Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca!

Review of Casablanca, Directed by Michael Curtiz

It’s December of 1941 in sunny, depressing Casablanca, where refugees flock in an attempt to flee the ravages of Nazi-infested Europe. They flock to Vichy-controlled Casablanca, and there they stay—unless Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains) cares to bestow upon them the coveted exit visas that will allow them to catch the plane to Portugal and thence to freedom. These visas are a precious commodity, and Renault is careful only to trade them for sufficient monetary remuneration … or other favors, if the lady is attractive and willing. For those without such “assets” at their disposal, there is nothing to do but wait.

In the meantime, there’s Rick’s Café Americain. Everybody goes to Rick’s. What the heck else is there to do? At Rick’s, you can always find good music (courtesy of Sam), a stiff drink, and a roulette wheel obligingly holding out the hope of a better tomorrow. Yep, business is definitely booming for Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), the jaded and cynical proprietor of the club that bears his name. He gets along fine with the local authorities and keeps clear of all the political drama—‘I stick my neck out for nobody’ is the Blaine motto, and it serves him well.

All of this changes, however, the day Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks into the bar. It turns out she and Rick have something of a history, and, well, I guess you could say he never really got over it. Trouble is, she’s not alone. She’s accompanied by a well-known Czech Resistance leader named Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who just so happens to be her husband. The visiting Nazi officers want Victor’s head on a pike, and they’re bound and determined to keep him from leaving Casablanca alive. And it looks like the Nazis just might get their way. Or they would, were it not for some extremely valuable ‘letters of transit’ that have gone missing. He who bears a coveted ‘letter of transit’ can escape the cesspool of Casablanca, no questions asked. 

Romantic, thrilling, Nazi-thwarting Shenanigans ensue.

There are so many reasons to love this movie. The clever, zippy, Oscar-winning script, chock full of deliciously quotable one-liners … the joy of watching the gruff and grizzled Humphrey Bogart woo the luminous Ingrid Berman … the inimitable Claude Rains smarming and charming his way across the screen and tossing off bon mots left and right … the sweeping score built around the French national anthem and the nostalgic-from-the-moment-it-was-penned ‘As Time Goes By’ … the moral ambiguity of even the most admirable characters … the brilliant supporting performances by Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre … yes, there is plenty here for the movie lover to appreciate. Personally, I’ve always been captivated by the history of the film—the providential goings on that ‘accidentally’ contributed to its timeless genius. Suffice to say, there’s a reason it shows up on pretty much everybody’sbes tfilms’ list.

However, there’s no denying that much of Casablanca’s acclaim and enduring popularity is due to its rather unconventional ending. [STOP READING HERE TO AVOID SPOILERS.] The film relies heavily on the tension of a love triangle. Rick loves Ilsa. Victor Laszlo loves Ilsa. Ilsa loves … well, that’s just it. Who does Ilsa love? She used to love Rick, we know. But she is married to Victor. What’s a girl to do? And, more importantly, what’s Rick to do? As the movie comes to a close, our three leads find themselves at the Casablanca airstrip. Ilsa is faced with a tough decision—stay with her husband or rekindle the romance with the love of her life?

In the end, Rick decides for her. See, he knows that he loves her. And he knows that she loves him. But he also knows that there’s more to the equation than just the two of them.

Last night, we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then and it all adds up to one thing. You’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong. […] Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life. […] I’ve got a job to do too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

This is the reason Casablanca has endured. Rick Blaine doesn’t choose personal happiness. He chooses sacrifice. He gives up the woman he loves because it’s the right thing to do―because there’s more to life than just what he wants. In this situation, his romantic desires, no matter how passionate or sincere, should not be indulged. He even gives three reasons for squelching their desires: concern for others, concern for the object of his affection, and concern for a greater cause. Rick realizes that giving in to ‘love’ will hurt other people—in this case, Victor and those who would be helped by the work he does. Rick also wants to spare Ilsa the inevitable regret of abandoning her husband and his cause. And finally,  Rick acknowledges that there is something bigger at stake than their little drama.

Oh, how I wish we would remember this today. In America, it seems like romance and passion rule the day without challenge—and not just in the secular culture, either. Christians fall prey to this misguided thinking, too. There is a disturbing amount of agreement across religious lines: If you love someone, and they love you, then you have a right to be with that person, and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. Love conquers all, indeed.

Instead of making ourselves slaves to our romantic desires, we would do well to remember the wisdom of Rick Blaine. You love someone else’s husband? Too bad. Your husband doesn’t do it for you anymore? Tough luck. Your wife doesn’t understand you? Get over it.

There’s more to life than your own personal romantic entanglements. Much, much more. Our actions affect others—every act of infidelity, every divorce leaves pain and turmoil in its wake. The knowledge that we have caused that pain will—or should—weigh heavily on our hearts, and we are doomed to a lifetime of remorse for past selfishness. And finally, most importantly, our romantic choices are inextricably interwoven with a cause greater than ourselves.

For Rick and Ilsa, the ‘something more’ was the war effort. For Christians, the ‘something more’ is the overriding desire to be obedient to God’s Word and to glorify Him by our actions.  We don’t just ask ‘what do we want?’—we ask ‘what does God say?’ And if what He says clashes with what we want, well, then we let go of what we want and do what He says, trusting that He knows what He’s doing. (Or we should, anyway. Whether we actually do is another matter.)

This calculus pops up all over our lives, but it is particularly relevant to our understanding of marriage. God has told us in His Word that marriage is a picture of the Gospel—a representation of the sacrificial love demonstrated by Jesus Christ when He took our place and sacrificed Himself so that we would be spared the penalty of our sins. By His death on our behalf, He has enabled us to be reconciled to God through Him, and to live forever in perfect fellowship with Him. In response to this incredible love, we cleave to Him, submitting joyfully to His leadership in our lives and striving to honor Him in all we do. And when, as will inevitably be the case, we sin against one another, we image His love by forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave us.

This is the image we are meant to see—meant to project—in marriage. When we dishonor marriage, we misrepresent God and tell lies about Him to the world. So when our desires tempt us to violate our wedding vows, to seek our own interests rather than those of the spouse we swore to honor, we must remember that there is something much greater at stake than our passions. Instead of abandoning our vows, we humbly seek the Lord, asking for His grace and mercy in our lives. We pray for our hearts to be softened to our loved ones, and that we would lose our taste for sin. Rather than succumbing to our own selfishness, we seek to honor and cherish and serve others. And along the way, we discover something wonderful: “When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

The most loving thing Rick ever did for Ilsa was sacrifice his own desires by putting her on that plane. This is the act that sets Casablanca apart from more conventional love stories. We also must strive to sacrifice our desires for greater good—the well-being of our fellow man and the glory of God.

One last reminder: Every one of us has at some point chosen to obey our desires rather than God. We have sinned against our spouses, our families, our friends—and for that, we deserve God’s wrath. But praise the Lord, there is hope for us. There is forgiveness for our sins. If we believe the Gospel, then every last one of our sins is ‘nailed to the cross and [we] bear it no more.’ Praise the Lord, indeed.

Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.

  • David Miller

    Beautifully said!


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