As Americans, we are highly individualistic.
Individualism is a component; scratch that, an identity of our culture. Now, part of this can be attributed to our history. America’s founding was spurred by our ancestor’s fight for independence. The idea of separating ourselves from an overseas power originated from a desire to govern on our own, trade on our own, live on our own. Sure, we sought freedom from the crown, but the endgame of this endeavor was to create something (a nation) of our own. What we eventually made was a country that adopted the opposite of the collectivist cultures of Europe and the Middle East; a culture centralized around independence. Societies still exist within an individualistic culture, sure, but our reliance upon them is diminished. Instead, we possess autonomy within our groups; personal choice determines our actions, though it is influenced not by progressing the well-being of society, but instead, the well-being of ourselves.
So, what am I getting at, you may ask? An individualistic culture is one in which people seek to advance their own well-being (individual), even if that sometimes hinders the well-being of others (society). One might be quick to label “individualism” as “selfishness”, though I’m certainly not one of them. Someone can act independently, but that doesn’t mean they’re acting parsimoniously. Individualism isn’t a bad thing, it’s simply the identity of American and other Western cultures, and it’s important that we, as members of such cultures, understand the dynamics of maximizing personal well-being.
But Rick Blaine, the lead character of Casablanca, does not consider himself an American, and the city of Casablanca, Morocco isn’t one’s traditional definition of a “Western” society. Rick doesn’t associate himself with any nation, creed, platform, cause, or social group. Instead, his life revolves around the management of his café- the drinks, the music, the (shocking) gambling. The café is Rick’s world, his life, his destiny. It’s all he truly cares about. Individualism in its purest form.
Through his management of the café, Rick comes to befriend a powerful collection of characters. Captain Louis Renault, the prefect of police who, like Rick, is incredibly independent. Major Heinrich Strasser, a Nazi officer, who has been dispatched to Casablanca to hunt down a resistance leader. Signor Ferrari, king of the Black Market, whose complicated relationship with Rick is underscored by his desire to purchase the lead’s café. Each of these men are powerful forces who, if Rick so decided, could turn into even more powerful allies. However, Louis is more of a follower than an ally, Major Strasser’s mission cares little for the well-being of Rick’s café, and Signor Ferrari, though not an enemy, is much more of an opponent than a friend.
There’s something else at play here. Rick is highly independent, but he has also become a cynic. He was once a freedom fighter, a war veteran, a man behind a cause. However, he now claims to be neutral in all matters, adaptable to any situation he finds himself in. The truth for such change can be found in heartbreak; Rick once had a passionate relationship with Ilsa Lund- the two fell in love in Paris while the Nazi regime invaded and seized the city. As the chaos died down, Ilsa left Rick for Victor Laszlo, her husband and a resistance fighter who had escaped from a concentration camp.
Despair clouds Rick’s judgment for years, and is with him when Ilsa wanders into his café with Victor, the very leader that Major Strasser is in search of. The couple are in need of transit papers to make it to America and continue the resistance’s cause. Rick just so happens to possess these papers through a series of prior plot threads, and now finds himself pressured by Captain Renault and others to preserve the papers until Major Strasser can detain Victor. Rick finds himself in a challenging position: does he give the papers to Ilsa and Victor? Might he turn them in to Major Strasser and garner acclaim from the occupying Nazi regime? Or, does he instead use the papers to escape Casablanca with Ilsa, who still has feelings for him, thus turning in Lazlo and giving a death blow to the resistance?
Considering all of the other films that we’ve already discussed, we have yet to completely center our discussion around a single, highly consequential character decision. Rick’s conundrum reveals so much about his humanity. It’d be logical to think that a man as independent as Rick would let Major Strasser apprehend both Ilsa and Victor, most especially considering Ilsa once abandoned him and Rick still carries a grudge. It’s perhaps even likelier that Rick would take Ilsa and escape the country, leaving behind Lazlo and a cause that Rick simply has no interest in backing. That latter option would be what the individualist pursues; in doing so, he ensures his safety and good standing with authorities, escapes a country for greener pastures, and does so alongside the woman of his dreams. While such a decision spells dire consequences for Lazlo, his movement, and Allied forces, Rick is furthering his own well-being which, as an individualist, is all that really matters to him.
One of the flaws of individualism is that every decision is subject to the individual, and thus assumes that this individual is thinking rationally. The thing is, people often don’t think rationally. We can tell ourselves that we never make mistakes, or at least never hope to, but the reality is that mistakes are an inevitability. It’s irrational to actively avoid making mistakes, just as it is irrational to think that because someone says something bad about you, whatever they said must thus be the truth.
Rick, like all of us, is not a rational thinker. His decision-making is subject to a host of variables; most notable of which being his overwhelming love for Ilsa. He wants Ilsa to be happy just as much as he wants to be with her. His well-being depends on this- so, Rick ultimately betrays Major Strasser, threatening his own safety in an effort to unite Ilsa with Lazlo and send them to America, inadvertently furthering the Resistance’s cause. The man who claims to be neutral and adaptable has aligned himself with a movement because of his decision. Not very independent, until you consider that Rick has done all of this for Ilsa; he cares more about her well-being than he does his own.
Through our discussion, you might not think this story to be all too complex. A man falls for a woman, the woman leaves the man, the woman returns years later in desperate need of the man’s help and, at first reluctant, the man ultimately provides aid to the woman. But such a cold, mechanical dissection of Casablanca fails to address the noble quality that makes its narrative so timeless: its emphasis on how our humanity influences the decisions that we make. We are all individualists, in some way or another, and we all are actively finding ways to advance our own well-being, but sometimes that means we must surrender our independence, if only for a moment, and think about others who we might care for more than ourselves.
That’s what this story teaches me.