Tuesday, 10 May 2011


The screenplay for Casablanca came from a play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick's based on the travels of Murray Burnett, when, in 1938, he took a trip to aid Jewish relatives in occupied Vienna. Julius and Philip Epstein wrote a large part of the script for the movie and are widely recognised for contributing the witty dialogue. Another writer, Howard Koch, sharpened the political plot. Although he did not receive a writer's credit, Casey Robinson deepened the love story, filling out Ilsa's relationship to Victor and building up the piano player Sam's role as the witness to Rick and Ilsa's passion.

America entered the war after Pearl Harbour happened on 7 Dec 1941. This movie was made in 1942 when the U.S. was suffering in the Pacific and Allied victory seemed far from certain. Throughout the film, the wars outcome is in question. Casablanca is a place of anxiety and uncertainty. The first time we see Rick in the movie he is signing a credit note and the date is 2 Dec 1941, five days before Pearl Harbour. It becomes apparent that one of the key themes in this movie is that when it comes to love or war, you can't remain neutral forever.

0.01.10 - 0.02.15 - Introduction
The film begins and ends with the playing of La Marseillaise, the French National anthem. So the political situation in Europe frames the whole film. Within the first minute of the movie we understand that Casablanca is a place that people pass through on their way to America. There they hope for a better life! Most expatriates in Casablanca are in transit, except for Rick who owns and runs the stylish nightclub and casino, 'Rick's Cafe Americain'. People go there to forget their troubles or gamble for enough money to buy a way of escaping to Lisbon. From there they can fly to America and begin their new life.

During this period Casablanca was a French colony in North Africa. It was part of 'unoccupied France'. France itself was invaded in May 1940 and the Germans set up the Vichy government. Thus France became divided between those who collaborated and those who resisted, (known as the 'French Resistance'). This situation is also reflected in the movie.

0.16.38 - 0.19.25 - Rick the Cynic
In this scene we see Rick talking with Louis, the prefect of Police who announces that an arrest is going to take place in his Cafe and he must not act to protect the person. The exchange is telling and shows that the movie is also a political allegory:

Rick: I stick my neck out for nobody
Louise: A wise foreign policy

At the beginning of the movie Rick appears cynical and detached. Yet whilst he presents himself as having no interest in the problems of people or issues that are going on in the world, yet when the name of Victor Laszlo is mentioned by Louis he is obviously impressed. Laszlo is a famous freedom fighter who escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. Now he is arriving in Casablanca with a beautiful woman, much to the delight of the womanising Prefect.

At one point we see Rick take money from his safe. The director Michael Curtiz focuses on the shadow of Rick. Through this technique he is implying that Rick is now a shadow of the man he used to be. Yet, in Casablanca, he is the one person people tend to trust, because they know that with Rick they will get a fair deal. He delivers on his promises, but he's careful not to promise much!

In this early part of the movie we meet a Rick who does quite act according to his own professed beliefs. What he is truly passionate about leaks through from time to time. But most of the time he presents himself as cold and detached, caring for no-one but himself. For us watching, the issue is, 'why is he like this?' 'What happened to make him this way?'

When Victor and Ilsa arrive we begin to understand.

0.42.30 - 0.45.53 - Rick the Hopeful Romantic
In a drunken stupor, while Sam plays "As Time Goes By" Rick begins to remember 20 months earlier when he and Ilsa knew each other in Paris. The song is clearly their song. This flashback shows us scenes of a couple deeply in love and for the first time we hear the immortal line from Humphrey Bogart, who plays Rick; "Here's looking at you kid".

Rick here is called Richard by Ilsa. The change in name implies a change in the man. In Paris we meet a very carefree and happy Rick. At the conclusion of the scene Rick is waiting at the station for Ilsa, whom he wants to marry. She doesn't come and all he has is a note that declares her love for him, but says they can never be together.

Rick is wanted by the German's and so has no choice but to leave Paris. The rain falls on the note and washes away the words. This too is a powerful metaphor for how all his dreams for this relationship have been washed away, in a moment. As he boards the train he screws up the note throwing it away. Nothing is left for him. No explanation. No hope. No future.

Sometimes in life people disappoint us. They seem to renege on a promise or let us down in some way. This can be hurtful. But it is still possible to suspend judgement until we have all the facts. In the Bible we have the story of Lazarus in John 11. Interestingly Laszlo and Lazarus have the same meaning in the Greek; God has helped. Perhaps the screen writer is making an intentional inference here.

When the Biblical character Lazarus was sick his sisters, well known to Jesus, called for Him to come and heal their brother. Jesus delayed His coming and their brother died. They felt let down. No explanation. No hope. No future for Lazarus, this side of the final judgment. But Jesus loved this family. He genuinely cared. And when He finally came He raised Lazarus from the dead. His actions at the beginning made the two sisters wonder how much He truly loved them. In the end they were left in no doubt.

Perhaps someone has let you down badly. Suspend judgment. Our minds tend to think the worst. Find out the facts first. Once you know the truth you are in a position to decide how to respond. If necessary, choose to forgive the other person from your heart. It will release you from your pain and enable you to move on.

Two more meetings ensue between Rick and Ilsa. Rick learns that Ilsa is in fact the wife of Victor Laszlo and was, even when they were together in Paris. The only way for the Laszlo's to escape is for Rick to sell them the letters of transit that were entrusted to him earlier in the movie. Rick refuses.

1.17.55 - 1.21.07 - Rick's Resentment Resolved
In this scene the desperate Ilsa comes to Rick's apartment and does all she can to persuade him to give her the letters of transit. She even pulls a gun on him demanding he hand them over. Rick refuses and invites her to shoot, "You'll be doing me a favour", such is the depth of his pain. At this point she breaks down and reveals the reason she left him in Paris. She thought that her husband, who had been captured by the Nazi's and sent to a concentration camp, was dead. On the day they were due to leave Paris she found out that Victor was alive.

Rick listens patiently and makes this telling observation; "It's still a story without an ending". Ilsa is in the same dilemma again. Only this time she feels powerless to choose between Rick and her husband Victor. So she puts the outcome in Rick's hands. The only question we are left with now is, "What will Rick do?"

I find a strong resonance with Rick's statement; "It's still a story without an ending". He is of course referring to Ilsa and the choice that must be made by someone. But it also hints to the outcome of the war, which at that time was not known. The ending would largely depend on the choices people would make. Would they act out of self interest, as Rick purports is his approach to life; or will the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Will we see choices made out of self-sacrifice for a higher good?

In a way the gospel is about God's refusal to let the story of His creation end in tragedy. He does not abandon us to our waywardness and self will. Rather, through love, impassioned reckless love, He makes it possible for us all to experience a new ending. His love is expressed through the best known verse of the Bible, John 3.16.

For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

We sometimes feel that God has let us down. But there is nothing fake about His love. It embraces becoming human, becoming a servant, becoming obedient to death. It embraces the shame and blood of the cross because of a vision of a better future for humanity.

Faith connects us to this new destiny. It is a new script, a new life, a new ending. In Jesus we can find forgiveness for sin and a new beginning. Faith is a special kind of choice. It does not rely on information or learning. It is not impressed with the standing, qualifications or noble birth of others. Rather it connects with something deep within each of us. It is a response to truth that we sense in our spirit. It doesn't bypass rational thought but neither is it held hostage to reason. It is willing to go beyond reason and act out of conviction.

In a sense this is what happens by the end of the film. Rick appears to be self serving, finding a way out for him and Ilsa and abandoning Victor to his fate. But the man of conviction is restored once he knows that the love he and Ilsa shared was real. There was nothing fake about it.

1.31.56 - 1.33.45 - Rick the Patriotic Hero
This final scene is one of the most famous in cinematic history. At every turn Rick surprises Louis, the Prefect of Police. The letters of transit are made out to Victor and Ilsa Laszlo. Rick is in effect signing his own death warrant for a greater good. The memory for Paris has now been transformed in his mind. It had value and still has value, "We'll always have Paris" are some of his parting words to Ilsa.

Love can change us. Rick claims he's not good at being noble, but that is exactly what he is doing at this point. Romantic love is wonderful. It lifts us off our feet. It is a strong drink - intoxicating. But there is a kind of love the Bible speaks about that goes beyond romantic love. This love has the well being and happiness of the beloved at heart. It is self-sacrificing. It is self-giving. That is what we see here. It's not your typical Hollywood ending. Ilsa leaves with her husband. It's the right thing to do.

The change in Rick's attitude from isolation to renewed idealism and heroic engagement is often compared to the change in American policy and in public opinion after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Finally Rick is being authentic and makes decisions based on his convictions rather than fear, unbelief, expediency or disappointment. I hope this story inspires you to do the same. Self-giving love is the highest expression of love and always leaves us more whole as people.

The final point of tension is to know what will happen to Rick at the end as Ilsa and Victor make their escape. I'll let you watch the rest of the movie to see how it turns out, but even at the end, there is another humorous twist.