The Most Patriotic Movie Ever? ‘Casablanca.’ And Here’s Why

With the Fourth of July in sight and America therefore about to turn 243, the website www.streamingobservor.com has crunched some data to determine the most popular patriotic movie in each of our 50 states.

I’m not sure that merging results from Amazon MTurk and Google Trends constitutes scientific evidence, but it’s an interesting snapshot of what says “America” to online movie watchers. Herewith the chart:

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As you can see, the selections fall all over the map, so to speak, from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in Arizona and Arkansas to Argo in Michigan to Captain America: The First Avenger in Hawaii. New York, bless its patriotic heart, picked Yankee Doodle Dandy, which is exhilarating by any standard, including patriotic.

Some of the faves, as streamingobservor notes, reflect geography, like Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. A few are mildly disturbing, like Rambo: First Blood in Florida, and at the same time it’s strangely heartwarming that Oregon’s first choice is Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.

Georgia wins the prize for weird, picking Gone With the Wind. Unless I misunderstood, isn’t that about people who were fighting to get the heck out of America?

Ah, well. In patriotic movies as in ice cream, there is no wrong choice — although, that said, no state in this case got the answer right.

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Rick and Ilsa and their hats.

The most patriotic film ever made also might be the most perfect film ever made: Casablanca.

Stirring as it is to watch Americans charge forth to defeat real or imaginary bad guys (Sands of Iwo Jima, Independence Day), let’s face it: That’s adrenalin as much as patriotism.

War movies push the same emotional buttons as feel-good films about underdogs everywhere: Erin Brockovich, scrappy kids who win basketball championships. We would have felt the same way about Rocky if Sylvester Stallone hadn’t wrapped himself in American flags. America was just an easy add-on to a story that had sucked us in already.

There’s nothing wrong with a good war movie. You just don’t need a gun to embrace the highest principles of this 243-year work in progress.

Casablanca isn’t set in America. It has no scenes in America. It does have most stirring National Anthem scene in movie history, but the anthem is France’s “La Marseillaise,” not “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Lead character Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and his piano-playing sidekick Sam (Dooley Wilson) are American ex-pats, voluntary refugees who left New York and now, in mid-1942, have settled into a saloon in Morocco.

Over the course of a few days, Rick runs into his old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who is Norwegian, and finds she is married to Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who is Czech and a leader of the resistance to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which is attempting to rule the world.

As we watch today, we know Laszlo is right when he assures Rick, “Our side will win.” At the time the movie was filmed, that was a hope, not a certainty. Germany to that point had been pretty successful in overrunning Europe and it was not yet clear that Russia had been its fatal brick wall.

In any case, Rick claims no interest in the outcome of the war. He’s happy on neutral ground, he says, a businessman insulated through a working relationship with the genially corrupt local police chief, Captain Renault (Claude Rains).

It’s kept deliberately vague why Rick left America, and there’s no sign he intends to return. At the same time, when the evil German Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) asks whether he can imagine Germans taking over New York, Rick replies that there are section of New York he’d suggest the Germans not try to invade.

While Rick deflects most serious questions with that kind of wisecrack, there’s a flicker of defiance here as well. In that same conversation we learn that Rick ran guns to Ethiopia in the fight against Hitler’s ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and that he fought with the loyalists against the fascist Francisco Franco in Spain.

In the end, spoiler alert, Rick joins this fight as well. He and Captain Renault head off to join a Free French garrison of resistance fighters.

Okay, Rick isn’t technically fighting as an American. But really, he is.

Rick Blaine has been disillusioned by America, maybe even thrown out of America. He’s set up 3,700 miles away, well-off, well-liked, out of the line of fire. By the end of the movie it looks like he can even get the girl.

He renounces all that for the uncertain and often short life of a resistance fighter. The fact it’s the French resistance is irrelevant. By late 1942, Rick Blaine knows what the rest of the world knows: that America and free Europe are now a single team, embodying the hope and ideal, however flawed, of human freedom. It’s not coincidence that everyone who has enough money in Casablanca wants to use it to get to America.

Rick doesn’t have to join the fight, except he really does. No movie has made that simple definition of patriotism any clearer.

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