliation was focused more on Nazi Germany than it was upon Japan. It is interesting to note, then, that while production on Casablanca started in May of 1942, the film itself is set in December of 1941 [a fact that is revealed through Rick's dialogue], and one can, for this very reason, draw parallels between America's entry into the war and Rick's [who is, as I shall discuss, "America personified"].

The film's primary location is Rick's "Café Americain," which is, in this microcosm, an allegory for America [the place]. Not only is its name rather telling, but its atmosphere too – primarily through the popular jazz music of the time – suggests that this is [in its way] a kind of American "embassy" – that it's more "American" than America itself. This can be said of Rick as well, and his costumes [white tuxedos and creamy trench-coats] are extremely indicative of the archetypal American male that was emerging from American motion pictures – such as The Maltese Falcon (d. John Huston, 1941) – at this time. No-one else in Casablanca [save Sam, but only in flashback] dresses in such an obviously "American" way, and with no other [white] Americans around to represent their country, Rick becomes, in the eyes of the viewer, "America incarnate" – a vehicle for the nation's initial hesitation towards, and eventual acceptance of, its significant position of power.

Similarly, a number of other characters in the film become archetypical embodiments of a country or region based on how they dress, the music they listen to and the settings they inhabit. One fine [if explicit] example is that of Major Strasser, whose Nazi uniform – along with his singing of the Wacht am Rhein and the design of his office [complete with portrait of Hitler] – allows him to personify Nazi Germany in the eyes of Casablanca's audience.

Once the characters' places within the microcosm have been established in this way, the politics between them – which mirror those of the "real world" circa December, 1941 – can be further explored, exploded and scrutinised by the filmmakers. In Casablanca, this exploration is most apparent in the dialogue, which highlights both America/Rick's faux-indifference and initial reluctance towards, and ultimate acceptance of, political power.

RICK: "I stick my neck out for nobody."
FERRARI: "Wise foreign policy."

The first half of the picture is littered with examples of dialogue that remind us of America's pre-Pearl Harbour stance on the war. Rick tells Sam that, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I'll bet their asleep all over America," and he's obviously not far wrong. His speech is riddled with lines such as, "Either lay off politics or get out" and, "I'm the only cause I'm interested in," which do more than just establish the character's personality, but seek to create a synchronicity of political opinion between him and the United States. The latter part of the picture is also typified by its dialogue, as America/Rick accepts its/his destiny [which is – initially, at least – just to particpate]. Two lines stand out in particular: Laszlo's, "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know out side will win," which is decidedly literal, and the film's famous closing line, which is not. When viewed in a political light, Rick's musing over "the beginning of a beautiful friendship" suggests that it is, perhaps, the unity between America and Europe that will ultimately be the deciding factor in the war against the Nazis.

Through its deft implementation of dialogue, production design and diagetic music, Casablanca is able to create a microcosm of the world at war, in which the political relationships that exist between countries can be both magnified and explored. In focusing particularly on the December of 1941, the filmmakers have been able to observe the entry of the United States into the Second World War and [back in 1942, at least] hypothesise as to the impact this might have. The final scene suggests the positive ramifications of US-involvement in Europe, and so while the film is certainly not pro-war; it is, quite possibly, pro-involvement. After all, as Signor Ferrari suggests, "Isolationism is no longer a practical policy."

you made me start thinking 15 minutes early! i only read half but it has proved to be very thought provoking and interesting- I must make an effort to come in at lunch and finish and then post my thoughts, although I still resent having to "think" (please realize I am only kidding- I do think before school, just not the very best thoughts in the whole entire world)
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
T.S Eliot, "Preludes"

Very observant; I agree with basically every conclusion you reached. I think it's also worth noting that Rick was dragged into the matter simply by helping someone else (assuming I'm remembering properly); a testament to the inevitability of political involvement. In for a dollar, in for a dime, in other words. Foreign involvement, and indeed, involvement with other human beings, is an all-or-nothing kind of affair.

Great post. I was watching this the other day and noticed how, Rick generally won't allow violence in the saloon, but when he leaves it he is willing to kill for the cause he believes in. This parallels how America wouldn't fight until provoked (at least in the case of WWII anyways), and then tried to prevent the war from being fought any further on American soil than what happened at Pearl Harbor.
Make it happen!

Muy bien. I had never really thought of looking at a film as a comprehensive study and observatiosn of a paticular political period in time. I saw "Casablanca" so long ago that I only remember the key plot line and since I think I was a 8 at the time, I didn't care to notice the political analogies and observations. I definately agree, however, on the bit about 'Cafe Americain' showing a picture of a shiny-comes -in-a-box America. As a setting it was used to show hesitation towards the war, it was used almost as a poster child of what the cookie cutters wanted us as a country to turn out as. But the people in the setting however, although part of it, still showed their own sentiments.

I am babbling....and almost entirely sure to be incorrect as always, since I have no doubt in my mind what i've written down does not make sense, but my thoughts are my own and cherished as such.

I am having a nervous breakdance
That's a nice little essay you've done there, Silver. I like it a lot.

Although Casablanca is known as one of the finest examples of anti-fascist Hollywood cinema I have never studied the film in depth like this. Really interesting stuff...

You have of course noticed the bottle of Vichy water that Renault is throwing away in the end of the film, and the symbolism referring to the nazi-installed french government in Vichy.
The novelist does not long to see the lion eat grass. He realizes that one and the same God created the wolf and the lamb, then smiled, "seeing that his work was good".


They had temporarily escaped the factories, the warehouses, the slaughterhouses, the car washes - they'd be back in captivity the next day but
now they were out - they were wild with freedom. They weren't thinking about the slavery of poverty. Or the slavery of welfare and food stamps. The rest of us would be all right until the poor learned how to make atom bombs in their basements.

Originally Posted by Piddzilla
You have of course noticed the bottle of Vichy water that Renault is throwing away in the end of the film...
Of course. The thing is, though, I had a word limit.

I am having a nervous breakdance
Silver on a word limit? So there is hope after all!

I read some analytical stuff about Casablanca on the Net and it struck me that even though the film is a Hollywood 40's melodrama it is in some ways far more complex than contemporary WWII depictions such as Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. (I didn't come up with this myself, but I can't remember the site where I found it). Whereas these 1990's productions ignore the late entrance of America into the war and the global aspect of the war, Casablanca, as Silver so neatly demonstrated, in a very sophisticated way lets its characters symbolize the different actors and their roles in a world on fire.

Wonderfully written and extremely astute. I assume you recieved a top grade for it?
"Today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids."

80%, which I thought was slightly too low. My piece on Godard's Breathless got 90%.

He's not the sort of guy to give out any higher than that, however. To do so would be to admit that someone other than himself has actually shown signs of intelligence.

So many good movies, so little time.
That was a very interesting essay. I think that something that goes along with this line of thinking is that Rick fought in Spanish American war on the side of the anti-fascists. Somehow he lost his desire to get involved again, like the US after WWI.

I do however think that the film is pro-war in that it is pointing to the moral obligation of the US to enter the war. It is just a very subtle, well done propaganda war film, with a love story in the foreground.

"Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others."- Groucho Marx

there's a frog in my snake oil
Damn, i thought it was a romantic geological tale about how the US and UK could never be together, despite our 'special relationship'. Well you've destroyed all my illusions now.

Originally Posted by Piddzilla
You have of course noticed the bottle of Vichy water that Renault is throwing away in the end of the film, and the symbolism referring to the nazi-installed french government in Vichy.
Are you sure it doesn't represent the phrase 'there's something fishy in Denmark' said in a Germanic accent?


Nah, good stuff. Tis a cunningly crafted film.
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