Imagine if Titanic was filmed and released while the ship was still sinking. Or if The Big Short came out right before the crash of the financial crisis in 2008. That’s basically what Casablanca was for World War II.
Filmmakers can turn projects around pretty quickly, but not usually while the events they’re depicting are still underway, even when those events are relatively small in scale. And World War II was anything but small. As one of the largest single events experienced by our species, with some of the highest casualties ever recorded in human history, the scale of the war was such that most people outside the war zones only had a narrow idea of what was actually happening. Taking into account the fronts as well as the horrors of the Holocaust, the Second World War affected nearly every person alive on Earth.
Many films were made during this time in America, some of them even funded by the US Government to help the war propaganda effort. But Casablanca stands above all the rest in terms of cultural impact. It isn’t the flashiest of war films. It doesn’t have battle scenes or explosions. At its core, it’s a love story, but it’s also a story about resistance and the importance of good people standing up to fascists, even if it means losing. And it was made with the combined efforts of dozens of people who were directly and indirectly affected by Hitler’s rise to power.
Casablanca began its life in the summer of 1940 as a promising but un-produced stageplay by writers Murray Burnett and Joan Allison, who tag-teamed the original script, titled Everybody Comes To Rick’s. The main story was a meditation on Burnett’s recent experience in Nazi-occupied Europe, smuggling out belongings for his wife’s Jewish relatives via the refugee trail depicted in the eventual film’s opening map-crawl.
Purchased by Warner Bros. for $20,000, the highest paid for an unproduced play up to that point, the project was eventually retitled Casablanca and turned over to twins Julius and Philip Epstein, a couple of hardscrabble Brooklyn-born Jewish screenwriters. They had made a name for themselves at university for their boxing prowess and at the studio for fixing faltering scripts, often churning out whip-crack dialogue for big comedies. They also had a reputation for their fierce anti-authoritarian streak.
This duo kept the bones of the original story; all of the major characters remained, and even some bits of famous dialogue survived the adaptation. What the Epsteins truly brought to the new script was a sense of urgency. They took the memories of Burnett, a fellow Jew and New Yorker who had witnessed the early grasping claws of Axis fascism first-hand, and added their own sensibilities as two very active members of the Writer’s Guild and, although employed by him, fierce labor combatants of studio head Jack Warner. Later, during the McCarthy-era red scare, when the House Un-American Activities Committee sent them a questionnaire asking if they ever belonged to a subversive organization, they both answered in the affirmative, and listed the organization as “Warner Bros.” It was this kind of pithy antiheroism that defined the film, its leading man, and the entire genre of the “resistance film” for decades to come.
The script saw the additions of many other paid writers after the Epsteins, though only Howard Koch was credited, and their importance is largely argued about to this day: who wrote what lines of dialogue, who was responsible for this moment or that, etc. These arguments seem incidental to what the film became, but the script they wrote, and what ended up on screen, are two largely different things. And it got there, much like the refugees in the film, via a long, meandering path full of roadblocks and firefights.
Humphrey Bogart didn’t think he could play a romantic lead. Ingrid Bergman didn’t understand her character arc since the script kept changing day-to-day. Paul Henreid didn’t want to play second-fiddle to Bogart and demanded he get the girl in the end. All three actors clashed in terms of acting style, working habits, and personalities. Hell, Dooly Wilson, as Sam, couldn’t even play the piano. But these problems, as they often do, fed the onscreen chemistry.
Bogart’s lack of self-confidence bled into his portrayal of Rick Blaine, tempering Bogie’s usual onscreen menace with a vulnerability that defined the character. Bergman never knew from one day to the next where the script was going, let alone how it would end, so she genuinely didn’t know if she would end up with Bogart’s Rick, or the stoic Czech freedom fighter Victor Laszlo played by Henreid. Her uncertainty informed her performance almost as much as Bogart’s on-set aloofness; to get to know her costar better, Bergman allegedly went to the theatre and repeatedly watched him in The Maltese Falcon. And Henreid’s desire to not be outshone by Bogart’s rising star, plus their wildly different styles of acting, colored every scene they played together; what was really two actors attempting to not be upstaged by one another played onscreen as two men fighting for the love of Bergman’s Ilsa. As for Wilson, he didn’t need to play the piano for real to make his voice one of the most recognizable in film history.
The list of refugees from Hitler’s Europe that worked on Casablanca is almost too long to believe. Both Henreid and Peter Lorre, who played the letter-carrying Ugarte, came up in the Weimar-era theatre scene in Germany before emigrating to England and then America after the Nazis assumed power. Director Michael Curtiz, a Hungarian-born emigré, hadn’t fled Europe specifically because of the Nazis, but his timing was lucky. Swedish-born Bergman likewise left Europe just as fascism took hold. All of these experiences came to inform one of the film’s most important moments.
In a pivotal scene, Major Strasser, played by German expat and refugee Conrad Veidt, leads a military band in a rendition of the Nazi anthem “Die Wacht Am Rhein.” In response, Henreid’s Laszlo strikes up the house band with “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. The denizens of Rick’s Cafe Américain join in, and among these background actors and bit players were dozens of Hungarian, German, Polish, and French refugees, Jews and gentiles alike, belting out the official anthem of the French resistance some 5,000 miles away in a dusty California soundstage.
While the Nazis they drowned out were merely contract players in rented costumes and the bar in Vichy French Morocco was a plaster and plywood backdrop, these people knew the price that fascism could exact on people. They knew the path of the refugee trail as well as they knew the names of those family members who didn’t make it out. And from top-billed stars like Veidt to nameless background performers, they sang their hymn of resistance loud and clear. With it, they sang for their countries, their families, and their lost homes. It’s a powerfully cinematic moment, one that likely helped solidify the human cost and cause of war in the minds of many Americans.
Although Casablanca is a ubiquitous fixture in discussions about the best films of all time, its shine doesn’t seem to have been dulled by repeated viewing and scrutiny. If anything, as time goes by, there is more to appreciate about a film of such magnitude and style, such warmth and bravery, made at a time when the world was sorely lacking in all. And much like the other films usually named best of all time, Casablanca was made under circumstances completely beyond its control that nonetheless shaped the film it would become.
Truly, its lasting legacy across the decades may be the forever echoed words, in film classes and dorm rooms and houses and apartments and first dates, of “Oh my God, you haven’t seen Casablanca?”