'Passage' to Politics

The FilmStruck Chronicles is an essay series rooted in cinema's past, but with a strong glance toward our present. 

One of the odd things about diving deep on studio films from Hollywood's Golden Age is that you begin to get a sense for what amounts to the organizational chart for each studio - for who the featured players were and how they became so intentionally typecast.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Passage to Marseille all these years later is in this context.  It is, after all, a de facto Casablanca reunion. Humphrey Bogart is the star, but it's almost dizzying how many of his colleagues on that film reappear in this one. Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Claude Rains are as prominent here as they were in Rick’s Cafe. Director Michael Curtiz is behind the camera too.

If you hold Casablanca in the same kind of regard as I do, you will enjoy seeing the gang back together. Sure, it's a lesser work, but, assuming the notion of an actual Casablanca sequel is repulsive to you, it's about the best you can do.

Not quite as noteworthy, but more interesting in my view, is how seeing the same people in the same type of story a few years on throws the real-life history of the era in to such stark relief. When Casablanca came out, the United States had been involved in the Second World War for less than a year. By the time pseudo-sequel Passage to Marseille came out, D-Day was months away.

Put another way, the existential struggle of World War II had come in to much clearer focus - much more blood had been spilled and treasure spent in the name of the ideals expressed by Rick Blaine a few years prior.

Passage to Marseille is a less interesting film because it has so much more moral clarity than Casablanca throughout. Its characters are committed to the cause of fighting the Axis powers in a way that is never in doubt. The eventual moral clarity of Rick Blaine does seem inevitable, but part of the greatness of Casablanca is in depicting some sort of process to get there.

As we hurtle through the Trump years and assess the films made in its context, this is something worth keeping in mind. Films that have moral clarity can feel satisfying in the moment, but they might not stand the test of time or say something about humanity in quite the same way.