Viewer Guide: Casablanca and Testament of Youth with Richard Peña

February 6, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

This week’s classic is perhaps the most beloved American film of all time: Casablanca (1942). The screenplay, principally by Howard Koch and the uncredited Casey Robinson, was based on an unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison.

Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that Hollywood films were so universal because they were made by foreigners, and Casablanca is certainly Exhibit A: among the principal actors, only Humphrey Bogart was born in the US, and the director, Michael Curtiz, of this great American classic was actually Manó Kertesz, born in Budapest.

In his first truly romantic lead, Bogart plays Rick, a cynical nightclub owner in Vichy-controlled Casablanca. With conflict raging in Europe, Rick seems to be engaged in his own private battle against the rest of the world, and then we learn why: Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, the woman who broke his heart, unexpectedly arrives—with her hero of the Czech resistance husband in tow. Will old passions re-kindle, or will Rick help the fugitive couple make their getaway to freedom?

Curiously, despite its A-list cast, nobody expected much from Casablanca; the studio didn’t push it much, and its biggest stroke of luck was that its release coincided with the Allied invasion of North Africa. But audiences gradually took to the film, and by the end of 1943 it was one of Warner Bros. biggest hits of the year. The film would go on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

What is it about Casablanca that makes it such an extraordinarily enduring classic work?  One can point out, of course, the great performances, the first-rate production, or the plethora of quotable dialogue. But among American war films, especially of that era, perhaps no other work presents us with a set of more flawed, vulnerable characters. The film really shows how the choices its characters make might not be admirable, but are at least understandable.


Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington in Testament of Youth

Following Casablanca, this week’s indie is Testament of Youth (2014), a biographical drama directed by James Kent.

Now that we’re nearing the end of its centenary memorials, it’s a good time to be reminded of the enormous impact of World War I. Overshadowed by World War II, not to mention Korea, Vietnam, as well as current ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, World War I was the original Armageddon of all modern wars, an internationally cataclysmic event that ultimately gave violent birth to today’s world order. Long-standing empires were obliterated and replaced with new regimes and political systems, at an appalling cost of truly staggering human carnage.

Based on the best-selling 1933 memoir of prominent British feminist and pacifist Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth chronicles Brittain’s transformative experiences in the days leading up to “the Great War” and continuing through her volunteer service as a nurse and the dawning of her commitment to pacifism. Strong-willed and dreaming of a career as a writer, she develops a special bond with her brother Edward and two of his close friends—the Three Musketeers, as she dubs them.  Like most of her fellow citizens, she is initially caught up in nationalist feeling when the War first breaks out—until she starts encountering some of the victims of that War.  The War would completely transform Vera’s life, personally but especially politically, and by the War’s end, she knows that there simply must be a better way to solve international conflicts.

Testament of Youth seems like an especially timely reminder of the horrors that war inflicts on all sides of a conflict.  Despite Brittain’s moving plea to reject a “revenge treaty” against the defeated Germany, the “war to end all wars” would only lay the seeds for future conflicts still being fought about today.

Alicia Vikander, winner of the 2015 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in The Danish Girl, stars as Brittain.

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan was initially announced to play the role but was ultimately replaced by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, whose work had already commanded international attention. Much of the cast of Testament of Youth would go on to be featured in various high profile film and television roles, and one of the pleasures of the film is seeing a new generation of actors in some of their first important roles. Kit Harrington, who plays Vera’s doomed fiancé Roland, became a heartthrob from his role as Jon Snow in HBO’s blockbuster success Game of Thrones; Taron Egerton, who plays Vera’s brother Edward, starred in the action-adventure Kingsmen movies.  And we’ll soon see Colin Morgan, who plays Vera’s would-be suitor Victor, as Lord Alfred Douglas in The Happy Prince, Rupert Everett’s upcoming biographical drama on the final days of Oscar Wilde.

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