Oscar Night Hangover – Is a New ‘Casablanca’ Possible?
In the wake of an Academy Awards when few cared who won Best Picture, no-longer-striking screenwriter Roger L. Simon wonders if there is a way to make movies that would bring a divided America together again... whether there could be a new Casablanca.
February 25, 2008 - 1:00 am
On her radio show a few weeks back, Laura Ingraham asked me some all too familiar questions about my hometown: How come those liberal varmints out in Hollywood can’t make a movie favorable to the USA to save their own… or our… lives? Isn’t there anyone in Tinseltown able to produce at least one film on our side to counter the pseudo-progressive garbage like Redaction and The Valley of Elah?
Laura suggested a remake of Red Dawn.
I don’t have anything against John Milius’ 1984 thriller imagining a Soviet-Cuban invasion of the US (John’s a friend of mine), but it didn’t have much impact on our culture, I think even the filmmaker would agree. If you’re looking to change the terms of the cinematic world and alter the zeitgeist into the bargain, why bother to do it in half-measures? You have to reach higher or, frankly, hardly anyone will notice.
What we need above all now, I told Laura in that way you do when you’re pompously trying to get the attention of that talk radio audience dozing in the fast lane of the Pasadena Freeway, is a new, contemporary version of Casablanca.
What would be better than a remake of what is arguably the greatest, certainly the most romantically patriotic, of all Hollywood sound movies and have it be set today against the background of the War on Terror? It’s a tall order, but, hey, fortune favors the daring and it might bring the country together as it hasn’t been since ten minutes after 9/11 – even make a few dollars in the process. (Steve Soderbergh’s recent The Good German referenced Casablanca, but that was set back in World War II again. What’s the point of that?)
But is it possible? To begin with, as we all know, the country isn’t faintly as together as it was in 1942 when Casablanca was made and nearly everyone was united against the big, bad Nazis. Nowadays, the only people we appear united against are each other. Say “Round up the usual suspects” now and almost everyone will jump into their cars to arrest their ideological adversaries at the local Safeway (or organic health food store, as the case may be).
And that’s only part of the problem. I’m not even going to touch how you find modern equivalents to Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, etc. And where do you start? Where do you place Rick’s Café Américain? And who’s Rick for that matter? Not easy, is it?
Let’s try to figure it out by first examining the nub of the original story: Rick Blaine – a cynical American running a café in Casablanca – is walked in on (in “of all the gin joints in the world”) by his great lost love Ilsa Lund. Unfortunately, she is with her husband – Victor Lazlo, an heroic leader of the Czech Resistance. They are trying to get the strategically important Victor transit papers to America to continue the good fight against the Krauts – before the resistance leader gets arrested. Rick, who has access to papers, has the dilemma of keeping Ilsa or setting her free with Victor and losing the love of his life. (They had met in Paris when Ilsa thought Victor dead in a concentration camp.) Obviously the fire still burns deeply between them. But ultimately, as we all know, Rick sacrifices his personal life and helps Victor to freedom. Then Rick drops his cynical pose and goes off to join the fight himself – accompanied by a reformed Captain Renault, the formerly pro-Nazi chief of police who has been his nemesis. They have perhaps the most memorable exit line in movie history: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Of course there’s a lot more detail, but that’s the essence of the conflict that would have to be replicated. The strokes are broad and metaphorical and some of those details don’t make sense. But remember, this is a movie, meant to move hearts – and in this case it surely does. (Wikipedia has a more meticulous outline for those who haven’t seen the film recently.)
What strikes me in all this is that the lynch pin to a new plot is not really Rick or Ilsa, but Victor Lazlo, ironically the one character criticized in the original film for the stiff performance of Paul Henreid. Who is the modern version of the Czech Resistance leader? Who in our times would be so important a couple would be willing to give up their true love to keep him alive and well?
Some ideas spring immediately to mind:
1. An infiltrator inside Al Qaeda. This is the most obvious, but who would that really be? Most Al Qaeda members are, superficially anyway, murderous thuggish Arab terrorist-types with a distinctly unromantic veneer. Hard to marry or build a romantic plot around even if a double-agent. (How do you deal with how he treats the Ilsa character or women in general?) And, sad to say, despite the fact that Al Qaeda is wildly misogynistic and homophobic, seeks world domination through primitive religious law while under the direction of a Saudi billionaire, many see it, incredibly, as an avatar of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth – in other words, “genuinely” on the side of the poor. Pathetically stupid, but not good for this film.
2. A defecting Iranian general à la Reza Asghari. Now this superficially appeals, but there are complications. Who is Ilsa and where would Asghari have met her? And we would have to deal with all those dissenting opinions about Iran. I think the NIE is a bunch of hooey, but the intelligence agency/State Dept. cartel has succeeded in convincing at least some of the public Iran isn’t such an enemy anymore and may not be that serious about obtaining nukes. We’d be swimming up hill, alas. (Remember, this is Casablanca and has to win everybody – or nearly.) Still, it has possibilities.
3. Pakistan. This is my choice. Not that the story would be located in that benighted country, but it’s scary reality could provide a good background. Unlike Iran, everyone agrees Pakistan has nukes – and almost everyone is terrified they will fall into the wrong hands. On top of that, only a few seem to really know where these nukes are and who has control of them… What if our Victor Lazlo character did? He could be a kind of AQ Khan in reverse – a good guy Pakistani scientist who holds the keys to their nukes and protects civilization by keeping them close and out of the hands of the Islamist madmen. He could be a romantic figure in a way… Oxford educated, a bit stuffy but nice. You could see why Ilsa would marry him, although it wasn’t “the real thing,” as they say. And you could also see why we would all want to keep him safe from those same Islamofascists who are after him.
With me so far? Does it all make sense? Well, not perfectly. But remember, neither did the original film. Nor does Chinatown, when you examine it, not to mention a whole bunch of other movies we call classics.
But never mind. Where do we put this Casablanca with its Pakistani scientist version of Victor Lazlo? Certainly not Pakistan itself. Nobody drinks there and what’s Casablanca without booze? One idea is to set it in Istanbul, that great and atmospheric crossroads city where East meets West. Rick could run a country bar there, of all things, and maybe he sings country himself a bit, although in his past, which he doesn’t want to talk about, he was a Navy Seal or some such. This gives him an opportunity to do his own “As Time Goes By” and to sing to Ilsa when they meet again in the magical light of a Bosphorus sunset. Movies like this have to be as corny as Kansas in August. Otherwise they don’t work. It also gives us the chance to replace the iconic “La Marseillaise” from the original movie with something quintessentially American like Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” or even “An Okie from Muskogee.” (Just kidding – or am I?)
And who is our Ilsa? One possibility is a part British/part Pakistani woman – a beautiful Eurasian standing between two cultures. She and Victor the Scientist could have met at Oxford where she was reading history or literature and he was lecturing in physics. They marry but are often apart because our Ilsa is uncomfortable in Pakistan where she is forced to wear the veil and live the life of a second class female citizen. Later, when she thinks her husband has been murdered by Al Qaeda (or the Taliban, you pick) she could have met our Rick. This could be in Prague with it’s great locations along the Charles River… or Venice or Florence… many romantic spots would do to stand in for Paris.
Later, when Rick must make his decision to let her go, we know she is especially heroic too, submitting once again to wearing the veil and living the life of an Islamic wife, although she and we know how awful it is, in order to save the world from nuclear catastrophe.
Of course, we’ll need some villains here – Al Qaeda or Taliban bad guys and their Western allies, ready to bring Victor back to Waziristan and get a hold of those nukes. And we also need an ambiguous man-in-the-middle like Claude Rains/Captain Renault who comes clean in the end. It amuses me that he could be with the U. N. I would love to see one of those guys reform – even if it would never happen in real life.
So that’s all I have for now. As with any good movie, leave them when they are wanting more. And to tell the truth, I don’t have much more – yet – and you are likely to have brighter ideas than mine anyway.
But, again sad to say, this is probably an academic exercise. I doubt Hollywood is ready to make a movie like this, even if it would be a hit. They just don’t seem to want to cheer for our team, no matter how much the audience wants it.
But just in case…. you never know, even if it’s a long shot… and especially since the strike is over … this outline has been…