“Play it again, Sam.”
Those words are a myth, never uttered on screen in Casablanca (1942). “Play it” yes. And the music starts and Sam croons in that black-and-white, smoke-tinged gin joint, but no one asks him to play it “again.” The line is misquoted.
There’s a certain poetry in that mistake, though. How can one play or recreate the magic of Casablanca again? Great stories can never be remade or recaptured. Magic can only really happen once. It may sound hokey, but that is what Casablanca is: magic, a masterpiece of Hollywood cinema. Don’t believe me? Just go to the critics who constantly and consistently place Casablanca into their top ten films of all time.
Yet, for a film that has survived to be beloved 70+ years later, it deals in a very specific set of circumstances. For a refresher, the year is 1941, and the place is Casablanca in French Morocco. An exotic, cosmopolitan city full of “vultures,” Casablanca is the last pit stop for European refugees wishing to escape to America through Lisbon. The only thing they need to complete their journey: an exit visa, obtained in any way possible. Seemingly at the center of this city is the American Richard Blaine (Humphrey Bogart). Unable to return to the US for some unsaid reason, Rick fills his time running the most popular gin joint in town and stubbornly refusing to step into the European conflict. That is until his old flame, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), comes to Casablanca, looking for a way to obtain exit visas for herself and her husband, the famed freedom fighter Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). Through her presence and the resulting love triangle, Rick is pulled back into the fray and forced to take sides in conflict.
When I first saw this film, years ago, it was in the context of learning about American isolationism, a foreign policy that kept the US hesitant and insular for most of the first half of the 20th century. That thing about Rick sticking his “neck out for nobody” and people being “asleep all over America” is supposed to be an allegory for America’s stance during the beginning of WWII, before Pearl Harbor pulled them into the fighting.
In fact, the script changed every day during production as the US’s position in the war also changed. Developed at a time when the US was still oscillating between stepping in or keeping out and premiering when the nation was collectively gearing up to fight, Casablanca is a shifting document to the history that was happening around it.
Considering the historical context it ended up debuting in, it’s no wonder the film eventually ends on a note of self-sacrifice. That was what had to be done by citizens and soldiers alike if they were going to help the Allies win the war. Sacrifice is also a theme throughout the film. Victor Laszlo, for example, loves his wife, but still risks his life and hers in the fight against the Nazis. He is dedicated to what he sees as a good war, a dedication that rises above any one person or relationship.
As Rick eventually concludes: “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.”
So if Casablanca is deeply ingrained in the political climate of the time, why do we continue to come back to it, year after year? Simple. It deals with the most universal theme of all time: love.
The concept of self-sacrifice is a form of unconditional love for something bigger than oneself. It was a love that was relevant at the time, yes, but, in some shape or form, it continues on even today. People always have to have something to fight for.
And even on a smaller level, Casablanca contains easily one of the greatest film romances of all time. The will-they-won’t-they love triangle between Victor, Rick, and Ilsa has been referenced and parodied dozens of times over the years, by the likes of Woody Allen and The Simpsons. This fixation is mainly due to how their relationship plays with our heartstrings, making us believe that there could be a way, some way, any way they could end up together, even though it’s clearly doomed from the start. Although the outcome was unclear during production, it’s apparent that, given the social norms and regulatory codes of the time, the bachelor and the married woman could never end up together. But the love and intensity of that love still lingers.
It is the love that holds it all together carries it above the flows of history and gives it an endurance that few films of this type and that era achieve. Casablanca is mono-hued world trapped in time, but in a way that endlessly fascinates and endears. So while the circumstances that produced the film and the consequent magic that it generated may never be recreated, love’s universality traps the story in our hearts and minds, letting it remain and play…again and again.