The Ethical Puzzle of Casablanca
“Here’s looking at you kid,” was one of the most famous lines to come from the movie Casablanca. This movie is gearing up to celebrate its seventy-seventh year as a reigning classic. Casablanca was considered an American romance drama that many fell in love with when it premiered in 1942. The production team wanted to rush this movie to be released because during this time, there was an allied invasion of North Africa and they felt they could use this to promote the movie to help make it a true success. The movie became a giant success and is still viewed as one of the best movies of all time. It tells a story that can be broken down into moral and philosophical ideas. In this paper, we will look at theorist Immanuel Kant and his theory of categorical imperative while relating this theorist to argue how hard decisions can turn a character into a more moral character, how the film depicts the idea of love, and what worldview the film presents.
Before digging into the movie Casablanca, it is important to gain a little knowledge about Immanuel Kant. Kant is a German philosopher that was around from 1742 until 1804. He has been known to be one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment era and one of the greatest Western philosophers of all times (Immanuel Kent). The theory that we will be focusing on is called the categorical imperative theory. The Categorical Imperative article states that,
How it works
The Categorical Imperative is supposed to provide a way for us to evaluate moral actions and to make moral judgments. It is not a command to perform specific actions – it does not say, “follow the 10 commandments”, or “respect your elders”. It is essentially “empty” – it is simply formal procedure by which to evaluate any action about which might be morally relevant (The Categorical Imperative).
This is the theory that will be applied to the movie Casablanca with specific examples as to where it can be applied and viewed. I think it can be safe to say that each character possesses the trait to carry out this theory in their own way, but we will mainly focus on Rick and how this moral theory develops for him as the movie progresses.
Developing a theme of morality for any character is something that is important to watch and pay attention to. The character that develops the most when it comes to morality would be Rick Blaine. Rick is an American that was said to be born in New York City. He had to flea America for reasons that really were not explained in detail. We learn that he has a past of being anti-fascist which caused Rick to end up fleeing to Casablanca to start a new life. When we are first introduced to Rick, we can tell that he seems all about his interests. He owns a nice club called Rick’s Café Americana and runs it in a way that he can cater to all types of customers. Rick’s would have refugees, people of all races, Nazis, and allied troops all in one place. Rick wanted to play the neutral card when it came to his business because he didn’t want any trouble from any side. We can tell that Rick was not on the moral highroad when we see that his business does illegal gambling and often rigs the gamblers to lose to the house. One thing that we are always reminded of about Rick is the fact that he always said, “I stick my nose out for nobody.” This was really proven when a customer of his, named Ugarte, came to Rick and asked him to hold on to these two letters of transit that he wanted to sell at a high price. These letters would allow whoever had them passage out of Casablanca and could escape the German takeover. Ugarte ends up getting arrested and asks Rick to help him and that is when we hear the line, “I stick my nose out for nobody.” Rick has no problem letting people hang for the crimes that they get busted for, so he can keep his hands clean. But the road to morality starting to come back to Rick when an old love suddenly returns to his life.
When the character of Ilsa Lund comes roaring into Casablanca, both Ilsa and Rick are forced to face a past that neither were expecting to deal with ever. We find out that Ilsa and Rick fell in love and had a relationship during their time in Paris years ago. Neither of them asked each other many questions about their lives, so there were many things that they did not know about the other. As the Nazis took control of even more of Europe, Rick knew they had to leave. He told Ilsa to meet him at the train station, so they could flee. She never showed up and Rick was forced to flee without her. He ended up turning his back on love and her betrayal changed him as a person. He become somewhat bitter to life because he was afraid he would get burned again, but that started to change when Ilsa was back in his life. The truths started to come out and explain things better. Isla had to admit to Rick that she was married the entire time they were together in Paris, but she had thought that her husband died in a concentration camp. She found out that her husband was alive the day she was supposed to leave with Rick and that her husband needed her, so she went to be with him instead of going with Rick. Once Rick met her husband, he realized how much this man loved Isla. This was when his moral compass changed. He decided to take matters into his own hands and help Victor and Isla get the letters of transit, so they could flee to America and have a safe life together. He even kills someone to make sure they were able to get on the plan. Kent’s theory truly fits in this matter because the Categorical Imperative really applies itself to everyone. Rick uses this theory by looking at his own ethics and basing his rational on not only himself, but what he applied his actions to do what he felt was right for others. It was all about love and how love can evolve.
Love is visible throughout the movie Casablanca. It has a certain idea behind it. When he first learns that Rick and Ilsa were lovers, we say that they got extremely close very fast in Paris. They were like two high school sweethearts that couldn’t get enough of one another, then that all changed when Ilsa disappeared on Rick. Rick’s view of love turned to something dark and selfish. He wanted nothing to do with it and would get angry when anything reminded him of this love, like a certain song called “As Time Goes By”. When Ilsa finds herself back in Rick’s life that love starts to return for them both. Immanuel Kant wrote a piece called Transcendental Aesthetic, and there is a part in that piece that could relate to this love situation. Kant said,
The rainbow in a sunny shower may be called a mere appearance, and the rain the thing in itself. Rain will then be viewed only as that which, in all experience and in all its carious positions relative to the senses, is determined thus, and not otherwise, in our intuition. But if we take this empirical object in its general character, and ask, without considering whether or not it is the same for all human sense, whether it represents an object in itself, the question as to the relation of the representation to the object at once becomes transcendental (Rivkin, Ryan, 132)
This quote from Kant’s work truly represents how Casablanca depicts love. When Rick saw Ilsa again, after all those years, he looked at the love he had for her as like something of a rainbow. One minute it can be seen, and it is there, and the next it disappears, and it must be looked for again. I think they both tried to fight that love and keep it hidden until a rainstorm came and made that rainbow of love visible to the both of them. Rick also had to learn that love means making a sacrifice. Ilsa had to make that sacrifice for her husband when she found out he was still alive. Rick was left heartbroken that time and, in the end, it was Rick that made the sacrifice for Ilsa and a man he didn’t truly know. He put his own happiness aside to keep the woman he loved truly safe from harm. All of this helps Casablanca depict love as something that comes with sacrifices and heartache. Sometimes a person must sacrifice their own happiness to make sure the person they love is and stays safe. This view of love can still be seen in the world today.
Speaking of world views, Casablanca could be having some interesting world views. It can usually be safe to say that a movie during the 1940s would have a totally different view than the world seventy-seven years later, but I think that there would be a similar view despite the very different times. We see refugees fleeing to Casablanca and that is something that mimics the times in America then and now. Casablanca shows why it was so important for people to flee their homelands during horrible times and that is something that the world needs to open their eyes up to more, especially in today’s times. In this movie, we have a group, the Nazis, taking over Europe and putting people in camps killing many. That may be something that is not visible in the movie, but it is common knowledge that is what they are doing. Kant’s theory was sometimes called Deontological, which meant that our decisions should be based on a person’s sense of duty. That was something that we saw in the movie. Rick and others fought against those that were doing harm against humanity and this was a big view of Kant’s theory. This theory helped the worldview of Casablanca see that people need to do what is right for humankind instead of following in line with those that want to destroy it.
Casablanca will always be considered on of America’s all-time top movies because of the story that it tells. It brings us characters that we can all relate to and watch them transform into the people we would want them to be and make those sacrifices that we hate seeing them have to make. It takes each viewer on a moral rodeo that teaches us what all forms of love looks like. It may not be the love we were rooting for in the end, but it still teaches us there are many forms of love and that sometimes giving something up is the greatest form of love a person can show. Lets us not forget the many worldviews Casablanca can teach the world by comparing it to the world we live in today, and by applying Kant’s theory of Categorical Imperative.