Casablanca takes place against the backdrop of World War II. Rick is characterized early into the film by his neutrality, sharing no drinks, giving no opinions on current political affairs, and only reluctantly helping his ‘friend’ hide letters of transit. He doesn’t “stick his neck out for nobody,” A line he repeats after this friend was arrested.
The Rick we see before Isla and Laszlo enter Cafe Americain is representative of American Isolationism, but we see this facade crack the moment his old flame enters the bar.
American Isolationism was a heavily criticized policy. The linked article, The Debate Behind U. S. Intervention in World War II by Susan Dunn outlines American Isolationism during World War II, but to me the most interesting aspect deals with Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the subject, as well as Lindbergh, spokesperson for the “America First Committee.” (Sound familiar? Emphasis is my own.)
The earliest fireside chat I want to draw attention to occurred on May 26th, 1940, and discusses the refugee situation in Belgium and France, talking about how on the “once peaceful roads of Belgium and France, millions are now moving,” to escape the horror and violence brought on by the invading Nazi forces. This is shown in the beginning of the film, outlining how refugees have a hard road ahead of them to Casablanca, and ultimately to Lisbon, Portugal.
The second fireside chat I want to draw attention to further establishes FDR’s view on Isolationism, and occurred on December 29th, 1940. He describes how the Nazis in Germany will not stop until they enslave and dominate the rest of the world, how their philosophy of government and ours will never have peace, and how the Nazis in Germany are an undeniable threat, unlike any other since Plymouth Rock.
Rick, neutral until confronted with helping someone he loves, immediately breaks from neutrality when he shares a drink with Ilsa and Laszlo when they enter the bar. I mean, early in the film the rival bar owner tells him that neutrality just isn’t a good policy anymore, not in the world they are in now.
He also breaks neutrality when he helps the young Bulgarian couple win (by cheating, really, since he is the house) enough money to get their visas. He lets the band and Laszlo sing the anthem of France over the German anthem. In the end of the movie, he shoots a Nazi, ensuring the passage of Isla and Laszlo, freedom fighters and people who inspire rebellion. His character arc goes from rebel (intervention) to neutral (isolationist) to rebel again (intervention). When confronted with people he cares about, and staring Nazism and the threat it poses in the face, he finally acts and fights back.
This film is a criticism of isolationism, and in many ways still relevant to issues our nation faces today.
Anyways, those three links I’ve given are to help set the backdrop of American Isolationism, and the context for the movie and Rick’s character arc. Keep in mind The Atlantic (linked article) tends to have a slight liberal bias, if that concerns you.