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The REAL Story of Casablanca in 1942

The REAL Story of Casablanca in 1942

Many people come to Morocco and have a romantic version of what Casablanca must be, thanks to the 1943 movie by the same name. But, the reality is Casablanca at that time and Casablanca’s portrayal in the film was merely a Hollywood construct and has very little to do with history or reality. This disconnect has always really bothered me and really made me want to put together something dispelling the myths about the movie vs. the city as well as sharing what the city really was like in 1942. 

What was Casablanca the Movie about?

The film is set on the eve of American involvement in Morocco. The main character is Rick Blaine an American expat who own’s “Rick’s Cafe,” a haven for refugees escaping Europe and attempting to get visas elsewhere. One night his old flame (Ilsa) and her husband show up seeking such papers. The story evolves with twists and turns. While on the surface it’s an adventure/romance wrapped into one it’s also a study in political allegory. Many believe that the character of Rick is meant to symbolize all Americans and the arrival of Ilsa is a symbol of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Rick also befriends Captain Renault and the course of their friendship also alludes to Allied alliances of the war. 

Many of the characters playing refugees in the film had actually escaped occupied Europe to America. Only Rick and Sam (characters) were born and raised in America. The rest either came for work to the U.S. or as refugees of the Nazis. The US invaded Casablanca as a part of Operation Torch in November of 1942, so film producers pushed the release date forward to try to bank on the current events. 

A Few Factual Errors in the Movie

  • In the beginning of the film there is a French tricolor (flag) with crescent and star in the middle waving over the police office. No flag like this was ever used in Morocco. The Moroccan flag at the time of the protectorate is the same as it is today; a red background with a green, five pointed star in the middle. 
  • The extra “Moroccans” seen in the background of the film are dressed in Egyptian clothing. 
  • There was no such thing as letters of transit. If there were, few if any Nazis would have honored these especially had they been signed by Charles de Gaulle. 
  • One of the quotable lines from the film; “What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?” “…My health, I came to Casablanca for the waters.” “The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.” “...I was misinformed.” Except Casablanca sits directly on the Atlantic Ocean and is hundreds of kilometers from the desert. 
  • There was never a Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca. The idea for it was originally inspired by a nightclub in southern France where refugees gathered. Many were en route to Casablanca and elsewhere. 

What Really Happened in Casablanca?

Casablanca in the 1940’s was hugely important not only to the country but to the region. It was a major shipping port as well as home to the largest airport in North Africa. It was near Casablanca that the Allied invasion of North Africa began. At the time Morocco was under control of the Vichy French who controlled much of France after Germany’s invasion of the country beginning in June of 1940. Moroccan Jews (a large majority of whom called Casablanca home) didn’t face the same hardships as their European cousins but the Vichy’s did put in place many discriminatory laws and restrictions. Sultan Mohamed V did attempt to prohibit discriminatory laws but at the end of the day he had limited control to exert. 

Operation Torch is the name of the battle that was launched to liberate Morocco from the Vichy government and move into southern Italy via the Mediterranean. It was successful almost immediately. The landings in Morocco happened in Fedala, Safi, and Mehdiya-Port Lyautey. Allied forces thought the French wouldn’t fight back at all, but rather surrender immediately. This didn’t happen and there was some fighting that happened. The naval battle for Casablanca occurred after the three original landings. 

I have no idea if Patton said that to the Sultan, but he definitely thought it, and once referred to Casablanca as “a city which combines Hollywood and the Bible.”  (Blumenson, The Patton Papers, II, 120.)

The Real Story of Casablanca in 1942 (1)

Art Deco Casablanca – Where to See WW2 Sites in Morocco Today

Unlike European countries, Morocco doesn’t have a lot of preserved memorials or sites. But, if you want to see World War Two sites in Morocco today you can! 

  • Imperial Hotel – This hotel was requisitioned by the American forces and served as General Patton’s headquarters and operation base after the invasion. 
  • The ANFA Hotel – The Casablanca Conference was held at this hotel. It was the first war conference between the Allied powers. 
  • Beach at Port Lyautey and Casbah – Allied landing happened on the beaches here. The Casbah is from the 17th century and was used by the French to hold American prisoners during the invasion. 
  • Hotel Miramar Fadala – After the invasion of Fadala it was at the Hotel Miramar that General Patton accepted the French surrender. The hotel is inaccessible today but can be seen from the outside. 
  • Mohamed V Airport – During World War II this was known as Nouasseur Air Base and was the American air force base during WWII. 

The romantic notion of Casablanca the movie isn’t quite the reality of Casablanca of 1943 however, the city did play a pivotal role in the war and earned a reputation – perhaps just not for Rick and Ilsa! 

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