By David Michael Newstead.
This week, I decided to revisit the classic 1942 film Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart. The last time I tried to watch Casablanca was in January 1997 and it coincided with the sudden death of my father. I distinctly remember being in the middle of the film the moment I heard about my father’s death. And in the years that followed, I never found the time to finish it. On some level, the movie was probably tied up with my own thoughts and feelings about a traumatic event, so I could have been avoiding the film as well as avoiding the larger issue. Recently, I felt it was worthwhile to put that particular milestone behind me and to do so, meant finishing Casablanca, reflecting on its personal significance, and ending the mystery behind a film plot I barely recollected from 17 years earlier. I knew the movie was iconic and Academy Award-winning. Its most famous lines now reside in the crowded stratosphere of popular culture and are so universally well-known it’s easy to forget that they actually originated from somewhere specific. But that starting point was the film Casablanca, a drama about war and romance that I finally got around to watching after a very long intermission.
In March, I happened to be in Morocco for work and was able to visit to the city of Casablanca on two occasions. There, I quickly learned that this classic motion picture was not filmed in the country or in the title city. In fact, this would have been impossible at the time, since Casablanca was made throughout 1942 and since Morocco’s proximity to the violence and complicated politics of the Second World War was an on-going current event. The Allied Invasion of North Africa started in November of that year. Moreover, that location is the central basis for the story: Europeans on the periphery of the war trying to buy their way to safety through any means necessary. Casablanca is a port. Morocco is on the frontier of Europe. And because of that, the country took on the political intrigues and human stories of the people brought there by circumstance: German officials, French collaborators, Moroccan pickpockets, European refugees, and a handful of resistance operatives.
When I sat down to watch it on Thursday night, I was surprised that my old feelings about the movie had dissipated. The ordeal was much more detached and analytical the way reviewing a film classic should be. Beyond the famous quotes, what I found was a multi-layered drama which deserved the stature it had been awarded over the years. Casablanca revolves around a bar and its cynical American owner, a kind of intersection for the assorted characters passing through Morocco at the time. Memory, regret, and love lost get wrapped up in the intrigues of a war where the outcome is far from predetermined — a breakup meets World War Two all set to the song “As Time Goes By” being played over and over again by Sam, the lead musician.
When I finished, I stepped away from my laptop and realized a long delayed task had been completed. The feeling wasn’t profound by any means. It was just a small piece of resolution about a film interrupted.