If we are to place the film within the context the script demands we need to know about the Italian colonial enterprise in Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, the American debate over whether or not to become involved in the Second World War, the Vichy administration of France, the social and economic realities of racial segregation in America and the nature of the way in which North African countries and peoples were looked upon by America and other European powers. We need to be aware of the seriousness of life and death in Occupied Europe as well as some light-hearted clichéd cultural perspectives held in 1940s America.
Above all we should note how America is represented as the Promised Land for refugees, a place of safety and a guardian of freedom and democracy. This is from one perspective a factual truth of American history. Religious and political refugees (as well as economic refugees) had been amongst those crossing the Atlantic from Europe. In the 80 years or so before the Second World War, Europeans flooded in beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. They formed a large percentage of both the national population and the Hollywood filmmaking population; as a result, there was always likely to be support for the dispossessed and oppressed of Europe. However, at the same time the United States had during the interwar years followed a strongly isolationist foreign policy, determinedly keeping out of overseas conflicts. There was, therefore, a heated debate during the late 1930s and early 1940s about whether to enter the war or not. Warner Brothers was in favour of America joining the war and Casablanca was part of its ongoing film-based contribution to the debate, or, if you like, propaganda for its point of view. Franklin Roosevelt had moved the country steadily nearer to war, repealing the Neutrality Act, for instance, in order to supply Britain and pushing through an act to lend or lease supplies when Britain could no longer afford to pay. But, it was not until after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 that the debate was finally clinched in favour of intervention.
If Casablanca is to be understood as more than a romantic wartime drama it has to be seen within a historical and political context. There is pleasure to be gained from the romance, and the suspense (as the film also operates as a thriller), but there is an additional depth of understanding that goes with grasping the contexts within which the film was made and originally shown. Imagining this being shown in the United States or Britain as the war was going on (the turning globe and narrator’s voiceover at the beginning clearly suggesting this war is inescapably affecting the whole world) enables us to understand the film in a fuller, more complete way. It may also alert us to ways in which this film could be read in relation to the post-war emergence of the United States as a global imperial power.
Finally, returning to the ideological complexities of the film, if we were to consider the lead female role we might be struck by the passivity of Ilsa. She is the dutiful wife and the woman who asks her man to think for her. The film may advocate liberal values in the face of fascism but it also suppresses important issues with regard to both race and gender.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Warner Brothers. Director: Michael Curtiz. Producer: Hal Wallis. Screenwriters: Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson. Music: Max Steiner. Editor: Owen Marks. Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Rick Blaine), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa Laszlo), Paul Henreid (Victor Laszlo), Claude Rains (Louis Renault), Conrad Veidt (Major Strasser), Sydney Greenstreet (Senor Ferrari), Dooley Wilson (Sam), Peter Lorre (Ugarte).]
Aljean Harmetz, Round up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca – Bogart, Bergman and World War II, New York, Hyperion, 1992.
Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: Patriotism, Movies and the Second World War from ‘Ninotchka’ to ‘Mrs Miniver’, London, I.B. Tauris, 2000.
Harlan Lebo, Casablanca: Behind the Scenes, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992.
Richard Maltby, Harmless Entertainment: Hollywood and the Ideology of Consensus, Metuchen, NJ, Scarecrow Press, 1993.
James C. Robertson, Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz, London, Routledge, 1993.
Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.