Casablanca: Artistic American Propaganda

The collective usage and general definition of “propaganda” bears a distinctively negative connotation, and not without well-documented justification. The term broadly refers to the portrayal of biased and influential information to sway a group of people towards a particular viewpoint. In the world of film, we see the most blatant usage of propaganda during the heights of World War II, with the most infamous and readily associated work being Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens (1935). Propaganda is, however, not inherently an evil practice, despite the rather extreme example. Hitler and the Nazis understood the persuasive power of film, and used it quite extensively to spread their message of power and oppression. Conversely, the Allied forces during the war also used film to embolden and motivate their people, but in a way we look back on more fondly today. Director Frank Capra was enlisted by Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall to produce a series of American pro-war recruitment films entitled Why We Fight as a direct response to Riefenstahl’s daunting work. “One of Hitler’s chief secret weapons has been [his] films,” remarked Capra in 1942. “We will now turn that weapon against him.” While not all American propaganda at the time can be seen as fairly representative as Capra’s work (the Japanese certainly didn’t get a fair shake, often portrayed as mongrel-esque and inhumane) the general consensus is that Hollywood strove to maintain a superlative and uplifting image, rarely degrading themselves with inflammatory depictions of the enemy.

Hollywood directors Frank Capra and John Ford were recruited by the Army and Navy respectively to make informative propaganda films for the U.S. upon entering World War II.

Of the five major studios at the time, Warner Bros. was the quickest and most vocal proponent of the cause. Their anti-Nazi ideology dates back before America’s entering into the war, with Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) being the first notable condemnation of the regime to come out of Hollywood. Other times, their message wasn’t so brazenly slapped on the poster, but instead hidden within the themes of an alternative conflict. The swashbuckling Errol Flynn vehicle, The Sea Hawk (1940) has almost nothing to do with the concurrent European conflict of the time, being a story about the English-Spanish conflict in the 16th century. However, the film was used as a way of building sympathy for the contemporary British by painting them as heroes against a fascist threat, substituting the German forces for the Spanish in this case. The allegory was crystal clear, solidified by a rousing speech made by Queen Elizebeth I at the end of the film.

“And now, my loyal subjects, a grave duty confronts us all: To prepare our nation for a war that none of us wants, least of all your queen. We have no quarrel with the people of Spain or any other country; but when the ruthless ambition of a man threatens to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men, and that freedom is the deed and title to the soil on which we exist.”

Director Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian-born émigré who tragically lost family to the horrors of imprisonment at Auschwitz, took what he learned from The Sea Hawk and, like most other Hollywood filmmakers, began making pro-war, patriotic films to contribute to the cause. Back-to-back, Curtiz made Dive Bomber (1941), Captain of the Clouds (1942), and the Oscar-winning Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), which couldn’t be more propagandist if you painted it in swaths of red, white, and blue. Curtiz was yet at the precipice of his achievements, though, with his greatest contribution to cinema just around the bend. That same year, the story of an embittered American expatriate caught in the middle of a hopeless cause found its way into Curtiz’ lap. A story of star-crossed lovers, set against the backdrop of the ensuing fight against tyranny in French-Moracco. A story first penned by two New York playwrights, Murray Bennet and Joan Alison, inspired by the real atrocities witnessed by Bennet while assisting family in escaping from Austria. A story written in, “the white heat of anger — anger at stupid people who refused to acknowledge that Hitler and Nazism were a threat.” A story of duty, obligation to your fellow man, and patriotism. A story of a smoke-filled café, and the people who congregate there, desperate for a way out.

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Casablanca. Dir. Michael Curtiz.

Casablanca first premiered in New York on November 26, 1942, just short of a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust America into the war. At the heart of the film is Rick Blaine’s romantic character arc. With his cynical attitude and ambivalence to the suffering of the European refugees that flock to his bar for help, he is the embodiment of American sensibilities towards the war at the time. Prior to America’s engagement with the Axis threats, the country held a strict non-intervention policy with the European war. America was still hurting from the previous World War, and the country’s “America First” attitude was reflected across the board. It wasn’t until that day of infamy that the population began to get on board with joining in the fight, despite already being involved with aiding the Allied forces with much needed supplies throughout the conflict. Rick represents this hesitant America, boldly expressing his neutrality with the oft-repeated iconic line, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Just like his native land, Rick turns a blind eye to the flagrant oppression taking place before him, willingly handing over the desperate Ugarte (Hungarian actor Peter Lorre) to the corrupt Vichy police as he begs and pleads for Rick to help him. To make Rick a sympathetic character he would have to be more than just the harsh and indifferent American archetype. Enter Humphrey Bogart: the suave, hard-boiled, divine portrait of an American movie star. Never was there a better man to woo audiences’ sympathies and admiration. It wasn’t just a matter of people having a strong identification with Bogey, they genuinely wanted to be him.

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Casablanca. Dir. Michael Curtiz.

The many gangsters and private eyes played by Bogart before starring in Casablanca helped build up his signature aloof persona, solidifying the qualities that allowed so many to idolize him. This was to be his first romantic role, and is the key in swaying Rick — and thus, America — to join the fight in preserving global freedom. France, the longtime ally of the United States, now occupied by the German forces, needed their relationship to spark once again so that they may defeat the Nazis with solidarity. If Rick is the embodiment of America and its hesitation, Ilsa is France and their desperation. Only she has the power to motivate Rick into becoming the patriot he was once before, the man she loved in Paris. We learn in the film that Rick was once an anti-fascist political figure, running guns to Ethiopia and fighting against the Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. Upon being united with Ilsa again, Rick drops all his earlier neutral pretenses by breaking his rule about never drinking with customers. She gives Rick a somewhat coded message, urging him to return to the fight. Rick makes a coy comment about the last day they had seen each other in Paris, contrasting the color of her dress with the uniforms of the German soldiers who marched on the city that day. Ilsa remarks, “I put that dress away. When the Germans march out I’ll wear it again.” Her message seems to be signaling to Rick that if only he would join the cause they could be reunited yet again. All that stands in their way is Ilsa’s husband, a renowned Czech resistance leader thought dead in a concentration camp, now standing here in Rick’s café with Ilsa in his arms.

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Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid in Casablanca.

Victor Laszlo is the shining beacon of righteousness in the film. An optimistic, strong-willed man of the people, he is everything that Rick is not. He is also what Rick was at some point in his career, clearly as Ilsa was infatuated with them both. Deep down, Rick still retains many of the characteristics as Laszlo, and through the course of the film we see that more sentimental side begin to manifest. Despite his adamant presentation of an ambivalent front, Rick is a patriot at heart. A young Bulgarian woman approaches Rick at the bar, pleading for his help like many refugees have done before. Her situation mirrors that of Ilsa’s back in Paris, forced into a position that requires despicable action for the greater good. The young girl’s desperate appeal cracks Rick’s cynical shell enough to trigger his true sentimentality. He helps the young woman’s husband get the money they need to abscond through his rigged roulette game. Not long after that, Rick is put into a position where he can no longer take a neutral stance between the French and German patrons. A group of Nazi officers sound off in a chorus of  “Die Wacht am Rhein” led by Major Strasser. Laszlo quickly reacts by instructing Rick’s band to play “La Marseillaise”. The band all look to Rick, who gives a solemn nod of approval before they proceed with the trumpeting sound of the French national anthem, drowning out the German foes.

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Casablanca. Dir. Michael Curtiz.

This crucial moment is the emotional crux of the film’s propagandist influence. While Curtiz’ Yankee Doodle Dandy targeted nationalistic sympathies with its celebration of American patriotic tunes, Casablanca needed to sway audiences to empathize with the plight of the struggling French resistance. Many Americans may have heard a few bars of “La Marseillaise” prior to seeing the film, but more than likely, they had never looked at it the same way they saw their own national anthem. The film does a magnificent job of demonstrating, through song and action, the triumphant power of “La Marseillaise” and what it represents to the scattered refugees in the film, most of which were real immigrants who fled from Europe when Germany took power. The tears shed in that scene are genuine, moved by the uniting power of this resounding ode to freedom and revolution. “Vive la France!” a young girl cries out amongst the thunderous sound of uproarious applause. It is one of the single most powerful and affecting moments in all of cinema, one that continues to move audiences around the world just the same as it did in 1942.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca.

Ilsa’s midnight reconciliation with Rick ends up being the final piece in restoring Rick’s patriotic spirit. Casablanca is a romance movie after all, and the seductive nature of such stories does a majority of the legwork in aligning us with Rick’s shifting sensibilities. She mends the wounds of their past relationship, filling in the blanks where Rick was suddenly abandoned in Paris without a word, left utterly heartbroken. Rick’s anguish has all but melted away, and now only needs to once again find the motivation to take up the cause. He finds this in a proceeding conversation with Laszlo, who has taken abrupt refuge in Rick’s bar after barely escaping a police raid on their secret resistance meeting. Rick and Laszlo’s conversation stands as the most stark contrast of their ideals thus far. It begins with Rick questioning why Laszlo thinks this persistent struggle is still worth fighting for. Rick’s cynical and nihilistic remarks effortlessly bounce off Laszlo’s unfettered resolve, refusing to bow at Rick’s attempts at dampening his spirit. “You know how you sound Monsieur Blaine? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart. Each of us has a destiny, for good or for evil.” Laszlo sees right through Rick’s lame attempts at disguising his true feelings. The desire for righteousness throughout the world is an intrinsically American quality, one we’ve seen fit to bestow upon ourselves anyhow. Laszlo sees this in Rick, and knows that his patriotic duty will win out in the end, as if destiny has already foretold it. “I wonder if you know you’re trying to escape from yourself, and that you’ll never succeed.”

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Paul Henreid and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.

And as we all already know, Rick does exactly that. Despite all the misdirection with Ilsa and Captain Renault about taking the letters of transit for himself, it was his plan all along to see Ilsa and Laszlo on that plane together, without him. This noble act of total selflessness completes Rick’s arc of overcoming his cynical nature. His petty indifference sparked from the scorn of a past love doesn’t amount to more than “a hill of beans,” as he famously says, realizing that the fight for freedom Laszlo represents is far more important than his own self interest. “Welcome back to the fight,” Laszlo says as his way of thanking Rick in his aid of their escape. Even Renault acknowledges Rick’s change of heart, in his own smarmy, sardonic manner. “Well Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” This moment also marks a change for Renault as well, though, as the two men make a pact to flee their imminent arrest in Casablanca by joining the Free French in Brazzaville. Rick has now firmly planted himself in the cause once more, fighting against tyranny and oppression like he had in Spain and Ethiopia before.

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“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

The resounding success of Casablanca saw echoes of similar films attempting to capitalize on the unprecedented success of such influential media. Passage to Marseilles (1944) saw Curtiz reuniting a large majority of Casablanca’s cast for a similar story about French patriots fighting against the Nazi threat, while Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944) has managed to enrapture almost as many fans as the beloved classic, from which it apes most of its treasured features despite its vague roots in Hemingway’s writing. One only needs to look at the film’s enduring success, though, to see how influential it truly has become. What started as a project meant to motivate and inspire contemporary audiences has become a rallying cry all its own, standing as a bastion of American integrity and pride in the country. “It’s just a movie,” screenwriter Howard Koch said of the film in 1989, “but it’s more than that. It’s become something that people can’t find in values today. And they go back to Casablanca as they go back to church, political church, to find something that is gone from our values today.” Casablanca is a testament to the overwhelming influence film possesses as an artistic medium. Few have celebrated the level of cultural zeal as Bogart and this most famous of love stories, and even fewer for the length of time Casablanca has, and will surely continue to. Today, tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives, as time goes by.

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