Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Play it again

Okay, so once more I have lied.

I said in last week’s missive that it was “liable” to be the last in a series of commentaries inspired by the war (some people prefer to call it an “invasion,” others “liberation”) in Iraq. Well, I’ve been inspired to write one or two more. So there.

It has come to my attention that Richard Schickel, who has been one of Time magazine’s film critics since forever, has written a memoir. It has the unlikely title, Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory, and World War II. Now, with my busy schedule, I could hardly be expected to have time to read a book, but I did catch an interview with Schickel on National Public Radio, which is nearly as good—or maybe even better—than reading a book.

The title refers to a song that was popular during World War II and which was a greeting Schickel’s father used to wake him up every morning during those years. The gist of the book, as I understand it, is that movies are inexorably linked with war in Schickel’s mind because he discovered cinema during an impressionable time in his childhood, which happened to coincide with wartime. During much of the interview, he seemed to dismiss most Hollywood movies (as well as a lot of journalism) as essentially being lies about what war is really like. The absurdity of war becomes replaced with tales of heroism that give it all meaning. Hmmm, I wonder if Schickel’s publisher was actually waiting for a war, no matter how brief, as an opportunity to release this book.

The part of the interview that really caught my attention was when the interviewer, Renee Montagne, asked him if there were a “quintessential war movie.” I don’t think she narrowed it down any more than that, but the preceding discussion implied that she specifically meant World War II. Schickel didn’t reply with any gung-ho John Wayne movie or any movie that contained battle scenes or even armies. Suggesting that there was no room for debate over what would be the quintessential war movie, he replied, Casablanca.

I might argue with his answer on strictly technical grounds. Certainly, Casablanca takes place during wartime and has war as its central theme. But reasonable people could differ as to whether it’s actually a war movie, let alone the quintessential one, since its story takes place on the fringes of war. But then, Schickel’s definition of “war movie” is fairly flexible. He basically said that every movie made in the 1940s was a war movie, no matter what it was about. As an example, he mentioned Lassie Come Home.

It’s odd that, with all my recent musings over movies and war, I hadn’t actually thought about Casablanca. Not only does this classic have a place on my all-time English-language top ten movie list, but it is the film I mention when pressed to name my favorite film. As Schickel explained in his NPR interview, the movie exploits every cliché under the sun, but it also embodies “our every good impulse” and summarizes “the best of our war aims.” How could I have not reflected on it during the past few months and even pulled it off the DVD shelf for a session of digital inspiration and soul-searching? It is the perfect film, certainly from the American government’s point of view, to put the recent conflict in Iraq in perspective.

The story of the cynical American Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, is of course symbolic of America’s reluctance to get involved in Europe’s war against fascism. Why should he get involved? It isn’t his war. In the end, he comes to realize that you can’t stand by and do nothing when evil is afoot. As he marches off into the fog to fight the Nazis, he is even joined by the ambiguous French prefect, played by Claude Rains. Not bad. Getting the French guy to come along was something that not even Bush or Blair managed to pull off.

Now, most people in the world simply do not believe that George W. Bush’s motives in marching off to war were as altruistic as Rick Blaine’s. Things like oil reserves and domestic electoral politics provide too many other possible self-serving motives to allow most citizens of the world to accept that the war was simply a monumentally expensive good deed. And he certainly didn’t do it because he found out that Ingrid Bergman really loved him after all. Still, a vicious dictatorship was toppled, much to the glee of most of Iraq’s inhabitants. To be sure, there was a cost, and the future is uncertain. But the collateral damage, while horrendous, was much less than predicted by the most rabid opponents of the war and was statistically minor in terms of casualties when compared to what Saddam Hussein had wrought during his rule.

The wonderful thing about Casablanca is that it reminds us that sometimes there are things worth fighting for. And that saying or doing nothing, while millions are oppressed, generally plays into the hands of the bad guys. Standing on the sidelines and being cynical might feel safer, but it doesn’t do much for one’s self-respect. While this message might not appeal to absolute dyed-in-the-wool pacifists, the rest of us have to look into our souls and ask, at what point do we decide that our own problems “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” and act.

-S.L., 24 April 2003

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