Sunday, 25 April 2010

Casablanca as Hero’s Journey

An academic piece.

Part One:
Structure Breakdown of Casablanca in accordance with Chris Vogler, ‘A Practical Guide’, from The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters, adapted from the precepts of Joseph Campbell.

Act One

Ordinary World
Casablanca: French Vichy government; German influence; Moroccan street culture in contrast with refugees. French-run bureaucracy and police.
Casablanca as terminus for a “torturous” refugee trail.
• Rick and his Café Amercain at the centre of temporarily stable sociopolitical situation.
• Flashback to peaceful pre-diaspora Paris.

Call to Adventure/Disruption
• Murder of German couriers by Ugarte to obtain Letters of Transit. Letters of Transit as MacGuffins.
• Strasser’s arrival.
• Round-up of “usual suspects” and arrest of Ugarte.
• Arrival of Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund; their requests of Rick to help obtain the Letters of Transit.
• Ugarte’s pleading with Rick to aid him before arrest.
• Carl’s implorations for Rick to attend underground meetings.
• Hint of Supernatural Aid: the nature of fate. “Of all the gin joints in all the world” etc.

Refusal of the Call
• “I stick my neck out for no-one.” Will not aid Ugarte.
• Rick as isolationist, “no longer a practical foreign policy”.
• Refusing to attend underground meetings with Carl.
• Rick gets drunk, will not listen to Ilsa’ explanations.

Meeting with the Mentor
• Victor Laszlo as mentor, coaxing Rick into action.
• Renault as false mentor, purveyor of cynicism and egotism.

Crossing the First Threshold
• Rick’s dissolving habits. “Breaking a precedent” in drinking with Victor and Ilsa, etc.
• Aiding the Romanian husband and wife.
• Rick’s giving approval to the band to play “La Marseillaise” for Laszlo.

Act Two

Tests, Allies, Enemies
• Road of Trials for Rick: Fall of France and former life; Ilsa’s abandonment;
disillusionment; Ilsa’s return as married woman; gaining possession of the Visas; contending with Strasser.
• Rick’s tests of character and moral compass:
- Refusing entrance for the Deutsche Bank representative to the gaming room.
- Resisting the interrogation by German officers.
- Fends off efforts by Renault, Strasser, and Victor to discover his inner mind.
- Refusing Ugarte aid reflects disgust with killing for profit.
- Helps the Bulgarian girl. Proves he’s “a rank sentimentalist”.
- La Marseillaise scene.
• Allies:
- Allies defined by personal loyalty: Carl, Sacha, Sam, employees of Rick’s Café.
- Potential allies: Ilsa, Victor, Capt. Renault.
- Ilsa as Temptress/Goddess
• Enemies:
- Strasser and his entourage.
- False enemy: Renault.

Approach to the Inmost Cave
• Renault’s office at Police Headquarters. Here Ilsa and Victor are told of Ugarte’s death; Strasser outlays his plans to defeat Victor.
• Rick confronted by Ilsa in his own office; forced to reckon with his pain, his anger, and listen to her story. Discovery of truth and forging of new intimacy, new plans.

• Rick’s Café closed and smashed up by the authorities.
• Victor injured escaping from Underground meeting.
• Rick and Ilsa confront each-other; her threat to shoot him; their moral and emotional quandary.
• Rick appears to betray Victor with Ilsa’s connivance – the momentary appearance of total moral chaos.
• Rick manoeuvring to get Victor out of jail, out of the country. An escape against all odds. Both “rescue from within” and “magic flight”.
• Confrontation with Strasser, shoot-out; threat of arrest.

• False rewards: Rick regains Ilsa’s love, her vow to abandon Victor, escape to America.
• True rewards: renewed will to fight; a “beautiful friendship”; renewed self-respect; punishment of the tyrant and escape; new awareness of people’s potential for good.

Act Three

The Road Back
• Rick as walking dead man, a failure by his own moral & emotional standards, gives way to Rick exhorting Ilsa to suborn her desires, as he is, to the cause.
• “Welcome back to the fight” – Victor’s congratulations – Rick’s return to his status as fighter. Benediction of the Mentor.
• Rick’s departure with Renault. Renault and Rick as “masters of two worlds”
– Rick manipulates his enemy to help Ilsa and Victor escape; Renault uses
his status to save Rick, “resurrects” him.

Return with the Elixir
• The elixir as will to fight, the cause of battling Nazi tyranny
• Love of Ilsa; fellowship of Victor and Renault.
• “Freedom to live” – recaptured values and sense of will that enable freedom
to oppose tyranny.

Part Two – Commentary

Casablanca, as well as being a generic melodrama, belongs to a genre of World War 2- era propaganda films, in being about, as Danny Peary put it, “a man who is sitting out the war and ignoring the Cause because of personal problems, (and) comes to realize that he, like all individuals, has an important part to play.” It is, at least in part, designed to inspire a state of moral and emotional excitement and commitment. It takes place in the days before Pearl Harbour, and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) will be roused to act as the US was roused. Chris Vogler proposes that “the values of the Hero’s journey are what’s important”, and it is crucial in Casablanca that Rick join the fight against Nazism. The film presents a hero composed of assured strengths but also wounded ideals and feelings, who will only commit to war having demonstrated to his own satisfaction the point of doing so. The aims of Heroic narrative and propaganda converge in Rick, as the film attempts to generate a heroic drama in a contemporaneous political context.

Casablanca’s plot commences with a prologue of omniscient perspective, which emphasises the end of a settled, ordered existence. But this also outlines the formation of a tenuous way of life in Casablanca, functioning in a delicate equilibrium, distinct from the polarities of the war. It is defined as a place in stasis, of flux. Refugees can neither go forward nor back. Captain Louis Renault having the “usual suspects” rounded up provides an illusion of movement but also the truth of immobility. This cynical act segues into two important plot details: Renault knows the real criminal, as he informs Major Strasser, who has arrived specifically to contain Laszlo, the man for whom Ugarte intended the Letters of Transit. He personifies the force of evil expanding from Europe. “We Germans must get used to all climates, from the Arctic to the Sahara.” he announces. Already, the equilibrium in Casablanca is altering, and the state of flux is primed to collapse. Microcosmic and macrocosmic connections are emphasised. When the gendarmerie shoot down one of their “usual suspects”, he collapses before a poster of Marshall Petain, violence on the street and the political landscape thus entwined; the Gaullist literature the dead man has on him counters the Petain image and slogan.

Most, if not all, of the characters in Casablanca are defined by what they have already lost, in homes, status, jobs, and loved-ones. The ordinary world is already lost. The core flashback, in which Rick recalls his Parisian romance with Ilsa, reveals they lived in a bliss that was a-historical. Ilsa and Rick insisted on a relationship free of specificity regarding past lives. The temporal displacement of this key sequence emphasises that this is past, transmuted into nostalgia, and that such wilful existence outside the terms of history could not continue. Fate, and history, must take their course. In contemplating Rick and Ilsa’s affair after its end is already known, clues to its fundamental instability gain in urgency. In coming with the Nazi invasion, Rick’s loss of Ilsa is linked to the world’s loss of cohesion, the failure of the island from history they attempted to build. The flashback partly solves some mysteries, but also presents further mysteries, continuing to sustain emotional tension.

This is the backdrop to the situation of Richard Blaine, heroic exemplar of the microcosmic/macrocosmic clash. His own state is one of neutrality. Much about Rick remains hazy, and, tellingly, the subject of mythmaking within the film, especially by Renault. Even the efficient Gestapo have some “vague” points in their dossier. Rick remains only partly delineated figure, with a mysterious background, and seems purposefully conceived as a “shadowy antagonist…the same as the figures who appear in our dreams and fantasies” (Vogler, 1999: 2). He summarises some then-popular archetypes. With his shady past and knowledge of “certain parts of New York”, he could be a gangster. His mixture of terse manliness and wounded heart, associated with tragic romance and the Spanish Civil War, is reminiscent of Hemingway’s heroes.

Rick’s exceptional status is such that he is first introduced by reputation. Everyone comes to Rick’s. When the film comes to Rick’s, the structure of the scene serves as a fanfare for a hero’s entrance. Following a series of shots that introduce the interior of the Café and its denizens, a waiter brings a cheque for Rick to sign, and only his right hand enters the frame. This composition, unlike those of the other characters, gives him the benefit of initial anonymity. His status is not immediately on show. He is distinct from the milieu. A high-angle shot of him writing: O.K. Rick. Only then follows a pullback shot, revealing the complete man, pondering a chess-board. He is defined like a heroic king of myth: kingdom; minions; visitors waiting for an audience at court; his right hand of power. Rick OKs things, he plots the moves. His potency has been visually confirmed before he speaks a word.

Carl, Renault, Ilsa and Victor prod him to see what he’ll do. Ugarte begs him to help him. The Germans suspect and fear him. There is an assumption that what Rick decides to do will be of great consequence. Rick is associated with many friends and allies, again dovetailing the patterns of heroic narrative with a requirement of the propaganda film. A quick glance at other films of the period – e.g. The 49th Parallel (1941), The Demi-Paradise (1943) Sahara (1943), etc – reveals an emphasis on groups of varying political and ethnic identities grouping together to fight the common enemy, just as the Allies were doing in the war. Thus Rick is surrounded by Sacha (Russian), Yvonne (French), Ilsa (Norwegian), Victor (Czech), Carl (presumably Hungarian-Jewish like actor S.Z. Sakall) – all who have suffered Nazi persecution. If, in Heroic narrative, allies confirm the moral position of the hero, this is vital in such a milieu. Most integral is the influence Rick has on Renault, converting him through example of action to the side of anti-Fascism.

Ilsa and Victor herald a double disruption. Victor’s arrival counteracts Strasser’s – the war has arrived, symbolically if not quite literally, in Casablanca. Ilsa comes at the side of the man she abandoned Rick for. This duo reintroduce into Rick’s life two specific qualities he has rejected: partisan spirit, and human attachment. Laszlo, though roughly the same age as Rick, plays the role of Mentor, his scarred face denoting him as a man who passed through trials. His and Rick’s relationship is defined by measures of resentment and respect. “One hears a great deal about Rick in Casablanca.” Victor comments; “And about Victor Laszlo everywhere.” Rick replies. Rick is the man of Casablanca, the place of stasis: Victor the man of the world and action. Later, when Rick will spurn engagement, Victor directly resounds: “You know what you sound like Mr Blaine? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.” Laszlo is a voice of conscience, assuring that these dramas are not merely incidental, but part of a web of destiny.

Destiny indeed plays a hand. If a supernatural force is at play in a heroic narrative, then the caprices of fate that link these people together might count. Rick reflects on this in the “Of all the gin joint in all the world” line, discerning this fateful coincidence. Ilsa, in turn, embodies a dichotomy of womankind as goddess and temptress. Rick, in the flashback, is bewildered by this mysterious sprite’s entrance into his life. Her glittering beauty, her memories of getting braces put on her teeth, embody illusory fresh-minted purity. Her abandonment of Rick and reappearance with another man, causes him to equate her with a bar-room floozy. Rick’s ardour is defined by a strain of disguised misogyny, disappointed that his illusory perfection was not lived up to, that the goddess did not exist. Rick’s journey is defined by changing perceptions of Ilsa and her role in his and Victor’s lives. An act of narrative doubling – “parallelism” as Bordwell and Thompson call it, implicit in the appeal of the Romanian girl makes to Rick, her questioning the idea that loving someone can entail betraying them – helps initiate him into his new role as an active participant, using the mechanics of his own house’s rigged game to help her and her husband.

The “approach to the innermost chamber” is internal, but also involves penetration of private sanctuaries. Renault’s office is where Rick ventures to spin the plot with which he will save the day, at the same time inviting the appearance of total surrender, to the lowest ebb of total amorality, in pretending to conspire for Laszlo’s destruction. This comes hard upon the scene in Rick’s private apartment, where Ilsa confronts and pulls a gun on him; she had to break into his sanctuary, to violate his last privacy, to bring about his own inwards search. “Go ahead and shoot – you’ll be doing me a favour.” Rick instructs her, figuring himself as the walking dead. Without the power of ideal love that Ilsa represents, he is nothing. She surrenders to him instead, and her kiss resurrects him as a functioning human. The web of false conception and misunderstanding is now torn apart. Rick’s subsequent vow, “From now on I’ll do the thinking for both of us,” explicates new shouldering of responsibility. Ilsa’s willingness to let him take the reins is the ultimate boon – Rick doesn’t even need for it to be fulfilled. Nor is it the only resurrection of Rick. Once he has shot Strasser he is prepared to be arrested, and pay the price for his choices. In terms of the cause-and-effect, every action entails an immediate reaction; but has the circumstance not only been set up for Rick’s possible destruction, it has also been set up for his rescue, for Rick requires saving by an ally. Renault does this, fully affirmed as an ally, and Rick is transfigured into his mentor. Simultaneously, Rick and Renault become masters of two worlds. Rick plays the Vichy like a consummate musician, exploiting vanity and self-importance, and Renault responds by using his position to put the investigation off.

The reward for losing Ilsa and rejecting the false victory of stealing her is initiation into the comradeship of soldiers, marching off to war. The will to fight, the renewed sense of love and loyalty, is the elixir he wins. Laszlo carries the light of European liberalism to America; Rick carries American potency into war. He rejects egotistical self-interest, and emphasises the unimportance of individual desire in a troubled world. And yet the elixir is especially vital because its constituent ingredients – love, loyalty, idealism, friendship, and intelligence mixed with dutifulness – are precisely what have demanded, and also enabled, his victory. The shift in equilibrium is complete. Strasser is dead; Victor and Ilsa have escaped; Rick and Louis leave. They have all begun on the road to victory, and left the peripheral limbo of Casablanca.


Greg said...

Wow! Fantastic piece, Rod!

Roderick Heath said...

Cheers Greg. I wrote this two years ago for uni and I forgot about it for a long time. Not-so-funny story: when I got this piece from the lecturer, he had scribbled under the part where I mentioned Sahara etc "Have you actually seen these films?"

Greg said...

And did you reply, "Fuck off" or some variation thereof?

Roderick Heath said...

No. Actually that lecturer gave me several powerful reasons to say "Fuck off" or some variation thereof, and I never did, something I still regret.

Anonymous said...

I dont get it. JK im using it for my school project.

Anonymous said...

lol. so am I ^^