The Cinema Behind Star Wars: Casablanca

If there was ever a movie set entirely in a wretched hive of scum and villainy, surely it would be Casablanca, the film that quite deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1942. This bleak, yet somehow optimistic, movie set and filmed in the midst of World War II, takes place in the Moroccan city that shares its title. Here, the law is as flexible as the size of the bribe you can provide to the authorities. Vichy troops working under the orders of their corrupt captain regularly shake people down, arrest them for whatever charge they’d like, and make a mocking show of the law. In the city, no one can escape without an exit visa, and in Casablanca, getting out is more dangerous than staying.

The film itself follows Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, an American scoundrel who only looks out for himself, but doesn’t realize that he might just be a rank sentimentalist. He owns a bar everyone visits and when a girl, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, walks into his life, she rouses something in him that might just be his patriotism.

The film is a masterpiece, but it’s hard to deny that it must have had an influence on Star Wars, as many war films did. First, Mos Eisley and the city of Casablanca could double for each other. Both were set, essentially, in North Africa, and they even have similar architectural flourishes. But Casablanca is the center of the underworld, the place where people go to escape and be forgotten, much like Ben Kenobi describes Mos Eisley as in A New Hope.

Rick’s Cafe Americain is easily the sort of place you’d see a rogue like Han Solo gun down a threatening fellow like Greedo and have the bar’s business resume without missing a beat after the deed was done. Rick’s is also the place where people desperate to get out from under the thumb of the Nazis go to pay smugglers to get them out any way they can. It makes me wonder if Wuher is actually a long lost romantic who fought for the Republic during the Clone War…

With a criminal underworld of such renown, you also need villains. Sydney Greenstreet plays a minor villain in Casablanca called Signor Ferrari, a fez-wearing fat man who, as the leader of all illegal activity in Casablanca is an influential and well-respected man. Is it any wonder that early conceptual versions of Jabba the Hutt had him sporting just such a fez? And while Jabba turned out more disgusting and bad natured that Signor Ferrari, he’s easily as charming. That’s not the only Lucasfilm character influenced by the likes of Signor Ferarri. In fact, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg talked quite a bit about him as the inspiration for Belloq, Indy’s arch-nemesis in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Perhaps the most lasting inspiration from Casablanca that found its way into Star Wars, however, is the character arc Rick takes, mirroring that of Han Solo, right down to the moment at the end where you’re not quite sure if he’s going to save anyone or not. Though Rick owns a bar and owes no debts, he wants to stay out of the conflict between the two warring parties and make his own way. Joseph Campbell would say he tries refusing his call to adventure, opting instead to drink, but forces conspire against him and his better nature, the one he’d been trying to deny, is revealed. His cynicism washes away, to be replaced by heroism. Perhaps there was no better pattern for Han Solo than a figure as complex as Richard Blaine.

Casablanca is a movie that is almost required viewing in my home. It’s a beautiful film and one of the best scripts ever to be accidentally hatched by the old studio system. Bogart and Bergman light up the screen, and the supporting characters, particularly Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains, are nothing short of awe-inspiring. I’ve watched it with my kids and they seemed to like it, but I have also spent a lot of time acclimating them to my unique taste in films. Your mileage will vary in showing it to your kids, but if you watched it, you’d definitely see the connection it has to the Star Wars universe.

If you’re interested in delving even deeper, I can’t recommend enough Roger Ebert’s commentary on most physical media copies of Casablanca.

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