Casablanca, a film regularly cited as one of the greatest movies of all time, was released 70 years ago. It gave us phrases that have passed into the English language, ("Here's looking at you, kid," "Round up the usual suspects", "We'll always have Paris," and "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship", to name but a few). And it cemented Humphrey Bogart's reputation as the most irresistible anti-hero to cast his weary gaze on the silver screen.
But Casablanca also set a noble and inspiring standard at a time of moral equivalence, prodding the United States to enter the war raging in Europe. Its message is as important today as it was in 1942.
Casablanca was set in contemporary North Africa, during the Second World War, and it involved a love triangle. Humphrey Bogart's character had a choice: to keep Ingrid Bergman, the love of his life, with him in Casablanca, or to send her away with her Czech resistance leader husband. In the end, Bogart sacrificed his own happiness, knowing his rival, fighting against fascism, needed the support of Bergman. As Bogart says at the end of the film, "The problems of three little people in a big world don't add up to much."
Compare it to a more recent hit, The English Patient with which it shares both time and place. Set in North Africa during World War Two, The English Patient also involved a love triangle, and a character, played by Willem Defoe, who risked his life to fight fascism. But unlike Bogart, Ralph Fiennes' protagonist was uninterested by the political context or the effect his actions would have on the bigger picture, the struggle against the Nazis. Fiennes gave up everything for the lovely, but married, Kristin Scott-Thomas. The problems of three little people were all that occupied him. For the 'hero' in The English Patient, there was no self-denial for a higher cause, and postponing gratification wasn't an option. Hence, The English Patient is a thoroughly modern film, despite its setting. What does that say about our era?
For a brief moment, it seemed that 9/11 might shake the West out of its self-indulgent myopia, heralding a less materialistic and self-absorbed time. Then we were exhorted to go shopping, and to worry about the existential threat posed by gay marriage rather than our greedy, entitled, wasteful, pampered and over-protected lifestyles.
Although Bogart spends most of the film protesting, "I stick my neck out for nobody," at the end of Casablanca he gives up everything to go off to fight the Nazis. How disappointing that unlike Bogart, we have thousands of sources of easily-accessible information, yet most of us seem more provincial and uninformed about the world than ever.
On those occasions when a small and organized group of Western citizens force our governments to take notice of gross human rights violations, our rulers usually salve their consciences, and ours, by sending aid, instead of searching for political solutions to political problems. Hence ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan are framed as humanitarian challenges, as if they were natural disasters rather than the result of a hideous, racist ideology.
This is not a plea for military intervention or for Bogart-style self-sacrifice. Yet we can all "stick our necks out" with minimum effort using the Internet, the phone and good old-fashioned letter writing to remind our leaders to use the diplomatic and economic leverage at their disposal. Instead of standing in front of a tank we can click an icon on websites that allow us to push worthy human rights causes up the agendas of those wielding power.
Our leaders need to apply diplomatic and economic pressure before volatile situations become unmanageable. Mass murder in Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda did not come out of the blue. We had plenty of warning in each case, but we ignored the inconvenient underlying causes, hoping they would go away. The same is happening right now in Nigeria and on the Sudan-South Sudan, where extremists threaten to plunge their nations into Biafra-style misery. A concerted effort by the international community in search of political solutions today could save lives and money tomorrow.
So, where are today's Casablanca-style heroes? Fittingly, they are in the streets of North Africa (and Syria), facing down well-armed, brutal, corrupt regimes, most of which were propped up by the West for its own short-sighted interests.
Those who fear where the Arab Spring may lead should consider the words of the Tunisian founder of the Islam Channel, Mohamed Ali Harrayh: "If the Arab Spring is allowed to evolve without Western interference, there will be no reason for Al Qaeda to exist as its ideology is based on combating Western support for Arab dictators."
Let's hope that the spirit that guided Casablanca 70 years ago prevails today.
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