Every once in a while, I spotlight the film CASABLANCA. And nearly each time I do, an email arrives suggesting I rethink my endorsement of that film. One complains of adultery portrayed, another has a problem with Rick (Humphrey Bogart) owning a bar. Someone else mentions the smoking. And then there is the gambling. But even though my admiration for this classic stems from its themes of love, honor and patriotism, as well as that incisive, witty dialogue, there's always a few who feel we shouldn't praise it too highly. Balderdash, I say. But courteously.
First of all, I want those folks to know I'm sorry that something I've recommended caused a check in their spirit about my work. And second, I wonder what films they do feel comfortable with. It's hard to find a film made by either secular filmmakers or Christians that doesn't contain something someone will find objectionable.
Hopefully, after this full-out explanation of my love affair with this, the second best film ever made (IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE gets my vote for best film), those who have an affection for the film will see what I'm trying to do when I recommend it. And, hopefully, those who raise an eyebrow over its content may gain a new perspective for this film.
In 1996, THE ENGLISH PATIENT wowed critics (not this one) and it went on to win several Oscars, including one for Best Picture. That film frustrated me because its theme and its protagonists presented the antithesis of those uplifted in CASABLANCA.
Set against the African campaign during WW2, THE ENGLISH PATIENT's story mixes the present with the lead's memories of an adulterous affair. Well-made, but in it the man sells out his country for the woman he loves – just the opposite of what Rick Blaine did in CASABLANCA.
CASABLANCA, the 1942 Best Picture Oscar winner and now considered by many film historians and fans as the best film of all time, contains not one false or ineffective camera angle, line or performance. What's more, there are messages of morality included, or at least examples of strong character. By film's end, Rick and Ilsa have set aside their passion to do what's right for the world. Indeed, love, honor, and patriotism prevail.
For the two people in the entire world who haven't seen it, let me offer up the synopsis: Nightclub owner Rick Blaine runs Rick's Café Americain in war-torn Morocco, a country where everyone but Rick wants to escape. World weary, the elusive Rick finds his world turned upside down when a long-lost love picks his gin joint, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, to walk into. The beautiful Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is looking for letters of transit for her and husband Victor, in order to escape Nazis incarceration. Distraught, Rick wants revenge for being dumped by Ilsa, but his love for her overrides his bruised heart. And, he can't help but admire Victor, a heroic underground resistance leader.
So what's the problem with this film for us Christians? Well, let's take the smoking issue first. Smoking was an accepted practice when this film was made, and even though I suspect that at the time realists realized that it was an unhealthy habit, the practice went unchecked. Here, it is glamorized to the hilt, with shots of smoldering smoke billowing about the film's stars (as well as all the extras) while they out-wit and out-bon-mot the villains. Well, can't we learn from their ignorance of tobacco's dangers? Bogie died from cancer, as did many other celebrities who smoked endlessly in the movies. Today, when we see someone inhale tobacco's noxious ingredients, getting it real deep in their lungs, it has to come across as lunacy. No offense to those who still struggle with that addiction, but for those of us who don't smoke, we just can't figure why people would start.
Those clouds of smoke may have made for good atmosphere and terrific mood-enhanced lighting, but that atmospheric cinematography should now remind us of the message on each and every cigarette package: Cigarette smoking has been proven…
Next, there's Rick's ownership of a bar. Well, by the end of Act 3, he has sold the bar and moved on to a more fulfilling occupation – fighting for justice.
The big complaint – adultery – doesn't really exist, at least in my mind. They had a romance when Ilsa thought her husband was dead. As soon as she discovers Victor (Paul Henreid) is alive, she drops Rick in a Moroccan minute, leaving him at the train station with a "comical look on his face."
When they are reunited by fate, their passion for one another is rekindled, but ultimately denied. They realize the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. (I suspect that phrase would be retooled if the film were remade.) They separate, realizing they have a moral obligation to aid a world at war.
We live in a culture that tends toward me-ism, but there are still those among us who put country first. Our military men and women are making this sacrifice as they deploy around the world, separating themselves from their family and friends in order to bring democracy and safety to the world and our nation. CASABLANCA helps explain why those who make up the armed forces do what they do.
I must bow, however, to the one grievance I am unable to defend. Rick's place fosters gambling in the backroom. I guess I pay little attention to gambling in movies because I've never been a gambler, nor temped to visit casinos. Once, in college, I played Monopoly with my girlfriend and our two best friends. I was the banker, I cheated all through the game (as a joke – they knew), and I still lost. Right then and there I wisely realized I had no luck with games of chance.
As for the gambling in the film, it is somewhat glamorized, and I have no defense for that. Have you ever met a successful gambler? Most vacationers who go to Las Vegas feel they have won if they don't lose more than the allotted amount they brought with them for just that purpose. I've known people who won cars and even lots of money, but a year later, they were scrambling to pay their debts and/or doing time in rehab. Gambling destroys lives, relationships and families. That's hard to glamorize, or should be. But need we avoid CASABLANCA because of the three or four scenes depicting gambling in the backroom of Rick's?
When you think about it, the act of gambling is actually ridiculed in the film. It makes it clear that the odds are always with the house, and the only person in the film who wins is a young girl Rick pities. He allows her to win enough so she and her husband can purchase visas to America. The newlyweds wouldn't have won unless Rick fixed the game. The house is always in control unless those who run it make a mistake. That's pointed out, as well.
So there you have it. The film doesn't make me want to smoke or gamble or commit adultery. I'm seeing it as a parable about a more noble matter: putting others – and our nation – before our own needs. Now, if you choose not to view CASABLANCA because you feel it doesn't strengthen your spiritual muscles – well, then, you are doing the right thing because you are trying to honor God and be a positive witness. That's a very good thing. If you can watch the film and be uplifted and come away with a sense of honor's worth, I think that is also good.
By the way, anybody have a problem with IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE? Synopsis: A man considering suicide is given the chance to see what life for others would be like if he had never been born. The Christmas classic reinforces the belief that our compassion and responsibility do make a difference in the lives of those with whom we come in contact. But what's this, the lead character is seen sitting in a bar, drinking! Looking closely, you'll see that George Bailey's glass is half empty. Or is it half full?
Immortal lines from Casablanca:
Bogart: "I came to Casablanca for the waters."
Rains: "The waters? What waters? We're in the desert."
Bogart: "I was misinformed."
"I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue."
"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine."
"I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
"Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win."
"Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects."
"If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life."
"Here's looking at you, kid."
Phil Boatwright reviews films for www.previewonline.org, movierreporter.com and several other Christian-owned outlets.