I recently watched the 1943 film Casablanca, as part of my current preoccupation with old movies.
Set during World War II, it depicts the struggle of an American expatriate (Humphrey Bogart) who runs a Moroccan nightclub when his long-lost lady love (Ingrid Bergman) suddenly shows up with her husband, attempting to evade agents of Nazi Germany.
What interested me about Casablanca was how it presented a world far more tangled, wretched, and realistic than any modern depiction I can recall. Inception and The Dark Knight are creampuffs in comparison, even losing in terms of how tight their respective plots are.
At the same time, however, this mature, flesh-and-blood cinema manages to do all this without sinking into the thrall of violence and profanity. It tackles mature content with class.
Most importantly, it elevates the values of an older class of hero. This isn’t done to mockingly kick him from his pedestal, but to present him for serious study and reflection.
Casablanca provides a window into the world of the Greatest Generation, a world far more complicated that today, contrary to those who have inherited Hollywood might say.
To begin with, this film was created in the thick of an event which defined the twentieth century and continues to reverberate into the twenty-first. The Second World War influenced our art, our economy, our foreign policy, our manner of education, and even our eating habits.
For too many people my age it is little more than a mythical backdrop to the careers of Captain America, the Flash (Jay Garrick, that is) and Indiana Jones.
But when you realize that every piece of art reflects the worldview of the artist, as I believe Francis Schaeffer noted, you must conclude that the opinion of artists about that time concerning the war will color every form of art, including film, created during that time.
Suffice it to say, Casablanca firmly plants its feet not in the camp of the Allies or the Axis, but in the camp of Good as opposed to the camp of Evil. It is decidedly apolitical in a context and narrative backdrop where contemporary politics is pervasive.
To say this may sound strange, considering that in this case, Good is clearly personified by the Allies and Evil by the Axis, particularly the Nazis.
But when I say that Casablanca is apolitical, I only mean that it would make no difference whether the Allies or the Nazis won the War, either within the realm of fiction or in reality. What matters is that one side was Good and the other side was Evil, and the identity of both is obvious.
Rick, the protagonist played by Humphrey Bogart, emphatically cracks down on “politics” in his bar. But he unreservedly sacrifices his own personal happiness to make sure his former lover and her husband, an anti-Nazi journalist, can escape to safety.
Later, his reward is to join the fight against the Nazis on the side of the Free French, along with the lovably corrupt Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who turns over a new leaf in the final minutes of the film.
Columnist Mark Tooley wrote in a 2010 piece in The American Spectator about the differences between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood. According to Tooley, “Old Hollywood privately misbehaved but publicly was glamorous and classy. New Hollywood is proudly trashy.”
Casablanca is very much a product of Old Hollywood. I’m no scholar of film history, having only the most rudimentary knowledge of the subject. But as I understand it, Old Hollywood knew that it’s easy to be decent when you inevitably get the girl at the end.
But when being good means not getting the girl, not coming home covered in glory, and not getting the commendation of your peers and mentors, it’s a little harder.
Casablanca plainly tells us that if you keep deciding to be one of the good guys until the end, despite all that, you’ll at least be one of the good guys. And that’s it.
As a Christian, if one translates “being one of the good guys” to “trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ for eternal salvation,” then one’s eternal reward will be far greater than anything that I just described.
Aesthetically, the film is stunning. Morally, the film is saintly, perhaps in the manner of David, in keeping with the Jewish heritage of Michael Curtiz, the director.
Most importantly, it’s a film that every man, woman, and child should see, and that is final.
Image courtesy of irishnews.com.