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Casablanca – One of the films we love – not the films we simply admire





Casablanca – Michael Curtiz (1942)
If you haven’t seen Casablanca in the cinema, on a big screen – you haven’t really ever seen it. Critics and people who write about movies because they love them can analyse the difference this makes in rational terms but the power great films like this, and it is a great film, have when seen in the proper setting for which they were made and in which they were originally enjoyed, is an experience that beggars mere description.
If asked what was the greatest popular art form created in the 20th century I think I would plump for the 3-minute pop song. I can think of nothing that has so touched the lives of so many people; that captures key moments, special relationships, and precious events in the immense diversity of everyday lives than these scraps of melody with their simple lyrics that appear to have been written just for each of us, individually or as a couple. They are our cherished milestones of memory of past joys and past sadnesses that will never leave us, until the day we die.

It has nothing to do with intellectual depth, musical skill or lyrical complexity – they just touch and move us with the immediacy of drink when thirsty and food when hungry. The power of the 3 minute pop song is proven every week on Desert Island Discs when everyone from philosophers to jockeys, business tycoons to royalty, composers to professors all share their own special snippets of transparent, often banal, word and sound that have taken on an emotional power that transcends their simplicity.

Casablanca is the 3-minute pop song of movies stretched out over 102 minutes of perfect film-making: simple, economical, iconic and can even now, 70 years on, despite its familiarity and often clichéd place in our culture, still move us and make us cry.

No one can set out to make the kind of movie Casablanca has become for us: most of the participants over time have expressed their surprise and bewilderment at its cherished place in our culture. What it must have been like for people trapped in the profound uncertainty and daily threat of the necessity to prevail in a world-wide total war cannot be imagined. The impact upon people not saturated as we are day by day, with an endless tapestry of images and sound, must have been overwhelming.

Our retrospective view of the First World War has settled into a deep sadness at the tragic waste or young life on both sides; and increasingly a sense of anger at the sheer pointlessness of it all. But WWII remains uniquely a morally black and white war, probably the last: a necessary struggle if not for the triumph of Good, then at least the uncompromising defeat of evil. One of the many strands in Casablanca that make up its perfect weave is the unequivocal moral certitude of its context. A love snatched from chaos, lost, regained and sacrificed to a greater good draws an air of credibility from the actual historical context of its making and its narrative.

But this does not wholly account for the staying power of Casablanca 70 years on. Modern cinemagoers have a sense of poignancy not available to the original audiences: we know that the radiant beauty of Ingrid Bergman faded and died; that the potent masculine screen presence of Bogart got old and ended in a painful death. And yet, though Bergman and Bogart succumbed to the mortality we all face and perhaps fear; Rick and Ilsa are immortal, ever young; beauty and handsomeness untouched by time. This sense of timelessness is brilliantly captured within the narrative of Casablanca itself: Ilsa and Rick’s love is itself locked unchanging, unchanged by the domestication of a life shared together and the inevitable compromises real life demands. Just as our personal songs remind us of the passions and excesses of youth; so Rick and Ilsa remind us of what it was liketo be in love completely and overwhelmingly. However much we are sustained and content with the real life, mature love of long-term relationship, Casablanca offers an echo of a beautiful melody we either once heard or perhaps wish we had.

Most next world religions, notably Christianity have a narrative that offers us solace and comfort before our mortality. However faithful, billons of people around the world do not cherish or cling to faith because of intellectual argument or theological complexity. Most of us, believer or not, want to believe that our self and especially the self of our loved ones will survive beyond death. Priests and religious leaders will talk about almost anything rather than what ‘heaven’ might actually be like for it is a hope and longing that becomes harder to sustain the more questions you ask of it. Whatever the deep complexities of faith – somewhere at their heart is a story, a narrative, that satisfies our universal human desire to mitigate our sense of mortality.

Of course I’m not equating the transient appeal of a film to the depth of comfort and solace faith gives to many. However there is something comforting, exhilarating about re-visiting a story where youth and beauty are free of the tyranny of time; love is unchanged and unchanging and though contrived – perfect. Human beings have called this many things over centuries: fairy tale, myth, religious narrative etc etc. The desire to see our lives as a story appears to be one of the deepest needs of human beings for in that way we find purpose and meaning.

We know Casablanca is not real; we know it could never be real; but that people all around the world, 70 years after it was made, can be touched and even moved to tears by it, choose it as something through which to celebrate a new or a long-standing love can only be because it touches something deep within us. Those few films with the iconic cultural power of Casablanca; Singin’ In The Rain is another; transcend their material, defy rational analysis and critique. They are the special films we love – not just the films we admire.

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