by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
“This is the way they say you should take part in warfare and battle, Socrates,” says Callicles at the start of the dialogue Gorgias. In it, Socrates declares war on a corrupt society, reminding us that the theme of war does not merely apply to “a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/Where ignorant armies clash by night,” but highlights the chief existential issues humans face. It is not without reason that Robert E. Lee once said that it was good war was so horrible or else we would grow to love it too much, for we can learn in war the restoring of community, the intensification of human love (recall that in Greek mythology Ares, the god of war, was often associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love), and the clarification of moral purpose.
I’ve long been an admirer of one of the most beloved and celebrated films in American cinema, Casablanca. It is, in many ways, an odd film, a hodgepodge of different themes. It was made on a tight budget, with poor special effects, a gaggle of script writers, cast with second-choice (though first-rate) actors, and put together haphazardly, the script generally being made one day ahead of the filming. In short, all the ingredients that usually go into a very bad film. And indeed, it comes close to being a very bad film, but somehow manages to rise to a level of greatness. How do we account for its success?
I want to suggest that what makes Casablanca arguably the greatest film ever made is the careful weaving together of multiple and disparate themes into a coherent moral vision. Casablanca is not merely the experience of one person or one group of persons — it is the experience of humanity. We are given an early indication of this as the film begins with a hint of Arab music, which fades into La Marseillaise, at which point we enter Rick’s café and we hear the music of Gershwin. At once we are in a tangle geographic and demographic conflict: the Czechoslovakian Victor Laszlo, the French Captain Renault, the German Major Strasser, the American Rick, the Swede Ilsa Lind, the Russian bartender, the German waiter, the Bulgarian couple, the black piano player, and so on. One of the glories of Casablanca is the brilliance and complexity with which each character is drawn, but each character also embodies an aspect of the political conflict which the movie portrays as a moral conflict. Casablanca succeeds not merely because archetypes of human experience are embodied in the multiple characters, but because each character embodies multiple archetypes. That complexity allows the film to rise above particularity into a transcendent representation of the human condition, with all its moral ambiguity and search for moral clarity.
The movie was made early in 1942, based off a play written earlier. It’s political context was the eruption of an other world war in Europe while on the domestic front Americans expressed serious reservations about getting involved. Rick is the only American character in the film, and we know he fought on the side of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Early in the movie his primary stance might be described as selfish indifference to the conflict raging around him, an isolation in his soul, handled with the characteristic wit and charm of the film, which reveals to us a man whose creed is “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But the filmmakers are not simply presenting us with the jilted and therefore despondent Rick, he is a stand-in for American isolation as the great existential conflict begins to consume Europe. He is exiled from America (for reasons unclear, as Major Strasser notes) and is now sitting in purgatory, for Casablanca is neither consumed by war nor itself the place of freedom and redemption. So those in Casablanca must be purged of their sins before they can gain their freedom. Rick’s sin is his combination of indolence, despair, selfishness, hedonism, and lack of courage and will.
Rick seems content with his purgatorial state until she walks in. The arrival of Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) jolts Bogey (Rick) out of his self-imposed isolation. We understand quickly that she is married to one of the great heroes of the resistance movement (Victor Laszlo), a man she admires but doesn’t love. We sense quickly that Rick and Ilsa were once lovers, their adultery mollified by the fact that she believed her husband to be dead. We intuit that Ilsa loves Rick in a way she never loved or could love Laszlo, and that Laszlo realizes this too. We pick up on Rick’s and Laszlo’s grudging admiration for each other, even while they view each other as rivals, both for the heart of Ilsa, but maybe more importantly for a moral vision in a confused world. The American Rick, isolated and disengaged; the French Laszlo, engaged but exiled.
We have, then, two contrapuntal elements, one romantic and one political. But not simply those, for overarching both romance and politics is the struggle to articulate a compelling moral vision. All the characters are somehow enmeshed in the tragedy of unhappy love: Rick spurned by the woman he loved; Laszlo married to a woman he loves but doesn’t love him in return; Ilsa married to a man she doesn’t love and feeling rejected by the man she does. The situation admits of no easy resolution because the moral vision is not yet fully formed. On top of the twisted romance are the competing political impulses: Rick as the isolationist who can look out for no one other than himself; Laszlo as the hero who views all of life as a cause, and whose commitments have the character of abstraction; Ilsa as the woman who believes in Laszlo’s cause, admires him, and worships him and all he stands for. One scene shows the beginning of Rick’s transformation, as he senses that his self-imposed isolation must crumble because of the intrusion of both beauty and purpose into his life. It begins with the disintegration of the ego that has collapsed upon itself, revealed in his drunken musings (delivered with the film’s typical comic touch):
Rick: Sam, if it’s December in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?
Sam: My watch stopped.
Rick: I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America. (With sudden vehemence): Of all the gin joints in all the world, she has to walk into mine!
The city of Casablanca (where people wait, and wait, and wait in hopes of getting to the promised land) helps us understand the factors that will move us toward resolution. Human life means little in Casablanca, demonstrated by Sydney Greenstreet unceremoniously ending his conversations about the flight to freedom by swatting a fly. But Casablanca is the passage out and we are given various keys to escape. Different characters attempt to win this key, and the struggle for escape exposes all the passions. Perhaps the key can be obtained through the roulette wheel, or through sleeping with Captain Renault, or through dealing with “cut-rate parasites” – but in the end the passage can be bought not with cash or favors but only by sacrifice. Rick possesses the visa that offers a way out, but in the end the visa only works because Rick sacrifices his desire on the altar of a higher purpose.
For it is in the purgatory of Casablanca and in the presence of the beatific Ilsa that Rick’s desires are purified. Those with impure desires will fail to reach the promised land. There is only one way out of the moral conundrum, and that is to pursue the Path of Purity. That purity can be found in this most impure of places, and that impure creatures can nonetheless discern a moral order that creates purity of heart, is the great genius of the film.
The impure do not reach the promised land; we lose sight of them. But people do achieve purity through sacrifice, and this means redemption. Rick is redeemed (“We’ll always have Paris”), and so is the French police captain as he dramatically tosses the bottle of Vichy water into the trash. The myth of sacrifice runs through the whole film: Ilsa’s sacrifice in Paris when she abandons the man she loves to tend to the wounded hero; the Bulgarian bride’s sacrifice when she is ready to yield herself to Captain Renault to help save her husband; Victor’s sacrifice when he is ready to let Ilsa go with Rick so long as she is saved; and Rick and Ilsa’s ultimate sacrifice at the end as they forego their desires in order to serve a higher moral purpose.
If you don’t mind, you fill in the
names. That will make it even more
You think of everything, don’t you?
And the names are Mr. and Mrs. Victor
Renault stops dead in his tracks, and turns around. Both
Ilsa and Renault look at Rick with astonishment.
But why my name, Richard?
Because you’re getting on that plane.
I don’t understand. What about you?
I’m staying here with him ’til the
plane gets safely away.
Rick’s intention suddenly dawns on Ilsa.
No, Richard, no. What has happened
to you? Last night we said —
— Last night we said a great many
things. You said I was to do the
thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve
done a lot of it since then and it
all adds up to one thing. You’re
getting on that plane with Victor
where you belong.
But Richard, no, I, I —
— You’ve got to listen to me. Do
you have any idea what you’d have to
look forward to if you stayed here?
Nine chances out of ten we’d both
wind up in a concentration camp.
Isn’t that true, Louis?
Renault countersigns the papers.
I’m afraid Major Strasser would
You’re saying this only to make me
I’m saying it because it’s true.
Inside of us we both know you belong
with Victor. You’re part of his work,
the thing that keeps him going. If
that plane leaves the ground and
you’re not with him, you’ll regret
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow,
but soon, and for the rest of your
But what about us?
We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t
have, we’d lost it, until you came
to Casablanca. We got it back last
And I said I would never leave you.
And you never will. But I’ve got a
job to do, too. Where I’m going you
can’t follow. What I’ve got to do
you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m
no good at being noble, but 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. Someday you’ll understand
that. Now, now…
Ilsa’s eyes well up with tears. Rick puts his hand to her
chin and raises her face to meet his own.
Here’s looking at you, kid.
(What a moral contrast this offers to the execrable The English Patient.)
Rick has substituted the journey to one promised land — America, with the woman he loves but would destroy their souls — for another land, still full of promise and hope, but one with moral clarity — with Renault, who having dumped the bottle of Vichy water, and Rick, both heartbroken and resolute, heading to the Free French Garrison as they begin their beautiful friendship, the compensation for the sacrifice of Ilsa’s radiant beauty.
In Rick’s transformation we realize the truth that a person who has nothing they are willing to die for also has nothing to live for. Casablanca’s greatness is its subtle handling of the complexity of moral experience: that morally ambiguous characters in morally ambiguous situations can still discern what is morally right. It articulates a theory of ethical experience that insists that ethical responsibility resides in the world of human imperfections and perversities and not to an ideal, abstract sphere. The individual must try to make the best of actual situations, even those that do not at all seem conducive to the good. “Truly ethical action does not proceed as if foul motives and behavior do not exist. It takes their chronic presence in society into account in selecting its means. It even tries as far as possible to make use of human immorality and other weaknesses for its own purpose. Disregarding or minimizing obstacles in the setting of goals is contrary to ethical responsibility, for it threatens the limited moral progress that is possible. To approach politics in disregard of the ignoble is not only utopian but immoral.”
Casablanca is not film of our times, but it is a film for our times. Its imperative — that we break free from our moral, spiritual, and political isolationism — is grounded in a moral vision of humility, one where human beings trade their narcissistic impulses for a course of action that requires of them sacrificing the one thing they love most. It resonates with Christ’s admonition to us that those who lose their lives will save them, and they who save their lives will lose them. The moral vision of Casablanca is not uncomplicated: in order for good to be done, morally ambiguous human beings must learn to reach beyond themselves and sometimes employ morally suspect means for a higher purpose; for the triumph of good over evil is not a grand and sudden conclusion, but a continuous process of infinitesimal gains made by persons who realize that their petty little desires don’t amount to a hill of beans in a world of good and evil.
So we return to Casablanca and are renewed each and every time. It never fails to lift our spirits, to make us laugh, to make us wonder. Our heart soars every time we hear the patrons singing La Marseillaise drown out the German soldiers singing Die Wacht am Rhein. We never tire of hearing Ingrid Bergman ask whether that is cannon fire or her heart pounding. We never stop wondering “what if” other choices had been made, because we so keenly feel the pull of those alternatives, while realizing that any other choice would have been wrong. We never tire of the sharp dialogue, the clever humor, and the memorable phrases: “Round up the usual suspects;” “I’m shocked, shocked to find gambling going on here;” “I stick my neck out for nobody;” “We’ll always have Paris;” “Are my eyes really blue?” Above all, we never grow tired of being reminded that the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.