Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers—A Critical Critique


The late science fiction author Robert Heinlein was noted for many things, and one of these is controversy. During his life he never shied away from contentious issues, rather he seems to have actively sought them out, both on and off the page. His writing was always provocative, and the most provocative example of this was his 1959 novel "Starship Troopers". The novel was written in a few weeks, prompted by left-wing lobbying for a ban on USA nuclear weapon testing. Heinlein, a strident conservative, vehemently disagreed with this proposal. While the meaning and import of the novel has been debated (it won the 1960 Hugo, and is still in print), the story conveys the author's conservative anguish on the perceived flaws of contemporary political and social life.

The novel depicts and praises a future government with a sharply limited voting franchise, lauds an authoritarian military, and strongly criticises popular democracy. Essentially, the novel endorses conservative, oligarchic government. Thus the novel has been called "fascist" by some, and has led Michael Moorcock to refer to the novel as "Starship Stormtroopers" and label Heinlein as "the authoritarian militarist".

Heinlein expounds his ideological beliefs against the background of an interstellar war, a war in which human soldiers fight an arachnoid species only ever referred to as "The Bugs", however, this "story", a standard science fiction adventure, is the mere illustrative backdrop for Heinlein's long, recurring discourses (much of this given in an actual classroom setting), which are the true purpose of the work. These lectures are intended to justify the society portrayed in the novel. Subtract this social commentary and the novel would be a novella, and most likely considered amongst Heinlein's lesser works. It is this commentary that generates the controversy, and most of the popularity of the work.

As told in the novel, the governmental system of "Starship Troopers" began in the aftermath of a largely un-described, terrestrial, global war ("at the end of the XXth century"), one consequence of which was the collapse of national governments. Into this power vacuum stepped disgruntled military veterans. These men were the only group who could "run things", they trusted only themselves, and were certainly not willing to allow "unprintable" civilians to interfere. This led to the eventual creation of "The Federation" where to vote and to be eligible for public office one must be a veteran of "Federal Service". In some nations "less than three per cent" of the population have served, but on the colony world of "Iskander" 80% are vets and thus voters.

Heinlein goes to great lengths to defend this restriction, but to make one point clear, if only a fraction of the adult population can vote then the government is not a democracy, it is an oligarchy. The rationale for this form of government is that only those who had demonstrated a willingness to lay down their lives to protect the state (also referred to as the "group") are able to vote responsibly, "control over the state to wager his own life—and lose it, if need be—to save the life of the state". Those who complete Federal Service are also described as fighters, those who do not are "sheep", "If you separate out the aggressive ones and make them the sheep dogs, the sheep will never give you trouble." This is considered to be "civic virtue". In other words you must be willing to to kill and to die for the state, in order to vote. Heinlein adds a little eastern sophistry to pseudo-validate this assertion "Yin and yang, perfect and equal".

To put this into context, Adolf Hitler, a wounded, decorated, and brave veteran of WWI, would be allowed to pursue a political career in the Federation, whereas a man by the name of Franklin Roosevelt would not.

To avoid the label of "militarist" or "fascist" Heinlein's advocates have correctly pointed out that there are non-military services which lead to the franchise, and that every citizen has the constitutional right to serve, regardless of physical disabilities, "Counting the fuzz on a caterpillar by touch, maybe.", as one Federal Service doctor states. The criterion given in the novel is that one must successfully complete an acknowledged form of hazardous public service. These are described as "non-combatant auxiliary services", whose veterans "have not been subjected to the full rigors of military discipline; they have merely been harried, overworked, and endangered". However, no details are given, apart from the exclusion of the "merchant ("long-haired and sloppy and kind of dirty looking") marine sailor" (which does seem a mildly hazardous occupation).

Even with this distinction drawn it is clear that the military is the most highly regarded form of Federal Service. Heinlein also makes it clear that military virtue is by far the greatest indicator of moral virtue. With this in mind, and with the few hints provided in the novel, we can infer that these unnamed "auxiliary services" are run along military lines with military discipline and indoctrination. Thus, to draw a distinction between a military and non-military path to political power is to draw a distinction where there is none. Juan Rico's training regiment began with 2009 men, out of which only 187 graduated. Federal Service requires that each volunteer be broken and humiliated in training, re-built as an obedient servant, and then face deadly danger or at least great difficulty, for a duty you are told is necessary.

In presenting this justification for the Federation, Heinlein went to great lengths to contrast and delineate the faults of mass democracies. They failed because they were based upon the flawed notion of universal suffrage, thus people "vote for whatever they wanted", and "This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse of the democracies of the twentieth century", "they paid for their folly". According to Heinlein the western democracies were to crumble due to the inherent weakness of character of the "hoi polli", who were greedy and short sighted, who had attained the vote without effort, who were incapable of appreciating its importance, and failed to use it responsibly, but only for their own, narrow self-interest, etc. An even worse offence of democracies was the lack of regard for the military by civilian "do gooders and well-meaning old Aunt Nellie", who believe "We've outgrown wars". What comes through in "Starship Troopers" is an entrenched disdain for liberal democracy, a contempt for the proletariat, and the use of the term "decadence".

"Decadence", is an ill-defined or perhaps, better, a catch-all term, widely and laughably used by conservative commentators to label the perceived ills of a liberal society. These ills revolve around a shift in political and economic power from the few to the many. This incorporates a regard and adherence to human rights, a greater participation by the entire population in the political process, and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Such social trends are anathema to conservatives. This "decadence" requires a "cure". This is invariably a more authoritarian government—and a war (or two) always helps.

Heinlein claims that his world avoided the fate of decadent democracies by enrolling only voters with "civic virtue", gained by military or ersatz military service. Yet, even in his own novel this seems a stretch. Juan Rico himself, the protagonist and hero of the novel, enlisted on a dare and joins the military arm of the Federation as his last choice. During his training he comes to view the military life as the best of all possible worlds, and in doing so separates himself from civilian life, but does this shift equate to a better understanding of society, or the opposite? Heinlein specifically states that veterans are not smarter or more knowledgeable. Rather, veterans had a disdainful view of civilians, inferior types, who just don't get it. They don't have the right stuff, they are like "beans", "you buy 'em as needed". Civilians can be "smart", but they do not have "fighting spirit".

In another context, a successful military commander Arthur Wessley, the Duke of Wellingon gave a different interpretation of military men. He said that British soldiers do no enlist for noble reasons but because of "bastards", "minor offences", or "drink". He goes on to call his men "scum of the earth—the mere scum of the earth". In a later war I can personally attest that at least some of the Austrailan personnel who volunteered early in WW2 did so to escape relationship and financial problems, with little understanding of what they were getting in to. It is also true, at least in peace time, that many people volunteer for the military simply for a job, certainly during times of high unemployment, or for other inducements. It is also a choice given to petty criminals.

There is no evidence that the people who successfully complete military service are in any way more ethical or demonstrate a greater willingness to sacrifice for others than any other group in the population. One could in fact argue the opposite. Military force, propaganda notwithstanding, is usually deployed for internal purposes—most military casualties are civilians, and most of these casualties are domestic civilians. Note the use of the military to suppress civilian revolts in the contemporary Middle East. The military and the police are controlled by the ruling class of the society, and are used to protect and extend the interests of that class against their enemies, who are usually their own citizens. Illustrative of this, a major and frequent use of troops is as strike-breakers, hardly the stirring stuff of military legend.

Military governments are no more than the usual, unimaginative, fascist state. Such governments quickly become self-serving and corrupt. The term decadence is better applied here than to a vibrant and successful democratic society. What is all too apparent in the novel is the unrealistic nature of the government and society portrayed. Heinlein was a frustrated soldier, one who wanted to, but never served in a military capacity. He paints an idealised, even dream like portrait of military life. Joe Haldeman, who did serve and who wrote "The Forever War" (1974), was critical of "Starship Troopers".


This contempt for democracy presented in the novel is the leitmotif of Heinlein's writing. At the time he wrote "Starship Troopers" Heinlein had predicted the "Crazy Years", a time in the near future when governments and society would collapse, and suffering and misery would ensue (a beloved state of affairs for hard-line conservatives). All due to too many "crazy" ideas taking place. The reality was the opposite of Heinlein's gloomy prediction. It was the autocratic and oligarchic governments that collapsed in the generation following his death, not the democratic. A generation after "Starship Troopers" was written the centre piece of conservative fears, the nation that was to overwhelm the decadent west, the oligarchic Soviet Union, had collapsed (if Heinlein had lived only three more years he would have seen this for himself), due to its inherent inefficiencies and abuse of power.

"Starship Troopers" paints a grim picture of democratic society, but Heinlein neglected to discuss the faults of oligarchies. Even a cursory examination of the historical record will reveal that oligarchies are not the paragons of selfless virtue that Heinlein dreams of, rather they are unimaginative and stagnant, their ruling class factionalised and bickering, and the needs of the population subjugated to the every increasing demands of the ruling class in their squabble for power and survival. Such a ruling class decks itself with elaborate uniforms and protocols, engages in trivial vanities, and possess a petty evil, which manifests as political assassination and intrigue. Soon enough, when its inherent flaws emerge, these governments launch or provoke a war in order to deflect internal criticism (the Argentian Junta and the Malvinas/Falklands, for exmaple). It is not the oligarchic and autocratic societies that produce the advances in human history, rather it is the democratic and open societies. From Athens to the Age of Enlightenment increases in human freedom have resulted in social and scientific progress.

Related to Heinlein's contempt for democracy, is his disregard for trade unions and his entire ignorance of the concept of "people power". No where in Heinlein's oeuvre is there a kind word for the organisations that protect workers against exploitation, rather the opposite. Also, the notion of citizens forming mass protests against, and driving out oppression, is no where to be found. This egalitarian social action by citizens, the "sheep" of the novel's universe, which accelerated the collapse of the SU, and brought peace to Yugoslavia in 2000, is non-existent in "Starship Troopers".

The depth of Heinlein's error is more than lack of political understanding. He fundamentally mis-understands human nature. In the novel Heinlein incorrectly states that humans have no innate moral conscience, that we are born without morals (very christian, but he does not go so far as to say we are born in sin). What ever morals we develop are created by indoctrination, and indoctrination by physical punishment is best:


" "You see, they assumed that Man has a moral instinct."
"Sir? But I thought—But he does! I have."
"No, my dear, you have a cultivated conscience, a most carefully trained one. Man has no moral instinct. He is not born with moral sense. You were not born with it, I was not—and a puppy has none. We acquire moral sense, when we do, through training, experience, and hard sweat of the mind." "


This fallacious belief is the core of the novel and the basis of the ideology it expresses. Heinlein believed that only a few can grasp the need to work for the common good. This is not correct, rather the reverse is true, ethical values are part of human nature. It is a core value of our humanity. Human beings are born with an innate moral sense. Humans are social animals, we, and our precursor species, have for millions of years survived because we could form societies, families, and work together as a community. To do this required the evolution of brain hardware that allowed, even compelled us to recognise the innate humanness of other people, certainly people close to us. The terms "empathy" and "conscience". We hurt when those close to us hurt. There are numerous presentations of this fact. For those interested in reading further I suggest the 2004 book "The Science of Good and Evil" by Michael Shermer.

The person Heinlein describes is a psychopath. A non-human creature born without a moral conscience that comprise approximately 1% of the population. These people are innately untrustworthy, deceitful, unreliable, and motivated only by their own self-interest. They are the bane of society and individuals.

With this understanding we can see the basic fallacy of "Starship Troopers". The credo of the novel derivies from a dangerously flawed mis-understanding of humanity. Heinlein believes that punishment, both corporal (public whipping), and capital punishment (public hanging) is necessary to create moral humans—though one could argue that if morality is created through fear and conditioning then it is not true morality. This approach to human education is false and dangerous. Physical punishment teaches little, it dumbs people down, making them unimaginative, prone to the use of violence, and blindly obedient to authority. Generally speaking, the more authortarian the society, the greater the value placed on physical punishment, both of children and adults.

In 1960 the extent of this understanding of humans was in its infancy. It could be said that therefore RAH cannot be condemned for this belief, however, if there was no evidience one way there is no evidience of the other. If RAH was unaware of scientific evidence of the basis of human motivation then he should not write about what he does not understand, or at least incorporate this doubt into his writing—but he does not.

To paraphrase Michael Moorcock I will refer to Heinlein's novel as "Starship Psychopaths".

Symptomatic of Heinlein's psychopathic view of humanity, there is Man's "manifest destiny" to colonise the stars. This notion is presented in only a few lines in the novel, but brief as this is, this single claim is what I find most objectionable. RAH outlines the future. The galaxy will be colonised by the strong—only those species that are worthy to survive will do so. This will be humanity, with the Federation military leading the way. Juan Rico spends time on the planet Sanctuary. It is an outstanding planet, a "potential utopia", and this makes it a useful example to expound his opinion on human destiny vis-a-vis the planet.

"... it will not be left in the possession of primitive life forms that failed to make the grade."

This is it, the strong take what they will, genocide is justified. Heinlein's proxy foresees the universe as dominated by humans. Those alien intelligences who accommodate themselves to this reality will survive, as human client states. Those who do not will be exterminated. This is the bleakest, most inhumane argument Heinlein puts forward in the novel.

This view of alien intelligence is rare in the science fiction world. It is true that generally SF authors place humans at or near the top of any hierarchy, but usually in a far more peaceful universe. Even the self-described libertarian Poul Anderson, in his future history (Polseotechnic League and Terran Empire), allowed low-tech autochthons to join in (even enlist) in human society. Arthur C. Clarke went so far as to see humanity as merely a stepping stone to a more advanced form of life. Not so Heinlein.

To achieve this goal of galactic domination, the Federation needs bodies, thus birth control in "Starship Troopers" is frowned upon: "Without debating the usefulness or morality of planned parenthood", "any breed which stops its own increase gets crowded out by breeds which expand.". The biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" and rule over all of creation (to paraphrase) is the mandate of the Federation.

In this future version of manifest destiny humans breed without restriction, dominate or exterminate "inferior" species, and populate the galaxy in the "flicker of an eye". No hint that another species might have something to offer humans.

Reproduction raises the question of sex and love in the novel, which can be answered with none of one and little of the other. The point has been made by Moorcock and others that there is no love in "Starship Troopers". True. The closest we see is an unrequited adolescent crush by the protagonist, unrecognised by the female party, and a few paragraphs which tell the reader how good it is to look (no suggestion of touching) at women.

It might seem on the surface that Victorian era novels deal even more coyly with sex and love than does "Starship Troopers", but no. For example, H. Rider Haggard's "Alan Quartermaine" character falls passionately in love, without mention of sex, with his wife, and speaks of this love from time to time in the novels. It is a love that sweeps him away with its strength. Not so in "Starship Troopers". John Rico gazes at girls, but that is it. The idea of committment, family, love and passion are no where to be found. This can be interpreted as a Boys Own Adventure in space, but the novel is not a juvenile and was first published in "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction", a magazine aimed at an adult audience. This sublimation can be seen as a subordination of human emotion away from civilian life and towards the military. The armed forces: "was my gang, I belonged. They were all the family I had left; they were the brothers I had never had, closer than Carl had ever been. If I left them, I'd be lost."

The "Bugs", the "arachnids"—the enemy—why are "we" fighting them? Why and how did the war start? A pertinent question when war is concerned, but one ignored in the novel. It is neither a question nor an issue. The war is here, we fight. The Bug War is a just war. Somehow I am reminded of "The Great War", World War One. Why again did ten million men have to die? At this point I cannot but think of the appallingly goofy 1998 movie "Starship Troopers". A journalist asks the movie Rico (transmogrified from a Philippino into a square jawed wasp), about bug breeding grounds, human colonisation, and suggests that humans might be partially responsible for the war! Immediately, Rico and his crew dismissively dismiss the journo's comments and aver the certainty of total victory.

Moorcock made the observation that the Bugs represent Heinlein's fears (and those of his fellow conservatives) of the proletarian masses and the faceless communist hordes. Perhaps an extreme view, but certainly the Bugs are a bespoke enemy. A blank background against which Heinlein's moral presentation is projected. I interpret the Bugs as the faceless paranoiac fears of many conservatives who see the universe as an innately hostile place, where there is always an enemy. In this I am reminded of a “Manifesto to the Civilized World”, signed by several hundred prominent Germans during WW1. This document justified German military aggression by warning about “Russian hordes,” “Mongols,” and “Negroes”, who had been “unleashed against the white race.” Such paranoia of the outsider is all too easily found in "Starship Troopers".

Without doubt "Starship Troopers" is a fascist novel. It describes the fascist state as its admirers believed it to be, however, I go one step further. It is a psychopathic novel—bleak, cold, and inhuman. A novel that depicts a fear filled universe from which the only salvation is the unquestioning embrace of authoritarianism. In this worldview genocide and endless warfare are implicitly justified to combat the perceived threat of strangers and the unknown. When reading "Starship Troopers" I was reminded of Norman Spinrad's "Iron Dream" (1972), an alternative universe novel within a novel "written" by an immigrant to the USA, one Adolf Hitler. Both share the same cold fatalism.

This review has assumed that the views expressed in the novel are the views of the author. In later years, when discussing this novel, Heinlein defended himself by stating that his characters spoke for themselves, yet Heinlein spoke for himself on many occasions. One of these occasions was his 1973 Forrestal Lecture Series speech on patriotism and duty entitled "The Pragmatics of Patriotism". In this speech Heinlein described the contemporary US military in much the same way he described the "Starship Troopers" military: it is the noblest calling, civilians are inferior, and "peaceniks" are bad. Similar views to this, expressed in different fashions are found throughout Heinlein's work.

One example of this, one which I found distasteful when I first read of it many years ago, and still do, is the murder of a man in Heinlein's novel "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" (1966). A group of emergency service personnel are practising the repair of an airlock on the Moon. A heckler is standing by criticising their work. When they finish their task they carry the man through the airlock onto the Luna surface where he dies the horrible death of asphyxiation. This cold murder is passed over briefly. Might makes right, don't criticise those in uniform.

This is the general view held by many far right conservatives of their own country, there obsessive patriotism, combined with a disdain for most members and institutions of that society. Heinlein distrusted democracy, civilian society as a whole, but had a near superstitious reverence for the United States.

The views expressed by Heinlein's protege Juan Rico are those held by the author.

The adoration given to this novel is fearful. It is on the recommended reading list of the US Marine Corp commandant (or something similar). I find this disturbing in the extreme. Like many such  approved works it teaches soldiers to alienate themselves from civilian society and to despise the democratic structure they are presumably there to defend. The novel is little more than an open endorsement of an oligarchic fascism. I would like to think that a report on the Nuremberg Trials, and something by Geoffrey Robinson would be on that reading list rather than Heinlein.

It has been claimed that "Starship Troopers" is a "libertarian" government. This based on the tiny hints that the government respects civil liberties and has little power. Not true, a libertarian government would not rely on a standing army, but on a militia, and enjoy a universal franchise, and certainly not praise unquestioning obedience to authority. "Starship Troopers" is a paternalistic society, hierarchical society.

Many have said "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". This is an aphorism best kept in mind when reading the novel. A narrow elite, selected by military service, is the most indicative example of the harm of unbridled power. Every person living in a society has a part to play in that society, however small or large, and, equally, every person is affected by decisions made in that society, thus every person has a right to a say in the management of their society. Tyranny is the enemy of democracy.

Robert Heinlein disregards the founding fathers of his own homeland. These men were of the Age of Enlightenment, for all their flaws. They had seen the excesses and abuses of power brought about by the Kings of Europe. They knew of the autocratic state of Cromwell. They feared that General Washington would make himself king, and they were apprehensive about military power in general. These men believed that their new country should have no standing army, rather to rely on a militia of armed citizens.

"A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive, will not long be safe companions to liberty." James Madison.

"Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people." James Madison.

"Even when there is a necessity of the military power, within a land, a wise and prudent people will always have a watchful and jealous eye over it". Samuel Adams.


"Starship Troopers" is a direct attack on democracy, human rights, and personal freedom. Reading the book generates a shiver of cold fear and repulsion. It is the simple minded dream of an authoritarian, dysfunctional paranoia. Lastly, it is not a good novel.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Sally Ride (1951-2012) RIP

I saw Dr Ride in 1980 when she visited the city of Perth, Australia, and lectured in the Octagon Theatre of the University of Western Australia. It was a popular event, and she spoken well and engagingly. The rest of her life proceeded well, she travelled into space twice, pursued a successful academic career, and established a company that encouraged young people, in particular women, to consider a career in science.

Sad that she died at the relatively young age of 61. Pancreatic cancer, I hope that a cure is found soon. It seems to target interesting people. RIP.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

We'll Always Have "Casablanca"


The movie (1942)





In 1942 another new Warner Brothers movie was released into the world from the maw of the industrious Hollywood movie machine, along with over a hundred others of that year. Most of these movies are long forgotten, yet one, "Casablanca", the story of disparate refugees in the eponymous Moroccan city at the outbreak of World War Two, is still popular, still screened, and still appreciated a lifetime after its first screening. There are many and varied reasons for this success, and a great deal of ink, both digital and otherwise, has been expended analysing this popularity. Personally, it is a movie that I have increasingly come to appreciate as my taste in movies has developed over the years. Thus, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a few moments and attempt to uncover just why "Casablanca" is as popular as it is.

To begin, what is the movie about? The answer normally given is that the movie is about a war time romance, with drama and intrigue, but this is not correct. "Casablanca" is about redemption, as three conflicted people struggle to reclaim their lives and to do "the right thing", in a deadly and dark world. The movie centres on two men who love one woman, and the woman who loves them both. One of the men is a noble hero, the other a roguish anti-hero, who affirms "I stick my neck out for nobody" (though this is clearly untrue). Which should she choose? How should each man respond? The choices before each character is to either pursue their own happiness and ignore the wider consequences, or to do what is "right"—even when what is right is not clear. This struggle is the theme of the movie. Its resolution the plot.

The protagonist of the movie is Richard (Rick) Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, a stylish, white-suited, expat USA citizen, and owner of the leading Casablanca nightspot "Rick's Cafe Americaine", a nightclub and (illegal and crooked) casino, where most of the action takes place. His past is shady and sketchy, though we soon learn that he cannot return to his homeland, for unstated reasons. In the past he "ran guns to Ethiopia" and fought the fascists in Spain, but now he faces the world with a harsh and unforgiving exterior, though this is easily pierced. He is a bitter man, who drinks too much and holds others at a distance. We see him playing chess, alone, dealing only with staff, gruffly rejecting the affections of his ladyfriend, and "he never drinks with customers". This stop-gap existence is shattered when his past returns in the form of the beautiful Ilsa Lund—the cause of his despair—played by the incomparable Ingrid Bergman: "Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine."

A year and a half earlier, in Paris, the two had been lovers, however, both had been deceived. Ilsa as she believed that her husband was dead, Blaine as he believed that the two had a future.  He proposed marriage. Their relationship abruptly ended when Ilsa discovered that her husband was alive. She painfully abandoned Rick—alone, at a train station, in the rain. However, even though throughout the movie they profess their love for each other, the depth of their relationship is challenged by the superficiality of two lonely people chance meeting in war time Paris. There relationship during their first encounter is typified by the two agreeing not to discuss their past and the near comically repeated statements: Ilsa: "I know so very little about you." Rick: "I know so very little about you..."

Ilsa's husband, Victor Laszlo, is the third member of this love triumvirate. He is the noble fugitive, the wronged hero. A renowned, and respected Czech Resistance leader, played by the Austrian actor Paul Henreid. He had been captured by the Nazis and then imprisoned and tortured in a concentration camp (though he shows little sign of this in the movie). He escapes and makes his way to Casablanca with Ilsa, but with the Gestapo in hot pursuit (both he and his wife have excellent wardrobes for refugees). From Morocco he hopes to travel to the USA, putting his tormentors behind him and continuing to lead the resistance movement. Laszlo: "This time I know our side will win."

Laszlo is a different man from Blaine. More than simply the hero versus the anti-hero. When Blaine is dashing, charming and witty, Laszlo is reserved and terse—by far the least animated and least likeable character in the movie—rarely doing more than offering a small smile to those around him. He does not come across as the charismatic leader of men we are told that he is. Arguably, in his defence, after time in a concentration camp, and abruptly learning that his wife was being unfaithful while he was being tortured, his sense of humour would not be what it once was. Having said this, Laszlo is the least compelling character of the three. The love story is between Blaine and Ilsa. Laszlo plays second fiddle to their passion. It could be argued that his passion is reserved for the fight against the Nazis, yet it is his "straight man" role that acts to amplify the emotions of the two lovers. He is an island of calm around which they flame and burn.

The obvious question is then, which man should Ilsa chose, her husband or her lover? The choice before Ilsa is starkly different. Which life should she select? The honourable cause or to "run away" with Blaine and lead a life of dash and romance? Conversely, should Rick abscond with a married woman? Should Laszlo force his wife to remain with him? Complex and difficult choices, though, when viewed objectively, the choices before Ilsa are different than when viewed through the kaleidoscope of love. A life with Blaine would be a life on the run in north Africa as the mistress of a petty criminal, sought by the Nazis, while her husband offered safety and comfort in the land of milk and honey as the honoured wife of a national hero, and, potentially, a political leader after the war. This situation is one more case of wrong man, right feeling!

There is a piece of cinema fable which claims that the resolution of this dilemma was undecided until moments before the scene was shot. This is not correct. While the actual form of the denouement was long debated (The screenwriter Julius Epstein stated that, "Warner had 75 writers under contract and 75 of them tried to figure out an ending!"), under the censorship rules of the time (the Hays Office) a married woman could never abandon her husband for another man. War, torture, death and assassination were ok, but not marital infidelity. Any of the three could have been shot, fled or arrested, but if Ilsa and Laslzo were alive at the movie's end, they would be together. This fable is further disproved as several scenes that appear earlier in the movie were shot after the final scene. Everyone knew the outcome. There is also a belief, unverified, that Henreid was promised that "he would get the girl" as part of his acceptance of the role.

This love affair between Blaine and Ilsa is the personal tragedy of the movie, and it is played superbly by the two stars. When with Ilsa Rick is uncharacteristically reserved and hesitant even 'stiff', not his normal debonair self. This reveals the pain of her earlier rejection, and his fear of falling in love with her again, even though he still is. It is Ilsa, who expresses the emotional affection between the two. Her smiling face and compelling body language reveal her love, and against his will capture again the heart of the heartless Rick Blaine. It is this strong "chemistry" which shines through in the movie. In fact, so convincing was this chemistry that during the shooting of the movie Bogart's then wife, Mayo Methot, accused her husband of having an affair with Bergman, something that did not occur.

During the shoot, there was a sizeable element of friction between the leads. Henreid was not happy with the movie, nor his role as the second man. He also thought Bogart to be a bad actor, while Bergman considered Henreid to be a "prima donna", a belief possibly shared by Bogart. This real friction is apparent in the movie. The two men stare aloofly at each other, maintaining a distance, speaking tersely, and with no warmth. Just about what we should expect.

This love triangle is just a love triangle, not a cigar. It is given its importance and placed centre stage by the MacGuffin of the movie—stolen "letters of transit"—"signed by General de Gaule" (a man not that important in 1941, but more so in 1942 when the film was shot), which, improbably, "Cannot be rescinded, not even questioned". With these fantastical papers in their possession Laszlo and his wife can quickly and safely leave Casablanca for the new world, but, as fate would have it, these pivotal documents are now in the hands of Rick Blaine. Thus to secure his escape from the Gestapo, protect his wife, and continue his good work, Laszlo must deal with his wife's former lover. Never an easy ask.


Rick: "You'll excuse me, gentlemen. Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon."


The permutations of this conflict are played out as the movie progresses. Time and time again each character attempts to do the "right thing", even though they are never sure just what this is. Laszlo insists his wife leave Casablanca, while he stays. Laszlo offers Blaine a fortune in exchange for the papers. Ilsa attempts to woo and then threaten Blaine into surrendering the papers to her and her husband. Laszlo asks Blaine to use the papers to escape to safety with his wife. The suspense of the movie derives from skilfully delivery of these seesaw gambits. There is never an unambiguous indication of who will win out, but at various stages of the movie each option is hinted at. It is not until the final scene that the audience learns who will truly escape with whom.

The resolution to all this, revealed at the last moment, is that Laszlo and Ilsa leave together for the USA via Portugal, while Rick remains in Africa to fight the good fight against the Nazis. Viewed critically this "right thing" can be easily dismissed as a bow to conventional morality, without regard to the needs and lives of each person, but viewed against the times these actions demonstrate a higher morality and a nobler purpose that necessarily supersedes personal doubts and fears. Bogart makes this point clear to Ilsa as she is about to board the plane. She must go with her husband, he has important work and he cannot do it without her. If she and Rick stay together she will come to regret their action:

Blaine: "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."

She cries, but then gets on the plane with her husband. Both she and Blaine are redeemed. Blaine has re-found his purpose, she hers.

A receipt briefly shown in an opening scene dates the start of the movie to the 2nd of December 1941. At this date Nazi Germany was ascendant and dominated much of Europe, Britain was under siege, and the USA was officially neutral. This was all to change in five days (ignoring time zones for a moment). On December 7th the United States of America would be hurled out of its isolationism (a term and policy disparaged in the movie), and into active warfare against the Axis powers by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Thus the chronology of events in the movie mirrors that of the real world. In the three or four days in which the movie takes place Rick re-discovers his true purpose, as would his homeland.

To put this into its historical context, the movie was released in November 1942 and screened through early 1943. At this time the USA was engaged in combat against the Axis, the allies had just conquered Morocco, and Casablanca became the venue for a conference between Churchill and Roosevelt ("Casablanca Conference", January 1943). Viewed from the perspective of a propaganda movie "Casablanca" is all too obvious in its appeal: the overwhelming need to put aside your personal concerns and do what is necessary to win the war, and a movie temporarily glamorised by the fame of its setting.

Having agreed that it is a propaganda movie then why is "Casablanca" still popular six decades after VE Day? To understand this we must examine the timeless elements of the movie, which speak to issues and beliefs deeper than the ephemera of wartime patriotism. This begins with star-crossed love, coping with loss and pain, the struggle to resolve conflicted choices, and the desire to do the right thing. This is a challenge faced by everyone at one time or another in their life, thus, it is of interest to everyone. The audience watches seemingly "ordinary" people on the silver screen face this struggle, display elements of nobility and failure, make mistakes, express doubt and uncertainty, but then finally do what is right in such a way that everything is made right and their previous sins washed away. This element of redemption appeals to people of all eras and ages. No sin is so great that forgiveness is impossible.

This is the story, the theme, the leitmotif, the message—yet, for the movie to be successfully conveyed it had required not only the three A list top-billed stars, but also good supporting actors. Fortunately, the movie enjoyed a buffet of top actors.


Strasser: "Oh, we Germans must get used to all climates, from Russia to the Sahara."

The most visible of these, the man who personified the menacing Gestapo, was the masterly Conrad Veidt in the role of the sinister Major Heinrich Strasser. The Major flew to Casablanca in order to capture or kill Laszlo. From the moment he steps off the plane to the moment Blaine shoots him (also at the airfield), he comes across as a strident Nazi extremist, efficiently and remorselessly committed to the goal of world domination. In him the American people could see an enemy capable and fervent. The distillation of their fears.

Annina: "Monsieur Rick, what kind of a man is Captain Renault?"
Rick: "Oh, he's just like any other man, only more so."

Then there is the talented English actor Claude Rains, who brings his wit and bonhomie (his police cap always at a rakish angle), to his role as the corrupt and adaptable, even sometimes unctuous, French police prefect of Casablanca, Captain Louis Renault. A man who takes bribes, either in sex or money, for exit visas. Extending his role, he is also the closest Rick has to a friend, though at arms length. However, engaging as his character is, his less pleasant side is revealed, but not explored in the movie. Renault is unhesitatingly willing to do whatever it takes. This is shown when an important prisoner, played by Peter Lorre, is murdered while in police custody so as to appease the Germans. Renoir affably jokes as he ponders a blank police report "We haven't quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape."

Renault: "Ricky, I'm going to miss you. Apparently you're the only one in Casablanca with less scruples than I."

Yet, with all of this darkness in his character, demonstrated again by his steadfast determination to capture Laszlo, he is another who is capable of redemption. At the end of the movie, after Blaine has killed Major Strasser, with Renault standing to one side, after a moments pause, Renault tells his newly arrived men to "round up the usual suspects", rather than order Blaine arrested. Then, just before the credits roll, both Blaine and Renault abandon their comfortable, corrupt existences in Casablanca and leave (walking arm in arm—in the non-existent Moroccan fog), to join the French resistance movement. With this act Renault has redeemed his past sins. This redemption is highlighted by Bogart, who tells Renault "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.". This one line tells the audience that the two men's flawed past lives are now ended, and before them is a new life as redeemed noble warriors. Indicative of the fashion in which "Casablanca" was filmed, this line, important as it is, was added three weeks after the movie was completed, at the instigation of the producer, Hal Wallis.

Ugarte: You despise me, don't you?
Rick: If I gave you any thought I probably would.

A far less appealing character is that of Ugarte (only one name is known), played by Peter Lorre, who appears for only a few unforgettable minutes at the beginning of the movie. His character is both charming, in a repellant and cringing manner, and precipitate as he is the one who gives the oft sought letters of transit to Blaine. Thus starting the ball rolling as it were. He is able to do this as he had murdered the two German clerks, who were somehow in possession of the de Gaule signed papers. Blaine agrees to hold onto these dangerous goods (apparently for no good reason), until Ugarte can sell the documents for a sizeable sum, and then leave Casablanca behind him.

The interaction between the two men provides an opportunity for a great deal of exposition concerning Blaine's character and his business in Casablanca. His bar serves as a meeting ground for a vast variety of people (including, in the opening shot, a Chinese woman, inexplicably resident in north west Africa), all of whom seem to be involved in shady deals, heated negotiations, and clandestine conversations. One gains the impression that no one comes to "Rick's" simply for a drink.

Senor Ferrari: "Might as well be frank, monsieur. It would take a miracle to get you out of Casablanca, and the Germans have outlawed miracles."

Opposite Blaine is his business rival, the somewhat Machiavellian Signor Ferrari, played by Sydney Greenstreet, owner of "The Blue Parrot", a less prestigious Casablancan bar. Ferrari is head of the black market. He wheels and deals, handling and allowing transactions to take place in his bar that Blaine does not in his. Ferrari does not have a large role to play, he is there clearly to support Blaine and provide occasional exposition, yet the talented actor makes his character an object of interest. His primary scene, when he discusses with Laszlo and Ilsa their options of escape from Casablanca is witty and moves the story along well. He further expounds the harsh realities of life in "Free" Casablanca, and then unerringly directing the two back to Blaine, a man they were attempting to avoid.

Last, and least of the supporting actors is Dooley Wilson (amusingly enough, the only member of the cast to have ever visited the city of Casablanca)—the piano player who is never told by Ilsa to "Play it again, Sam". He is Blaine's friend and travelling companion, though he always refers to him as "Mr Richard" or "boss"—being black in the 1940s may have something to do with this ("the boy who is playing the piano", as Ilsa refers to him, dating them both). I venture to suggest that Sam is more the "good and faithful servant", the loyal court jester character, than a true friend, which he is not. Sam is the one happy person in the movie. He popularly plays his piano, sings his songs, and collects his salary, nothing more, nothing less, and he has a (black) girlfriend—what more could any man ask for? In this fashion he is the outsider in the movie. He observes and assists, but is not involved. It should be pointed out that he makes the single most perceptive statement in the movie "Leave him alone, Miss Ilsa. You're bad luck to him.".

Sam is with Blaine in Paris, and then with him in Casablanca. He brings a measure of personal humour to the story, and acts as Blaine's confidant and interlocutor (ironically, he is the one character of note, who never said anything deemed worthy of quotation), attempting to lighten Blaine's remorse when he is despairingly drunk after meeting Ilsa again. Though, it should be pointed out that Rick hid the transit papers in Sam's piano, which, if discovered, would have implicated his faithful "friend" in a lethal conflict, which was none of his business.

Moving away from the second billed stars we see a literal world of excellent minor actors. These are the staff of "Rick's", the various refugees in the bar, and the minor officials who walk on and off. A sizeable measure of verisimilitude was brought to these roles as all of these actors were foreigners, and many refugees. Surprisingly, only three named actors were US citizens: Bogart, Dooly and Joy Page (ironically, playing a Bulgarian woman). Add to this that the director, Mike Curtiz, was Hungarian, with a refugee background. Warner Brothers made the claim that 34 nationalities worked on the film. One could even provocatively ask if this American award winning propaganda movie was in fact an "American" movie?

This foreign, refugee element is apparent in several scenes. For example, during the "Battle of the anthems", when the French "La Marseillaise" is played against the German "Die Wacht Am Rhein" many of the minor actors can be seen with tears in their eyes. Indicative of the times, the lauded German actor Veidt was married to a Jew and both were refugees from Nazism, he and his wife having fled Germany in fear of their lives.

Putting all these actors together created the basis for a breakout movie, but to bring these people to life required that they have something to say, thus the dialogue. "Casablanca" is a movie renowned for its dialogue. It is replete with humour, charm, satire, and wit, and proved to be a cornucopia of oft repeated quotes. Also, to state the obvious to anyone who has seen the movie, this dialogue is delivered perfectly by every actor, in perfectly crafted scenes.

There are a few stories about the dialogue of "Casablanca". As is famously said, the movie was created by a committee, and was "the most decisive exception to the auteur theory", to which the reply was made "nearly every Warner Brothers picture was an exception to the auteur theory". However, either in spite of or because of this synergistic confusion/fusion, Oscars were won by the director, Michael Curtiz, and the credited writers Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Add to this list two other men who contributed significantly to the screenplay, the producer Hal Wallis, and the uncredited script writer Casey Robinson, who changed, amongst other things, Ilsa's character from an American tramp into a romantic European heroine.

The movie was based on an unproduced play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Joan Allison & Murray Burnett. The play was prompted by personal experience of Nazi prejudice. Recognising the quality of the story, the movie rights were bought by Warner Brothers for the unprecedented sum of $20,000. In order to turn the play into a movie the script was written, re-written, and re-written again, unfinished when shooting began, and with changes made on a daily basis as the shoot progressed.

Enough said. Dialogue should speak for itself. Here is the best:

Satire:
Senor Ferrari: As the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man.


Humour:
Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
  [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault: [aloud] Everybody out at once!

Captain Renault: Come to my office in the morning. We'll do everything business-like.
Jan: We'll be there at six.
Captain Renault: I'll be there at ten.


Wit:
Captain Renault: Carl, see that Major Strasser gets a good table, one close to the ladies.
Carl: I have already given him the best, knowing he is German and would take it anyway.


Anguish:
Ilsa: How nice, you remembered. But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.
Rick: Not an easy day to forget.
Ilsa: No.
Rick: I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.


Patriotism:
Rick: Don't you sometimes wonder if it's worth all this? I mean what you're fighting for.
Victor Laszlo: You might as well question why we breathe. If we stop breathing, we'll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.
Rick: Well, what of it? It'll be out of its misery.
Victor Laszlo: You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't believe in his heart.

Propaganda:
Renault: ... I told my men to be especially destructive. You know how that impresses Germans?


A number of minor points contributed to the success of the movie. First, the sub-plots. Throughout the movie the stories of minor, even unnamed characters are told. These usually provide a measure of humour to what is in reality a sad and tragic tale, and distract for a few moments the audiences attention, before it is snapped back to the main characters. For example, Italian military officials appear on and off, every time attempting, unsuccessfully, to be treated as equals (a not very subtle put-down of the Italian war effort). Then there is Yvonne, Blaine's harshly discarded girlfriend, who rebounds to a German officer, until her patriotic loyalty is painfully rekindled. A source of amusement is the occasional presence of the unnamed pickpocket, who is as skilful in his speedy banter as he is at extracting wallets from unsuspecting tourists. All of these minor characters bring colour and life to the story.

Next, the location, the cafe, the exotic east, Morocco. At a time when few ordinary people travelled Morocco symbolised the mystery and intrigue of distant lands where strangeness flourished and everything was new. Many in the audience would have grown up watching Rudolf Valentino make bedroom eyes and swashbuckle his way across the desert. More than a few watching the movie must have imagined themselves sitting at a table in the near dream-like world of "Rick's", shrouded in semi-darkness,  with "champagne and a tin of caviar", while waiting for a contact to arrive, with shady business to transact, the band playing and beautiful women tantalisingly around. Escapism at its best. Reserve me a table!

Then there is the photography. We can begin by stating that the photography was good, even very good. Some of the scenes are outstanding, however, let us examine briefly one aspect of the movie which is rarely discussed—the physiological effect of the movie being shot in black and white. By eschewing the colour of the real world the human brain is forced to work harder to process what our eyes see. This increases and further focuses our attention on the movie. Black and white "Casablanca" (the white house) is compelling in part for this mundane, physiological reason.

There is an iconic refrain of the "Casablanca" movie reviewer, almost a talismanistic statement repeated to prove that one knows one's chops—to delineate the literati from the masses—the adage that "Casablanca" was never intended to be other than a standard movie of its time. It was not a Cecil B. DeMille "Ten Commandments" designed for the ages epic. The movie was to be screened for a few months, and to then disappear into the Warner Brothers archives, with the expectation that few in its original audience would see the movie again. This in an age before Netflix, DVDs, video, or, for that matter, broadcast television.

This claim, while tiresome in its timeless repetition, is correct. "Casablanca" was an A list film, with three prominent, though new, stars, and with a somewhat tight budget of around one million then dollars, but that was that. Even the stars themselves, were not overly impressed with the movie, so it is said. The success of the film is due to the synergy of the writers and actors, parsed by the law of unintended consequences, all of which came together to give us a screen legend. Happy chance produced "Casablanca". As one critique phrased it: "where intuition and mere chance suddenly meet in a happy alliance". The measure of this happy alliance is that "Casablanca" won the 1943 Oscar for best picture.

An eternal element of the creative process is criticism. No doubt the first Palaeolithic story tellers were critiqued by the tribal elders. Hellenistic scholars at the Library of Alexander tasked themselves with Homeric exegesis. Even medieval scribes found flaws with the Bible. Thus how was "Casablanca" received by their modern equivalents? Overall, well, and consistently well received. There are virtually no bad reviews of the movie.

The best example of the rare legitimate negative comment comes from the academic pen of semiotician Umberto Eco. He described "Casablanca", initially and technically, as "a very mediocre film". Going on to say that it is a mass of cliches, and when examined closely the movie falls apart, "... an anthology. Made haphazardly...". However, he concluded that it was the synergy (though he did not use that term), of these factors which combined made "Casablanca" the success that it is: "Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us". He even speaks of "Homeric depths".

This criticism of the movie raises a point about its authorship. It was never intended to be an intellectual tour de force, it is not "Citizen Kane" or "2001". "Casablanca" was intended to entertain an every day audience and tell a simple message. Its strings were intended to pull the heart, not the brain.

The popularity of the movie is reflected in the position it holds in the numerous "lists" of great movies. The crowd sourced Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) places "Casablanca" at a respectable 19 out of 250, rating it at 8.7 out of a possible 10 (with 39% of the voters giving it a 10 v. 2.5% who gave it a 1). The American Film Institute places it at a number two position, just after "Citizen Kane". Leaving aside the vagaries of lists, without doubt "Casablanca" is highly regarded in the movie community.

Money is also a measure of success, perhaps the key measure. Movies are not made for or with peanuts. The late great Robert Heinlein stated that he was in competition for his readers beer money. "Box office" is a clear and public determinant of the success of a movie. How well did "Casablanca" do here? Overall, well. In 1942/3 it grossed $3.7 million then dollars, earning Warner Brothers a good, but not outstanding profit. This made it the seventh best movie of its year, in financial terms, however, this was just the start. Since then its total gross has amounted to $250,000,000 adjusted dollars. A respectable sum.

What can be called imperfect about "Casablanca"? The most obvious weakness of the story is the "letters of transit". Nothing, as discussed, about this MacGuffin makes sense. First, the idea of all powerful, non-rescindable travel documents, that can safely convey whoever (no matter who, just fill in the blanks), even if hunted by the Gestapo, to the USA is ridiculous. Then, why does Rick so readily agree to hold the papers for Ugarte, for no renumeration, even though he knew the Gestapo were eagerly seeking their discovery? Last, why did Ugarte not immediately inform the Gestapo that Rick had them, thus, possibly, sparing his life (but shortening the movie considerably)?

We might also ask why the Gestapo did not have Laszlo assassinated one dark night, in a dark alley, by an untraceable assassin? Surely, this was the easiest manner to dispose of an arch enemy of the Third Reich. Arguably, the bad press from such an act deterred Major Strasser (a point made in the movie), also the desire to interrogate Laszlo, also ... what? Laszlo could not die because the movie needed him. After all, if he were assassinated his ex-wife and Rick could simply walk away into the sunset, with his money, with Rick's money, and with the valuable travel papers all in hand. An undramatic and intensely practical, but non-acceptable happy ending.

It has been seven decades since "Casablanca" was first screened, how has it stood the test of time? Very well, but it is true that the movie is less watched now, certainly by younger folk, than it was a generation ago. Yet, I do not believe that this indicates the movie to be "dated" or that it has undergone an irreversible diminution in popularity, rather, the movie is lost amongst an every growing sea of entertainment competition for an audience. I will state here, that as long as people watch movies, "Casablanca" will continue to be screened, re-watched, partially forgotten, and then "re-discovered", and then appreciated again by a new audience of a new generation. Book me in for the 2042 centennial screening! A classic.


Here's looking at you, kid.

July 4th 2012.




A shortened bibliography of "Casablanca".

Behlmer, Rudy. "Casablanca" 1992.
Haver, Roland. "Finally, the Truth About Casablanca." American Film, June 1976,
vol. I, no. 8.
Harmetz, Aljean. "Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca", New York, Hyperion, 1992.
Miller, Frank. "Casablanca. As Time Goes By..." London: Virgin Books, 1993.
Siegel, Jeff. "The Casablanca Companion. Dallas", Taylor Publishing Co., 1992.