On ‘Casablanca,’ True Love, and the Importance of Memories

In Classic Film Throwback Series, Reviews, Sam Hendrian by Samuel Hendrian

This article is part of our Classic Film Throwback series

– By Sam Hendrian –

“We’ll always have Paris.” So goes one of the many famous quotes from Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, a Best Picture-winning wartime romance film that is hailed by some as the greatest Hollywood movie ever made. Released in 1942 as World War II raged across the globe, it continues to challenge and inspire audiences with its depiction of noble virtue and selflessness triumphing all, even passionate romance. The bittersweet ending is perhaps the most legendary in movie history, and it comments boldly on the importance of memories and the sacrifices that sometimes need to be made in true love.

As the film opens, American expatriate Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is quite through with romance. A year or so before while living in Paris, he met a beautiful and enigmatic young lady named Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) with whom he had a brief but passionate love affair. The two lovers planned to flee Paris together once the Nazis marched on the city, but Ilsa stood up Rick last-minute at the train station, leaving him to travel all alone with nothing but a brief letter from her saying, “I cannot go with you or ever see you again. You must not ask why. Just believe that I love you. Go, my darling, and God bless you.” Heartbroken, he bought a nightclub in Casablanca and began to drink away the pain of lost romance while adhering to one simple philosophy: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

Rick tries to erase all memories of Ilsa from his mind, but his efforts are crushed when she happens to walk into his nightclub one night with her husband, Czechoslovakian resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid). “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine!” he later exclaims in pained disbelief. We learn that Isla had thought her husband to be dead in a concentration camp when she met Rick, but right after the Nazis marched on Paris, she learned that he had escaped from the concentration camp alive and so had to go find him.

Now Ilsa and Victor are taking refuge in Casablanca and need help acquiring letters of transit to escape to neutral Portugal. Still embittered about being stood up with minimum explanation, Rick initially treats Ilsa icily and rejects the idea of helping her and Victor leave for Portugal without the Nazis noticing. He still loves her deeply, but not enough to do what he knows is best for her.

While Rick is a hardened man who still purports that he will stick his neck out for nobody, he does have a well-trained conscience, and this conscience tells him that if he truly cares about Ilsa’s ultimate happiness, he will do all in his power to help her and her husband escape to the safety of neutral Portugal. Ilsa herself still holds a deep love for Rick in her heart and secretly wishes at least partially that Rick will dupe her husband and be the one to take her to Portugal. Rick wishes he could spend the rest of his life with Ilsa, but he ultimately decides to listen to his conscience, telling her, “Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” He knows that Victor needs Ilsa’s love and support in the fight against Nazi evils, and so he painfully but earnestly convinces her to go with him.

Rick’s painful decision to let Ilsa leave his life forever for the sake of the greater good is one of the noblest examples of true love and virtue in movie history. He chooses not to let his physical passion for the woman of his dreams overpower his concern for her well-being, and he knows that separating her from her husband would be morally wrong: “If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” These are words that we would all be wise to remember whenever we are tempted to do something that feels good in the moment but will likely haunt our consciences afterwards.

It is during Rick and Ilsa’s heartfelt goodbye to each other that the theme of memories’ importance comes to light. “We’ll always have Paris,” Rick assures Ilsa as he goads her to board the plane to Portugal with her husband. “We didn’t have… we… we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.” Rick is speaking to the profound truth that while we will not always be able to spend as much time with the people we love as we would like, we will always have sweet memories of them to cherish and treasure for the rest of our lives. In my own lifetime, I have met some people whose company I cherish but who I may rarely if ever see again due to different life plans. I therefore take great comfort in the idea of “We’ll always have Paris,” and also in the concluding lines of the Simon & Garfunkel song “Bookends:” “Preserve your memories/They’re all that’s left you.”

Casablanca is a beautiful classic and will remain so as time goes by. It truthfully tells us that true love sometimes requires self-denying decisions to be made for the sake of the greater good, and it comforts us with the reminder that we can always stay connected to long-lost friends and lovers through our memories of them. A new film wins the Academy Award for Best Picture every year, but few if any of them will ever live up to the timeless legacy of Casablanca.   

About the Author

Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.