War stories

casablanca

Silk’s Post #59 – I’m always conflicted by conflict.

doveIn my head, I’m a confirmed dove. I’m against violence. Of all kinds. Period. I’d be happier if the entire world dis-armed. Bombs, guns, everything. I can’t grasp any intellectual justification for war. It’s always destructive and never constructive.

There. I’m out of the dove closet. I freely admit that this is not necessarily a good characteristic for a writer. Conflict is our stock in trade. Like all human beings, however, I have another side.

hawkIn my heart, I’m often a hawk. Push me and I’m more likely to push back than turn the other cheek. I’m inclined to fight for the underdog. I hate bullies, liars and hypocrites. Sometimes an eye for an eye is the only conceivable response.

Sorry, any of you out there who used to think I was such a nice lady. Now you know I can be as bloodthirsty as the next person. And now you know why conflict is such a conflict for me.

But maybe this internal contradiction isn’t so unusual. In fact, maybe it’s common – even virtually universal. How else can you explain the enduring popularity of dramatic war stories – the kind of stories that mirror the external conflict of battle with the gut-wrenching internal conflict that tortures their characters? There’s a reason that the sphere in which fighting takes place is called the theatre of war.

I was mulling this over yesterday as I watched the classic 1942 movie Casablanca for probably the dozenth time. I never get through it with dry eyes. Has there ever been a more enduringly popular cinematic war story? Not according to legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who noted it was “probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title,” and gave it the edge for first place, simply because it is so loved.

In November 1942, just as the Allied forces were invading North Africa in real-life World War II, Casablanca, starring the incomparable Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as star-crossed lovers, opened in the Hollywood Theatre in New York City. Critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it, “a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.”

While it was a box-office success story from the beginning, it wasn’t the biggest hit of 1943 (that was For Whom the Bell Tolls, another dramatic story about an entirely different war). Casablanca, however, won Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Writing/Screenplay (Julius and Phillip Epstein, Howard Koch) at the 1943 Academy Awards.

What makes Casablanca unique, however, is that it has not only maintained its stature over the past 71 years (yes, 71 – count ’em), it has actually become more popular. It is the most frequently broadcast film on American television. It continues to be screened in movie theatres, notably around college campuses. It has been at or near the top of virtually every list of great movies over the decades, from Time magazine, to the Writers Guild of America, the American Film Institute and the IMDb website. And it is still a favourite home movie pick, the latest release being a 70th Anniversary Blu-ray/DVD collector’s edition in 2012.

So, what can we writers learn from Casablanca?

Does it endure because it’s an icon of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as the LA Times suggested on the film’s 50th anniversary? Is it the romantic chemistry between Bogart and Bergman that keeps people watching it again and again? Is it the direction? The cinematography? The script?

As good as all those things are (even the elements that, to our modern eyes and ears, seem dated, even hokey), I think the secret to Casablanca’s success is story, pure and simple.

Film critic Murray Burnett called it “true yesterday, true today, true tomorrow.”

Bestselling writer and critic Umberto Eco wrote that, as a movie, “by any strict critical standards … Casablanca  is a very mediocre film … a comic strip … a hotch potch.” But listen to what he thought about it as a story:

” … as we enter Rick’s Place  … at once a tangle of Eternal Archetypes comes into play. These are situations that have presided over stories throughout the ages. But usually to make a good story a single archetypal situation is enough. More than enough. Unhappy Love, for example, or Flight. But Casablanca is not satisfied with that: It uses them all. The city is the setting for a Passage, the passage to the Promised Land … But to make the passage, one must submit to a test, the Wait.

The passage from the waiting room to the Promised land requires a Magic Key, the visa. It is around the winning of this Key that passions are unleashed. Money (which appears at various points, usually in the form of the Fatal Game, roulette) would seem to be the means for obtaining the Key. But eventually we discover that the Key can be obtained only through a Gift – the gift of the visa, but also the gift Rick makes of his Desire by sacrificing himself. For this is also the story of a round of Desires, only two of which are satisfied: that of Victor Laszlo, the purest of heroes, and that of the Bulgarian couple. All those whose passions are impure fail.

Thus, we have another archetype: The Triumph of Purity. The impure do not reach the Promised Land … but they do achieve purity through sacrifice – and this means Redemption. Rick is redeemed and so is the French police captain. We come to realize that underneath it all there are two Promised Lands: One is America … and the other is the Resistance – the Holy War. That is where Victor has come from, and that is where Rick and the captain are going … 

Into this orgy of sacrificial archetypes … is inserted the theme of Unhappy Love: unhappy for Rick, who loves Ilsa and cannot have her; unhappy for Ilsa, who loves Rick and cannot leave with him; unhappy for Victor, who understands that he has not really kept Ilsa. 

Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology … in it there unfolds with almost telluric force the power of Narrative in its natural state, without Art intervening to discipline it … When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion … the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime … If nothing else, it is a phenomenon of awe.”

No wonder Casablanca has proved to be difficult to classify in terms of genre. Is it a romance? A melodramatic war story? A morality tale about sacrifice?

It’s all of these, of course. But in my mind, it is the balance between internal and external conflicts which resonates so strongly with audiences that they fall in love with the story – perhaps in spite of themselves. It’s the eternal struggle of humans of free will trying to make their way in a dangerous and chaotic world beyond their control.

Or as Rick cornily says to Ilsa in the famous parting scene at the airport, as the night fog shrouds their embrace, “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.”

So could this story be told as dramatically without the wartime background? Maybe. But you’d have to build another story world that delivers danger, chaos and moral dilemma as well as a war does.

Epilogue: Writers Take Note

In 1982, a freelance writer named Chuck Ross decided to perpetrate a hoax with a mission. Would literary agents recognize a great story like Casablanca if they saw it? Maybe he was sick of rejections and wanted to cheer himself up.

He submitted the Casablanca script under his own name to 217 agencies, reverting to the title of the original play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison from which the movie screenplay derived: Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

Of the 38 movie agencies that actually read it, but did not recognize it as Casablanca, 35 rejected it outright, with comments such as the following:

“I gave you five pages to grab me – didn’t do it.”

“I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could’ve been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it.”

“Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script.”

The lesson here? Never give up in the face of rejections. Here’s looking at you, kid.

poppy-image

Remembrance Day 2013. Lest we forget.

2 thoughts on “War stories

  1. Pingback: Casablanca (1942) | FILMOVI ONLINE NVTV

  2. Pingback: Casablanca (1942) | Video Nvtv

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