When evaluating a piece of art, such as a film, with a critical eye it is crucial to have knowledge of the film’s context in order to properly discern its value and importance. This is especially true in the case of well known films that are still viewed well beyond the years of their premier. In truly evaluative critiques of a film, we must separate the impulsive feelings a film gives us on first viewing from the more informed perceptions we can have on the film from knowing more about what it actually is (Harcourt 7). In the case of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942), there are many portrayals of conflict against authority that are represented in the context of a Hollywood film in the midst of World War II.
First of all, setting the film in the city of Casablanca has a large amount to do with the power play that is set up in the film. The Moroccan city during that time was a place of refuge for many prisoners of war and people escaping various forces, mostly that of Nazi German occupiers. The area itself was Vichy-controlled. There is a certain lawlessness to the place that allows then for individual ambitions to become significant in the portrayals of power.
The character of Captain Louis Renault is the pinnacle of corruption in power. He is portrayed as being morally ambiguous and being more loyal to the highest bidder at any given time than having any real ideological foundations binding him to one cause or another. The fact that he is French contributes to this portrayal as at this time during the war there were sympathies on either side of the Allies or Axis powers as France was becoming occupied. In a more generic sense, however, Renault comes to be symbolic of the corruption of authority. Examples of this are pervasive throughout the film. When Renault is made to shut down Rick’s bar, he makes a comment to the effect of being shocked by the gambling, at which point someone runs up to him to hand him his winnings. The irony here is intended to be humorous, but is altogether too true. Even his loyalty to the Gestapo is brought into question quite blatantly when Renault states that Rick overestimates the power the Gestapo has over him as a captain, declaring that he is the master of his own fate in Casablanca. This perception of authority demonstrates the pure mercenary nature prevalent in authority figures during the war.
The pro-Vichy vs. Free French motif at play in this film is not only demonstrated by the storylines of certain central characters such as Laszlo or Renault, but also by such scenes as the one that leads up to Rick’s bar being shut down. The French patriotically singing “La Marseillaise” to drown out the Germans singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” is highly symbolic of resistance and is one of those memorable film examples of defiance as portrayed in a noncombat, yet explicit way, coming to the moment where Yvonne shouts “Vive la France!” This conflict with authority is a main theme in Casablanca and one which reaches a resolution with the altercation at the plane with Laszlo and Ilsa taking off. Moments before German Major Strasser comes to stop Rick and the plane that is leaving, he is shown near a portrait of Adolf Hitler. The Nazi imagery is abundant. This then makes the moment when Rick shoots him even more representative of America sticking it to Nazi Germany in a very symbolic moment.
It is in this moment as well, that then Renault as a character is portrayed as having had a change of heart upon seeing the extent to which Rick has been motivated by sentimental reasons. In an equally symbolic moment he smashes a bottle that is marked Vichy and offers Rick free passage to a Free French zone. This friendship that transcends lines of authority or power play is meant to be brought on by human emotions and sentimentality in what is best described as a “Hollywood moment”. The casting lends itself to the sort of plot where the sentimentality of a character becomes a plot point that in the end overcomes any sort of predetermined authoritative constructs, even one as oppressive as Nazi Germany. Humphrey Bogart before this role was customarily cast as hardened gangster types, so casting him as a character that sacrifices for love creates the cathartic moment by which these sympathies transcend those of the struggles with authority his character faces. Even from the beginning, his character’s sentiments are hinted at by his supposed shipment of guns to Ethiopia in 1935 or fighting in Spain for the Loyalists is 1936, though he pretends to have no political allegiances for safety’s sake.
Other representations in Casablanca of conflict with authority show the effects that war has on what even constitutes authority. When the man who claims to own the second largest banking house in Amsterdam hopes that this information will gain him favor with Rick at his bar, he is swiftly met with the retort that the leading banker in Amsterdam is now their pastry chef. This exchange speaks to the issue of conceptions of authority and the transitory nature of power by which a man who has his own perceptions of his value and standing can be met with a new contextualization such as wartime Casablanca by which none of his measures of power mean anything.
Casablanca was a movie that was timed very well in terms of its relevance to current events. U.S. military action in the area had made the name of the city one that people were more aware of and the release of the film and its anti-Nazi sentiments were an up-to-date film representation of the nation at that moment. Viewers today are more likely to identify with the film’s romantic tale of love and honor. But if you regard the historical context of the film and view it for its representations of these themes, you will find the portrayals of conflict against authority to be also moving and equally informative.
Curator: Monica Mukherjee