by Hugh Fitzgerald (Nov. 2006)
You must remember this.
Old Popular Song
The most celebrated movie in American history is Casablanca. That 1942 film stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick, an American living in the once-exotic city which, like the rest of Morocco, was still under French rule. He owns a nightclub, Rick’s Café Américain, where gambling, and drinking, and smoking take place, and where the band, at one point, will defiantly play La Marseillaise, and Sam, the band’s black American piano-player, at another point, will be asked by someone to play something again. Habitués include anti-Vichy French and refugees who have fled Occupied Europe. These desperate people exchange money and favors for passports and transit visas and tickets to Lisbon where they will go on to the safe haven of America. The commander of the local French police, Captain Renault, appears to have made a permanent accommodation with every side, including a contingent of German troops under Major Strasser. Renault stops in frequently to talk to Rick, whom he regards as a fellow recruit in the sauve-qui-peut brigade. He also comes to collect his prescribed payoff, in the form of winnings from rigged roulette games (“I’m only a poor corrupt official” he explains), and it is understood that he will turn a blind eye to what goes on at Rick’s Café.
One day in walks Victor Laszlo, the legendary Resistance hero, accompanied by his wife, Ilsa (played by Ingrid Bergman). He, too, seeks to escape from the Germans, but only so that he might return to the Continent to continue the fight. Ilsa, as it happens, had a brief but unforgettable love affair with Rick in Paris. It ended when he left at 5 p.m. on June 11, 1940, on the last train out, just three days before the Germans came goosestepping through the Arc de Triomphe. In the 1930s, Rick had run guns, first to the Ethiopians fighting Mussolini, and then to the Loyalists fighting Fascists in Spain. He now claims that he had been doing it only for the money. At this point he is determined to avoid involvement in anything beyond his own immediate survival. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he tells Renault. And the Frenchman replies: “A wise foreign policy.”
Captain Renault does not much care for Major Strasser:“I told my men to be especially destructive,” he tells Rick, “you know how that impresses Germans.” Major Strasser reserves his special contempt for the American. He admonishes Captain Renault: “You give him credit for too much cleverness…he is just another blundering American.” Renault replies: “But we mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.”
What happens to Rick is the story of what happened to the United States. One tends to forget that in the 1930s its army ranked, in size, eighteenth in the world; well into 1941 many Americans still averted their eyes from what was happening elsewhere. Casablanca takes place in late 1941, just before Pearl Harbor. Great Britain and France, having first tried appeasement, had been at war with Nazi Germany since September 1939. Great Britain and the Free French were still fighting. Only when attacked by Japan did the United States finally become a combatant, but still it took time for Americans to fully understand the nature and aims of both Nazis and Japanese militarists. Those seemingly disparate enemies, whatever their putative differences, shared an implacable hatred of Western democracy and Western civilization. Their ideologies were remarkably similar and mutually reinforcing, and offered no quarter to those who refused to be subjugated.
More than sixty years have passed since the original Casablanca, and many in the film world have dreamed of a remake. A few tried, but none has succeeded in attracting audiences quite like the made-for-television mini-series, a Franco-German co-production, with its mise-en-scène transferred from North Africa to New York City, that was broadcast to audiences worldwide, during the winter of 2003, from studios overlooking the East River. Though many deemed the series utterly forgettable, there are those who will recall some of its details. The producers decided they could best evoke the exotic flavor of the original film by giving it an even more exotic, Thousand-and-One-Nights title: Baghdad. Purists will argue that in important ways the made-for-television film did not always remain true either to the letter or spirit of Casablanca, but it certainly managed to capture the atmosphere of the original, its suspense, its passion, its pain.
Both film and mini-series were shot largely at a single locale (with Rick's Café replaced by Kofi's in the remake), though in the latter there were occasional shots of city streets, and one at an airport. Both contained references to earlier events: flashbacks are employed, old conversations recalled. The set of the mini-series was more spacious, less smoky, but otherwise essentially the same: a single room full of people of various nationalities, sitting at tables. More than a few have trouble with English. In the film, there were silent fez-wearing Arab waiters; in the mini-series, Arabs also circulated, but not as waiters and, instead of tarbooshes, they were wearing military caps and keffiyehs, and this time they were talkative. The people at the tables in the mini-series engaged in sometimes furtive and even, at times, unseemly negotiations, only some of which we, the audience, could overhear. In both cases, lives were at stake.
As in the film, the television version had a Swedish actor playing a major role. Instead of the ravishing Ingrid Bergman, this Swede, a colorless functionary, directed a brigade of Keystone Kops who were told, just like the police in Casablanca, to “round up the usual suspects.” At times, they were ordered, as in the film, to look more effective by “rounding up twice the usual number of suspects.” And in both cases the result was farcical.
Viewers of film and mini-series became aware of a menace waiting in the wings: a megalomaniacal and murderous dictator, armed to the teeth, who had tortured and killed and attacked at will, and who was prepared to attack and torture and kill some more, directly or through others like him, whenever he felt the need.. And in the East River mini-series there were also rumors of war and resistance; the fog of indecision; defeatism and delay; appeasement camouflaged as prudent statecraft; and fear.
In both versions, the Swedish actor disappeared from view just before the denouement. Those who remained then revealed their true characters. Casablanca derived its dramatic force from the initial irresolution, and then, after a certain delay, the final resolution, in which Rick demonstrated moral clarity, and invited it in others. By the end of the film, he and Renault have chosen sides – the same side. It is the beginning, Rick predicts, “of a beautiful friendship.” In the mini-series, made a half-century after the movie, the Frenchman shoots the American in the back -- fatally, he assumes -- and walks off, arm in arm, with a smiling Strasser.
Thoughtful critics who found Baghdad unsatisfying were initially gratified by the just-released Baghdad: The Sequel, shot on location in the Middle East. This, like the original, is a made-for-television series. The American, who had seemingly been put out of action at the end of Baghdad, had in fact only been grazed, and reappears on center stage. Even props from the past show up again: the decks of cards that kept being shuffled and dealt at Rick's Café reappear, with a face-lift, and with a different game in mind: Fifty-Two Pick-Up. There are mysteries aplenty, and intense searches are conducted, especially for the villains who are disposed of, one by one, including the biggest villain of them all, uncovered in a lair from which he is dragged in humiliating circumstances, and turned over to the local sheriff so that justice may be done. For many of those being sought, the suspense is killing.
The sequel began with some spectacular special effects. And it only manages to get more riveting, with unexpected twists and turns that fill virtually every episode: night-time acts of derring-do, cross-border raids, spectacular thefts, hot-pursuit chases, revenge killings, bounty hunters reaping huge rewards, deep-delvèd bunkers, incriminating files stumbled across, treasure troves lost, and found, and lost, and found again when serendipitously stumbled across. The tension comes from the determination of the heroes, so often hindered by their own scruples, so often dealt with not only ungratefully, but treacherously, by the very people they have managed to free when no one else in the world would help them. That lawman-who-all-alone-rescues-the-ungrateful-townsfolk is right out of High Noon, and like High Noon, it would be a mistake to call this merely an action film. The ultimate outcome is something I won’t reveal. Some say that the townsfolk settle down to a life of peace and prosperity. Still others say that, as in more than one famous Western, the sheriff finally becomes sick and tired of all their squabbling, and whining, and even shooting at him, and just like Gary Cooper, throws down his badge and walks out of town, leaving the unworthy cattlemen and sheepmen to fight with each other as they have always done. Perhaps the real story turns out not to be one of innocent victims being rescued, but something darker and deeper, with some of the victims insisting they were never threatened in the first place, and now claiming, outrageously, that the sheriff himself was a greater threat all along. And the sheriff knows he can’t stop to argue, he has to be moving on, because he has plenty to do, outside this impossible town, in places closer to his own home town that are now being menaced by some of the same forces to be found in this town, and all over .the neighborhood of this hopelessly wild east.
Baghdad: The Sequel, like Baghdad, like Casablanca itself, becomes a kind of Bildungskino. A Western Everyman acquires slowly, and at great cost, knowledge he did not possess at the beginning. In Casablanca he learns to distinguish clearly, unambiguously, Good from Evil, and chooses Good. In Baghdad: the Sequel he learns that on the same planet there exist a plurality of worlds, and that one of those worlds poses a permanent threat to all the others. He comes to understand that the gulf separating those worlds is not to be bridged by pontoons, physical or spiritual, thrown up by any corps of army engineers working in the Land of the Two Rivers. He abandons the effort to win, whether by constant accommodation that grades into appeasement, or by the distribution of Cargo-Cult largesse, those hearts and minds that turn out to be unwinnable. His bleak recognition of reality proves bracing. Finally coming to understand what is dearest to him and what is most vulnerable, he abandons his course of innocent blundering and squandering, and instead becomes a different kind of lawman, intent on countering every instrument of the menace that he had for so long failed, almost willfully, to understand. And then Baghdad: The Sequel takes an entirely different turn, and the tone becomes resolute, unswerving, intelligently ruthless.
Would that this were not a review of a non-existent sequel. Would that this were true.
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