Saturday, 9 June 2007

Is Rick in the Movie 'Casablanca' a Communist?

Anyone who reads this blog, and I have doubts if there is anyone, well, if they happen to do so, then they will notice I have a particular taste in terms of culture. I know lots of movies and my tastes in reading are either old fashioned or of particular genres. This posting might appear to be very much a niche one. I know the movie 'Casablanca' (1942) is a classic and is often cited in movie writing, but I guess not that many people these days watch it. If they do it is for the romantic elements (in particular the song 'As Time Goes By') and for (mis)quotes from it, rather than the political aspects which I am going to focus on now.

For those of you who do not know the movie or its background, here are some details. The film stars Humphrey Bogart famous for many detective movies notably 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'The Big Sleep' and a movie set in the First World War 'The African Queen'. He was renowned for starring with leading female stars of the time such as Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn. In 'Casablanca' he co-stars with Ingrid Bergman. In addition there is a strong supporting cast including Claude Rains, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt who between them made hundreds of films. Also noticeable is Dooley Wilson who plays Sam the pianist. This cast rather lifts the movie above the majority of wartime films made at the time. It was made in 1942 but is more reminiscent of a film made in 1940-1 to encourage the USA to join the Second World War. Though the USA was sympathetic to those countries fighting the Nazis since 1939, it was not until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and then Germany's declaration of war on the USA that the country joined the war. However, since the outbreak of the fighting films had been made to try to interest the Americans in fighting Nazis, to some extent because a lot of refugee writers and film-makers from Nazi Germany had fled to Hollywood to escape persecution.

The movie is unusual in other ways too. It is not about the fighting nor about the Home Front in Britain or really about the resistance movements in Europe as other films of the time were. It is set in Casablanca which is in Morocco. Morocco was a French colony and when the Germans overran the North and West of France, the collaborationist regime which ran the rest of France, the Vichy regime, was left control of France's colonies. Some went to the Free French movement, but most like Morocco continued to be run by France. So Casablanca was in 1942 theoretically a territory allied to Germany but not directly under its control. This is why people from across Europe (German and Bulgarian refugees amongst others are shown in the film) use it as stepping stone to reach the USA, which at the time the film is set is still neutral in the war. The Germans and the Vichy French authorities interfere to a greater or lesser extent.

Bogart's character, Rick Blaine, runs a bar and casino 'Rick's' and pretends to be neutral, as America is at the time. The film is set in late 1940 or early 1941. Rick fled from Paris when the Germans invaded France in June 1940 and in doing that was separated from his lover, Ilse Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman), a Norwegian. Then one day she turns up at the bar with her husband Victor Lazlo (played by Paul Henreid). Lazlo is a resistance leader who Ilse thought had died, but he had managed to escape from a Nazi prison and has been reunited with his wife. This creates the love triangle, made even more poignant by the fact that Rick has come into possession of permits which would allow Lazlo and Ilse to escape to the USA very easily. I will not spoil the ending for any of you who have not seen the film. It was written as it was being made and even the actors did not know the final outcome until just before it was filmed. It is the kind of film many people nowadays would find dull. There is action and tension but it is generally low key. It is more about people and the ending could never be used in a movie made in Hollywood nowadays.

Now, in all the analysis of this movie over the past decades, I think one issue has been neglected and that is whether Rick Blaine is actually a Communist. Even at the time this would be very controversial, but I think there are numerous clues in the film to suggest that. The local (corrupt and lecherous, though charming) French police office Captain Renault (Claude Rains) and Lazlo, note that Rick was involved in various political events before the war, notably supplying guns to the Abyssinians (Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia was invaded by Mussolini's Italy in 1934-5; the Italians used aerial bombardment and poison gas against the poorly armed Abyssinian forces) and in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) he had fought on the side of the Republic (this was the elected government that General Franco's Nationalists tried and eventually overthrew; both sides got volunteers from around the World including from the USA and the UK; the Republican side included Democrats, Socialists and Liberals but also Communists of different types and Anarchists) against the fascist Nationalists. Both these actions were not typical for an American at the time and suggests someone convinced of the need to fight Fascism.

Communists across the World at the time were dominated by the USSR and from 1934-9 Stalin advised Communists to ally with Socialists and Liberals to fight Fascism. In 1939 though the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and took parts of Poland and Finland and conquered the Baltic States while Germany moved into the rest of Poland, then Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium and France and later Yugoslavia and Greece. In this period Communists across Europe were left rather bewildered unwilling to go against commands from Moscow not to fight Nazis. In this period resistance was carried out by conservative and nationalist forces in the occupied countries; the Communists remained passive until the USSR was invaded itself in July 1941. So, Rick displays the same kind of behaviour as a typical Communist in this period, being active when Moscow said and passive when it commanded too, despite his ongoing unease about Nazism. Despite his Communist connections the Nazis cannot arrest him because he is the citizen of a powerful neutral state, the USA.

There is another tell-tale sign. Lazlo, (we assume he is a Norwegian though his name could be Hungarian even) is portrayed as a leader in a resistance movement running across Europe which is why he is so important. The only resistance movement which had connections in every occupied country was the Communist resistance. All the other resistances were nationally focused, e.g. run by French or Dutch or Polish or Yugoslav people, whereas the Communist parties had close contacts across borders helped by Comintern run from the USSR as a linking body. This would explain how Rick knows Lazlo so well and is willing to accept him as an important leader across Europe because they are both part of the same international political party. Rick welcomes nationalities of all kinds in his bar, some to work as staff. We have no idea where his money has come from, he may have been a successful businessman or he may have been funded from Moscow.

Anyway, this adds just another element to a movie which moves along briskly and touches in a way which straddles both modern and old fashioned attitudes. It is a romance and a war movie and probably a political movie too. Well worth watching despite its age. Ironically the only attempt to do a remake was 'Barb Wire' (1996) set in a free port in a futuristic authoritarian America, it rips off the story entirely, with eyeballs used for retinal scans replacing the passes of 'Casablanca'. I guess it shows a good story is always valued, if not always treated with the respect it deserves.

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