World War II coincided with cinema’s golden age. Movies now considered classics were created at a time when all sides in the war were coming to realize the great power of popular films to motivate the masses. Through multinational research, One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II reveals how the Grand Alliance—Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States—tapped Hollywood’s impressive power to shrink the distance and bridge the differences that separated them. The Allies, M. Todd Bennett shows, strategically manipulated cinema in an effort to promote the idea that the United Nations was a family of nations joined by blood and affection.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of Casablanca’s world premier on November 26, 1942. In the following post, M. Todd Bennett, author of One World, Big Screen, reveals what fans may not know about the movie, widely considered among the best ever made.
Even casual movie fans know a lot about Casablanca, the 1942 Warner Bros. classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. They revere its reputation for excellence: Winner of three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the film still ranks among the best ever, coming in second on the American Film Institute’s list of the top one hundred American pictures, trailing only Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). And while appreciative of Casablanca’s anti-Nazi message, they are understandably captivated by the movie’s timeless story of love frustrated by events beyond the control of its main characters, Bogart’s Rick Blaine and Bergman’s Ilsa Lund.
But even the most knowledgeable film aficionados may not realize something that moviegoers themselves only vaguely understood in 1942: Warner Bros. made Casablanca not just to entertain but to propagandize audiences. Today, we typically remember World War II nostalgically and presume that all Americans enthusiastically supported U.S. involvement in what came to be known as the “good war.” And, to be sure, the majority of Americans backed the war, justifiably fought in response to a foreign attack on U.S. soil (Pearl Harbor) and for a good cause (to rid the world of fascism). Yet it is easy to forget that partisan politics did not stop on December 7, 1941, after which many citizens continued to voice criticisms of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his prosecution of the war, of homefront rationing and inflation, and, more to the point, of the country’s foreign Allies.
Traditionally, the United States steered clear of foreign entanglements, a custom that only deepened during the years immediately preceding the war, the heyday of U.S. isolationism, when the country withdrew from world affairs. Given that history, it should not surprise us that Americans expressed reservations when they suddenly awakened to find themselves involved in what was by far the biggest foreign entanglement in U.S. history: a global war fought alongside almost four-dozen allies—including a communist state, the Soviet Union, and such non-white nations as China—with little in common beyond opposition to Nazi Germany, Japan, and the other Axis powers. The abrupt departure from U.S. tradition was worrisome, especially in the first half of 1942, when the Allies were losing to the Axis in every theater of battle.
That June, the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF), the top U.S. propaganda ministry at the time, recommended instituting a pro-Allied propaganda offensive to reverse anti-Allied opinion that, if left unchecked, posed “a serious threat to the effective prosecution of the war.” The Committee on War Information, which set U.S. propaganda policy, approved the OFF’s recommendation. Hollywood movies were instrumental to that campaign due to their extreme popularity (85 million Americans attended theaters each week in 1942) and to their perceived ability to sugarcoat propaganda, or to disguise political content under a veneer of entertainment. And the OFF and its successor, the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), instituted in June, enlisted Warner Bros. and the other Hollywood studios to produce hundreds of films that addressed predetermined propaganda themes, including lending support to the Allies.
All of which brings me back to Casablanca. Production began in late May 1942, soon thereafter supervised by the OWI, which reviewed both the screenplay and the print to ensure that the final product addressed several official propaganda goals at once: namely, that it not only stoked hatred of the Nazis but also discredited isolationism and built public support for both internationalism and the Allies. Rushed to theaters that November to capitalize on news of the successful Allied invasion of North Africa, Casablanca’s geopolitical drama begins with the arrival of fugitive Czech resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his wife, Ilsa, at “Rick’s Café Américain,” a nightclub located in the capital of Vichy-controlled French Morocco, where they hope to obtain exit papers that permit safe passage to America.
Their arrival presents the hotspot’s owner, Bogart’s Rick, an American expatriate who symbolized the United States as the country weighed its foreign policy options, with personal and political dilemmas. An idealist at heart who once fought the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, Rick subsequently suffered an unfortunate formative experience with European affairs that left him, like his fellow Americans, disillusioned with and embittered toward the outside world. This being a Hollywood drama, Rick’s cynical worldview stems from his failed whirlwind romance with Ilsa, who had apparently abandoned him as the Nazis marched into Paris in 1940. His heart broken, the disillusioned Rick retreated to Casablanca, where, as a businessman catering to Nazis, Vichy officials, and refugees alike, he followed a strict personal code of neutrality and isolationism. Impatient with “causes,” Bogart’s archetypal American sticks “his neck out for nobody,” as the hardboiled New Yorker often summarizes his stance.
Casablanca‘s Oscar-winning director (Michael Curtiz) and screenwriters (Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch) framed the story so that the protagonist had to make a moral choice between aiding the Axis or the Allies. Having come into possession of two letters of transit that will guarantee their bearers’ escape to America, Bogart’s character must decide whether to do what is expedient (handing the papers over to German Major Heinrich Strasser [Conrad Veidt] and thereby aiding the Nazi cause) or what is right (providing the documents to Laszlo and Ilsa, an act that will assist the worldwide fight for freedom against Nazi tyranny).
His political dilemma is complicated by a personal one—if he gives the letters to the fugitive couple, he will effectively forever bid adieu to Ilsa, his beloved, and assist his romantic rival, Laszlo. Rick struggles with his decision, and it is not at all clear which path he will choose. However, in the final reel—spoiler alert—he famously opts to do the right thing, giving the documents to Ilsa and Laszlo, who welcome him “back to the fight” before their hasty departure from Casablanca’s airport ahead of the pursuing Major Strasser, shot dead by Rick to ensure the couple’s successful getaway.
The hero’s tortured transition from cynical, selfish isolationist to committed, selfless internationalist—a shift that, within the film’s context, comes on the eve of actual U.S. intervention in December 1941—served as a morality tale that not only mirrored America’s transformed worldview but also ennobled the Allied cause.
But don’t take my word for it. Watch Casablanca, again or for the first time, and see for yourself how Bogart, whose characters modeled streetwise behavior in other films, taught World War II-era Americans to be citizens of the world, how he demonstrated that it was cool to stick one’s neck out for others. And while you’re at it, note that World War II’s signature film made propaganda artful and entertainment educational, a rare, though not necessarily praiseworthy, achievement.
M. Todd Bennett is assistant professor of history at East Carolina University and author of One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, the Allies, and World War II. Read his previous guest blog post, “When Behaviorism Went to the Movies.”