Set during World War Two, Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who runs an upscale nightclub in Morocco. Rick is entirely apathetic to the war in Europe, seeking no part in the traffic of human lives from war-torn Europe to the (then) peaceful United States. His apathy is challenged when an ex-lover, Ilsa Lund, arrives in Casablanca. She comes dating a new man — Victor Laszlo — a Cezch resitance leader struggling to escape to America. Rick’s nightclub is a veritable model of heterogeneity, featuring small clashes between a group of Nazi officers and allied patrons.
Tensions come to a head when a group of Nazi officers sing the German patriotic anthem in the middle of the club. Laszlo responds by telling the house jazz band to play La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. For a moment, the potentially disjoint group comes together in song. This is not Appadurai’s modern world – syncretism is not chaotic and plurality does not cause disjuncture. Spaniards, Americans, Brits, Moroccans, and Frenchmen all fervently unite in singing a French national anthem. Gone are the individualistic concerns of solitary nations; in their place a new transnational mode of thinking is born. The cries of “Vive la France” don’t refer to France as a specific nation, but rather to France as an ideal of Allied unity.
It is likely that the moment could only have occurred during wartime – during a period in human history wherein mutual fears of destruction push humans to hitherto unseen levels of solidarity. One has a hard time imagining anything of the sort happening in a post-war world (I count myself as one of the doubtless many Americans who does not know the words to La Marseillaise). World War Two pushed disparate people together in perhaps artificial and unsustainable ways. It is thus interesting to consider The Sheltering Sky as a foil to Casablanca — as an exploration of the limited forces that bind together men once war’s unifying thread is removed. For if Casablanca ultimately urges the unification of Allied forces, The Sheltering Sky is by in large an exploration of what little binds those forces once war is over.