You probably know some of the lines by heart. “Round up the usual suspects.” “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” “I’m shocked, shocked to find that there is gambling going on in here.” “Here’s looking at you kid.” For the past seventy years, Casablanca has enchanted moviegoers with its tale of lovers—the jaded Rick, the conflicted Ilsa, and the magnetic Victor—caught in the vice grip of World War II. They’ve also fallen for the exotic and sometimes dangerous world of Casablanca, with its black market, glamorous nightclubs, mercurial Vichy officials, and midnight meetings of the French resistance.
But what was Casablanca really like during World War II?
That is a question I always asked myself when I watched the film. You could fill up shelves with the books written about the making of the movie, the lives of Bogart and Bergman, and the career of director Michael Curtiz. But if you want to understand what made Casablanca tick during World War II, you would be hard pressed to do so. References to the city appear in books about Vichy France or in relation to the invasion of North Africa or as a colorful backdrop to the pivotal 1943 meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill. But no book has yet been written that evokes the full panorama of wartime Casablanca. That’s the book I’m working on right now for Public Affairs.
I know what you’re thinking: no, don’t ruin the movie! Don’t worry, I’m a fan of the movie too—and I was more than a little apprehensive about embarking on a serious history of the setting. Poking at the romantic myths that surround Casablanca is dangerous business. If I stepped into the historical fray, would I be disappointed? After all, even a historian can be a romantic. But I also knew from my previous research on refugees and Allied intelligence that there was a story to be told, one that both embraced and transcended the movie.
When I dug in, I found that the complicated swirl of politics that makes Casablanca more than a soapy love triangle is all there: the refugees, the French resistance, the Gestapo, grasping Vichy officials, jaded Americans, and intrigue on a grand scale. Add to that Arab nationalism, famine, an Allied invasion, and a major Allied summit meeting, you’ve got a compelling and frequently heart-breaking story about a city that played a pivotal role in World War II.
If you need me, I’ll be at the archives, rounding up the usual—and not so well-known—suspects.