It's the greatest love story of the silver screen, set in the city of the same name, gateway to Vichy-controlled Northern Africa during WWI.
No one expected much from Casablanca when it premiered in 1942. It had endured a frazzled production, with an unfinished script, which had laid the tracks in front of the production train as it was roaring down the tracks. And while it did solid business, it wasn’t in any way an instant classic. Yet somehow, as time goes on if you will, it grew to become one of the greatest classics of all time. Endlessly loved and tirelessly parodied.
In terms of influence on Star Wars, it’s quite surprising that Casablanca doesn’t get mentioned more often, as it maps quite neatly onto the Mos Eisley sequence of Star Wars.
In place of Rick’s Café Americain, we have the cantina. Both are places where shady deals go down in amongst the stormtroopers in Star Wars and the corrupt French police and German officers in Casablanca. Luke and Obi-Wan haggle with Han Solo to have him ferry them out of Mos Eisley for the initial price of 10.000 credits, which is countered with 2.000 now, and 15.000 when they reach their destination. 15.000 just happens to be the price one of the stranded men in Rick’s has to pay for his trip out of Casablanca. He has to meet his contact at the marina, whereas Luke and Obi-wan are told to go to the docking bay; even the terminology is similar. Both even have their own swing orchestra, water pipe smoking patrons and a strikingly similar architecture.
Likewise Casablanca itself, aside from being a Mediterranean city, a style which naturally shares much in the way of style with Mos Eisley, which was filmed in Tunisia, also in North Africa. And the city is teeming with police and military patrols, exactly like Mos Eisley.
Moreover much of Han Solo’s character, who isn’t in this for your revolution, comes straight out of Rick Blaine as played by Humphrey Bogart, who sticks his neck out for nobody. Much in the way that Han Solo is ready to take off with his reward as the rebel alliance launches their desperate attack on the looming Deathstar. Prior to owning the Café Américain, Rick smuggled guns, and was well paid, just as Solo smuggles whatever it is he dumps at the first sign of imperial trouble. He even adopted Rick’s use of the word ‘kid’. While the characters are hardly carbon copies of one another, Harrison Ford brings much of the same cool demeanor and cynicism to Han Solo. And in the end, both Han and Rick turn out to have hearts of gold.
While it was excised from the theatrical release of Star Wars, the Jabba scene that was reintroduced to the Special Edition was originally shot with Drew Mulholland, an obese looking fellow who tries in the nicest possible way to scare Han Solo into submission. Jabba, who at the time was a human character, was based in large part off of Signor Ferrari played by Sidney Greenstreet, the local crime baron of Casablanca, who early in the film tries to convince Sam the piano man to come over to his bar and play. Not only are both Jabba and Ferrari played by weighty men, but their sinister friendliness are very similar. And when it came time to roll cameras on Return of the Jedi, Greenstreet’s likeness can still be seen underneath the grotesqueness of the slug-like concept art and maquettes; one of which even has a fez, just like Signor Ferrari. From The Making of Return of the Jedi by Rinzler:
“Jabba is based on evil sultan-like characters,” Lucas says. “I guess Sydney Greenstreet would be a good example; and Marlon Brando in the Godfather would be a good example. There’s always been rotund, evil sultans who sit on their beds while others are tortured in front of them.”
“All that I needed to do was put a fez on Jabba, and he would’ve been Sydney Greenstreet,” Tippett would say, referring to the actor most famous for his role in The Maltese Falcon (1941).”
In Casablanca the plot revolves around the two exit visas that Ilsa and her husband are trying to get their hands on, so as to secure safe passage out of Africa, whereas in Star Wars the Mos Eisley sequence’s plot revolves around the search for the two droids and our heroes’s attempt at gaining passage off of Tatooine.
The cantina is often cited as having been inspired by any one of the watering holes in westerns, including several of the westerns Star Wars indeed draws other things from, and it may very well be that it has its origins in that the tradition of the western. But in terms of how it plays out, despite direct influences from Yojimbo (the arm being cut off), The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Han shooting first) and The Magnificent Seven (Han flipping the coin to the bartender) or as Lucas biographer Dale Pollock said, ‘Burgess’ Drive-In on 9th (in Modesto), where the Faros would hang out and challenge anyone who entered their domain,’ the underlying foundation for the entire sequence lies with Casablanca.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet were all in The Maltese Falcon the year before Casablanca, a film which seems to have lent its name to a certain smuggler’s set of wheels, namely the Millenium Falcon. And much like how Casablanca ends with the plane bearing Ilsa and her husband taking off to safety, the first act of Star Wars ends with the Falcon blasting its way out of Mos Eisley, although not quite to safety.
Perhaps not surprisingly, when it came time for Lucas and Spielberg to create the next big thing, the story of a James Bond-type archeologist, perhaps not surprisingly, the locations used for the city of Cairo look very similar to those of Casablanca. And for the character of Indy himself, again played by Harrison Ford, they turned to a another treasure hunter, also played by Bogart in The Treasure at the Sierra Madre.
- Dale Pollock speech given at 2006 symposium with the title George Lucas and Modesto.
Born and raised in Denmark, Michael resides in New York with his wonderful wife, where he is the Director of Product Design at Squarespace Inc.