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It doesn't seem strange that this, one of the most popular movies ever made, is about how a victim becomes a survivor. It's not the perfect story nor is the hero the perfect faultless struggler. He's an admitted "drunkard," runs a casino, has uncertain morality, and has been around the block a few times. He belongs on no pedestal but he's honest, has a sense of right and wrong, and will not take advantage of the innocent. He's actually a romantic and had once been an idealist who had to face the unpleasant realities of the world. His struggle in the film is to come to terms with the bitter loss of his love, who abandoned him in Paris. All she left him was a brief note that said, "I cannot . . . see you again. You must not ask why. Just believe that I love you. Go, my darling and God bless you."

In the course of Casablanca the woman, Ilsa, shows up in the hero's nightclub that he now runs in Morocco. She is accompanied by Victor, a patriot and fugitive from the Nazis. Rick, the rejected lover, knew that she had loved a man before their affair in Paris but she told Rick that the man had died. Seeing her with another man, Rick is bitter, resentful, and deeply despises Ilsa. He gets drunk that night and dwells on his loss.

Since Ilsa walked out on Rick, he has brooded over her. Harboring his anger, he has never allowed himself to make commitments, be that to another woman or to a cause. He feels too vulnerable to take any stands, although he covers it with his stoic cynicism. A friend observes that Rick is "completely neutral" about everything. Rick states, "I'm not fighting for anything any more, except myself. I'm the only cause I'm interested in." One senses that the booze has been one of his destructive coping mechanisms for dealing with his depression.

Ilsa finally tells Rick that Victor is her husband and that they had been married before she met Rick in Paris. She had been told that Victor had died in a concentration camp. It was only on the day she left Rick that she found out that Victor was alive and there was no way to tell Rick without compromising Victor. This revelation does not ease Rick's pain. Now that Ilsa is back in his life and now that Rick has some power over her (a way for she and her husband to get out of town and escape being arrested by the Nazis) he plays with the idea of blackmailing her to stay with him.

He seems to toy with this and at one point it appears that he will get on a plane with her, leaving Victor behind. It isn't until near the end of the movie, that we find out what Rick decides to do.

One reason Casablanca is such a satisfying film is the way it deals with hard choices. Rick, who has considerable personal honesty, not only realizes the reality of Ilsa and her life, but his need to accept that their relationship is over. The scene in which he tells Ilsa this has become one of the most famous and what he says one of the most commonly quoted lines of movie dialogue:

Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I've done a lot of it since then and it all adds up to one thing. You're getting on that plane with Victor where you belong . . . Inside of us we both know you belong with Victor. You're part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it . . . Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life . . . We'll always have Paris . . . 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.

Everything would be made easier if Victor had been killed by the Nazis before the end of the last reel so Rick and Ilsa could fly off together. That is the way many movies with romantic triangles end. In real life that rarely happens. Casablanca is a powerful film in large part because the ending is honest, and Rick has the courage to accept what is appropriate, although painful.

Does Rick feel the pain after the plane flies off with Ilsa and Victor? You better believe he does. One also senses that he accepts that the choice he made is correct for him and he can now go on with his life. He can take the risk of making commitments again and goes off to fight with the Free French against the Nazis.

A survivor makes hard decisions but decisions that free the person to live life. A survivor realizes that he has a choice: not always a good one but a choice nonetheless. A survivor struggles and feels. Even after making a choice one can feel angry feelings, but part of healing is feeling and accepting the pain.

Rick's loss of Ilsa in Paris hurt him deeply and probably connected with unresolved issues of abandonment from his past. He put up walls and behaved as a victim. Coming back into his life, this time with another man, caused his walls to fall apart. Face to face with Ilsa he had to respond. (A victim would have thrown up new walls or figured out a way to get rid of Victor.)

Rick's story may be fiction, but there are many people like Rick who have been hurt deeply, fallen into a victim pattern, and finally broke out of it after coming to terms with their victimization.*

*From Understanding Victimization
Copyright 1996 Claremont Behavioral Studies Institute

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Last modified: 18 March, 2009