A former freedom fighter struggles to maintain his carefully constructed emotional fortress against powers that threaten to tear down its walls and launch him back into the world of those who actively care for others.
What Happens in the Story
Writer(s): Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch
Director(s): Michael Curtiz
Production Co.(s): Warner Bros. Pictures
Adapted from: Everybody Goes to Rick's (Play, Unpublished © 1940) by Murray Burnett, and Joan Alison
In Casablanca the main character, Rick Blaine, is a former freedom fighter who has abandoned a life of active involvement in human affairs and isolated himself in the world of the nightclub he owns in Casablanca, Morocco. The days when he fought against Fascism with rebels in Spain are behind him—as is a romantic Parisian affair with Ilsa, a beautiful girl whom he loved deeply.
Due in part to the emotional devastation caused by his perceived betrayal by the girl, he has retreated to the politically neutral world of Casablanca and created for himself an emotional fortress against his own feelings and needs—and those of others.
When looked at from the perspective of his primary attempt in the story, Rick is a keep character whose treasure is the preservation of the emotional fortress that he has built around himself. Rick is a keep character whose treasure is the preservation of his emotional fortress. When the threat to that treasure appears (in the form of his former lover, Ilsa), he intends to defend the fortress and keep it intact. His treasure is very personal and subjective, and it is entirely internal—observable only by inference from his behaviors. Because it stems from unresolved pain, however, it is also universal.
Although Rick has allowed himself to harden emotionally, he is nevertheless possessed of an honest nobility—an undying remnant of the man he once was. We-the-audience would like to see him let down his guard. We-the-audience like him and would like to see him let down his guard and re-enter the world of those who care and are cared for. And when Ilsa reappears in his life, along with her freedom-fighter husband, the fortress that Rick has erected comes under attack, and we hope that he will lose the fight, so that he might enjoy the fruits of a healthy life.
Rick's endeavor—to keep his emotional fortress intact—is one that the storytellers appear to consider inadvisable, and we-the-audience are likely to agree. And we can state the proposition for Casablanca as:
- One should not attempt to keep himself from caring actively about others, because success in the attempt will deny him the satisfaction and emotional health that caring brings.
By the end of the story, Rick loses the fight to keep his emotional fortress intact. We witness the loss in his willingness to give Ilsa and her husband the letters of transit that will allow them to escape Casablanca. He also kills the arrogant Nazi major and forms what appears to be a long-term alliance with the French captain whom he has long considered little more than a bothersome acquaintance.
Rick fails in his attempt, and we are pleased at his failure.
In short, Rick fails in his attempt to keep from caring actively about others, and we-the-audience are pleased at his failure. Consequently, Casablanca stands as a great example of a fail/pleased story. And by having Rick fail in his attempt, and thereby rejoin the ranks of those who make a positive difference in the world (his reward of failure), the storytellers support their proposition nicely and grant the story a happy ending.
A Look Under the Hood
When Casablanca opens, the main character, Rick, has removed himself physically and emotionally from the war-torn world of 1941 Europe and has developed what appears to be an impenetrable emotional fortress, the walls of which take the form of active neutrality and a stubborn resistance to taking sides. And when the story starts, nothing in his world threatens the security of that fortress. Then Ilsa walks into his nightclub, and all hell breaks loose.
Elsa is the meteor zooming in from the heavens to smash the walls of Rick's world.
Elsa is the meteor zooming in from the heavens to smash the walls of the world. Soon, Rick finds himself torn apart, then caring again and becoming less neutral. When the Czech freedom fighter Victor Lazlo orders the nightclub band leader to play La Marseillaise to drown a spontaneous Nazi chorus of Die Wacht am Rhein, the band leader looks to Rick for permission to do so—and Rick grants it. And when a young bride is faced with the prospect of rendering sexual favors to Captain Renault to obtain safe passage for herself and her trusting husband, Rick ensures that her husband wins enough money at the roulette table to pay for the passage without having to give up the favors, upsetting Renault in the process.
None of the other characters directly oppose Rick's intent; therefore, none can be labeled rightly as an "antagonist."
None of the characters directly oppose Rick's intent to keep his treasure; therefore, none can be labeled rightly as an "antagonist." Other characters do entreat him to let down his guard, and each plays a part in assaulting the fortress itself—for example, by seductive enticement (Ilsa) or grating challenge (Nazi Major Strasser)—but none of them sets herself or himself directly in opposition to his intent.
And although money, power, and love all constitute factors in the story, none is directly related to the story goal. The petty crook Ugarte plans to sell the letters of transit he obtained from the murdered German couriers, and certainly the love that Rick still feels for Ilsa—as well as her love for Victor—entwine and complicate the story lines. But the driving force in the story is internal to Rick and centers on whether or not he will let down his guard, for his own sake and that of those around him. It is not directly related to money, power, or love.
As Chapter 10 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story reveals, the issue at the heart of any story may be said to provide the underlying drive for its characters' actions—not only those of the main character but those of the other characters, as well. By his or her behavior, each character shines a light on the central issue, thereby illuminating it from an important angle and offering an argument on one of its many sides. And the issue sits right at the heart of the thematic proposition.
Rick represents the idea that "guarding oneself from caring actively for others" serves as the basis of an inadvisable endeavor.
In Casablanca, Rick represents the idea that "guarding oneself from caring actively for others" serves as the basis of an inadvisable endeavor. His position on the issue is supported by Captain Renault, who takes a neutral stance toward the Nazis and refuses to get involved in the politics of the times. It is staunchly opposed, however, by Ilsa and Victor, both of whom may be said to serve as arguments for active caring. And even Ugarte casts light on the issue, simply because he appeals to Rick to come to his own salvation when he faces arrest—which Rick does not.
As noted above, Rick is a keep character whose treasure is preservation of the emotional fortress that he has built around himself, and the story is not over until the threat to his treasure either disappears on its own, is completely vanquished, or wins out. By the end of the story, he fails to keep his treasure—in spectacular, noble, romantic fashion—and we are pleased that he does so.
So in this case, the main character fails in his attempt to keep a treasure, and we-the-audience are pleased that he does so, making this a fail/pleased story.
In this regard, the outcome/reaction of Casablanca is identical to that of both A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. It is this otherwise-hidden connection between the stories that testifies to the unique power of the grok approach to reveal the secrets of a story's soul.
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