Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I Stick My Neck Out for Nobody (except to sing "La Marseillaise")

Q: What are the specific dates during which the action of Casablanca takes place?

Hint: This is a pretty good time of year to ask this question.

Grammarians seem to love Casablanca. Perhaps it's all the lines and phrases that are part of our daily vocabulary. (Whenever we say we are "shocked, shocked" to learn of some wrongdoing, we are quoting Captain Louis Renault without any need of explanation beyond a certain inflection in our voices echoing the bureaucratic hypocrisy embodied for all time so wonderfully by Claude Rains.)

A: We must be alert near the beginning of the movie, when we first meet American ex-patriot barkeep Rick Blaine as he OK's a check, dated 2 Decembre, 1941.

That evening, Ilsa Lund, the lost love of Rick's life, enters Rick's Cafe Americain with her husband, freedom fighter Victor Laszlo. After the bar closes, Rick drowns his sorrows with Sam the piano player and says, "It's December 1941 in Casablanca. I'll bet they're asleep in New York. I'll be they're asleep all over America."

On December 3, Isla and Victor check the black market for Letters of Transit. That evening at Rick's, Victor counters a group of German soldiers singing "Watch on the Rhine" by leading the band and customers in "La Marseillaise," forcing Major Strasser to close the cafe. (The tears in the customers' eyes were by-and-large real --- most of the extras were refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, overcome by the emotion of the scene.)

Later that night, while Victor attends a meeting of the resistance, Ilsa visits Rick and ... well, the details are left to our imagination.

On Dec. 4 Rick sells his cafe to Signor Ferrari of the Blue Parrot and arranges the scheme to get Ilsa and Victor on the plane to Lisbon, which he does, killing Major Strasser in the process. Arm in arm with the cynical Captain Renault, Rick joins the fight, just three days before the rest of his countrymen do. (Which, of course, is the point of the picture, made in 1942.)

Along with shooting a Nazi major through a trench coat, every Casablanca fan yearns to be able to sing "La Marseillaise" along with Yvonne, the teary-eyed barfly. So, here are the lyrics:

Allons enfants de la patrie, . . . Arise you children of the fatherland,
Le jour de gloire est arrive. . . . The day of glory has arrived.
Contre nous de la tyrannie . . . Against us the bloody flag
L'etendard sanglant est leve. . . . of tyranny is raised.
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes, . . . Do you hear in the fields,
Mugir ces feroces soldats? . . . The howls of these ferocious soldiers?
Ils viennent jusque dans nos bras . . . They come right up into our arms
Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes: . . . To slit the throats of your sons, your comrades.
Aux armes, Citoyens! . . . To arms, citizens!
Formez vos battailons, . . . Form your battalions.
Marchons, marchons, . . . Let's march! Let's march!
Qu'un sang impur . . . Let impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons! . . . Water our furrows!

Several years ago, Anne Bagamery, business editor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, wrote about a political controversy then taking place about the last two lines of "La Marseillaise":

"Most people think they are 'Que sang impur abreuve nos sillons' -- in other words, let the blood of our enemies fill our furrows. Others, including the ultra-right National Front, insist the words are "...n'abreuve nos sillons" -- let the blood of our enemies NOT fill our furrows, in other words, keep the filthy interlopers off our land entirely. Members of that party often sing their own version of the lyrics, despite what everyone else is singing.

"Also BTW, and I did not know this until I had a child in French school: French people do not systematically learn their national anthem! If you watch closely during big ceremonies, you'll see that even high government officials are not singing along. This is not because they fear they will break down with emotion; it is because they don't know the words!"

And they don't watch Casablanca the way we do!

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