Darlan, Vichy, the French Fleet, and a Question
A PBS documentary on Churchill’s destruction of the French Fleet at Oran aired a decade ago.** But I still get the same question about one of its more infamous characters, Admiral François Darlan, Prime Minister of Vichy France during the Oran attack. He was also PM in early December 1941: the time frame for Casablanca, one of the great movies of all time.
Darlan was by reputation wily, untrustworthy and scurrilous. Eisenhower made him High Commissioner in exchange for Vichy forces standing down during the November 1942 invasion of North Africa. He fell to an assassin in December 1942.
Whose signature is on the Letters of Transit?
Emily and Norman Rosenberg, professors of American and international history, first offered this sidelight on Casablanca. In the movie, the fugitive Czech, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), arrive in Morocco on the run. They need to get out of Vichy territory, because Victor is a freedom-fighter and the Gestapo wants him.
Alas for Victor, his wife is the former lover of Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), proprietor of Café Américain. And Rick—who proclaims himself firmly apolitical—has the only tickets out. These are a set of purloined “Letters of Transit,” granting safe passage to Lisbon, and thence to America. Rick has acquired the Letters from a shady character named Ugarte, played by Peter Lorre.
Many American viewers believe Ugarte says the Letters are signed by Charles de Gaulle. But when Norm Rosenberg wrote an analysis mentioning this, he ran into contradictions. A European professor challenged the de Gaulle theory, saying the Letters of Transit would have been signed by Darlan—not de Gaulle, who had been exiled and outlawed by Vichy. Screenwriter Howard Koch actually told Norm that de Gaulle was named (or in subtitles) in American versions of the film because he was better known.
Answer: Neither Darlan nor de Gaulle, but Weygand
Reader James Overmeyer (comments, below) solved this riddle by pointing out that the signature was neither Darlan nor de Gaulle, but General Maxime Weygand, Delegate-General in French North Africa when “Casablanca” was filmed. We confirmed this by watching the Peter Lorre episode on YouTube. Lorres’s charcter can clearly be heard saying “General Weygand.” Nor have we seen any evidence that a subtitle ever appeared substituting the names of Darlan or de Gaulle. (Thanks to Mr. Overmeyer, whose note appears in “Comments.”)
As Casablanca fans all know, Rick eventually passes the Letters to Victor and Ilsa, who take off for Lisbon and freedom. Then Rick sells out and makes off with Inspector Louis Renault (Claude Rains) to join the French Resistance. Because, of course, Rick has been a patriot all along.
Incidentally, Claude Rains loved New Hampshire’s beautiful lake district. For many years he lived in Center Harbor, not ten miles from me, and was a great benefactor to the community. He and his sixth wife are buried in Red Hill Cemetery. We pay an annual visit, where we recite Bogie’s final line: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
As Time Goes By: the novel
Michael Walsh is a screenwriter and a friend of Hillsdale College who wrote a stunner of a book for Casablanca fans. Walsh tells what happened after Ilsa and Victor left on the plane for Lisbon. He also discloses Rick’s, Ilsa’s, Louis’ and Sam’s lives before they came to Casablanca. (Rick’s real name was Itzhak Baline, and Walsh explains why he had to leave New York in a hurry.) If you yearn to hear their voices again, here they are. Not to spoil it, but Rick and Ilsa meet and love again. You won’t put this book down.
Secrets of the Dead: Churchill’s Deadly Decision, narrated by Liev Schreiber, produced by Richard Bond, one-hour DVD. The conclusion (including comments by a French survivor) seems somewhat reluctantly to provide support for the Churchill Cabinet’s decision. Stills and live video support the factual story line. Among the experts, Sir Martin Gilbert is his usual knowledgeable and articulate self. Naval historian Andrew Lambert is low-keyed and excellent; Warren Kimball is crisp and on top of the issues. The survivors of Oran are touchingly and expressively authentic. Professor Kimball said that the action “showed the British would fight…even if they fought dirty.” Did the Marquess of Queensberry Rules apply to WW2? I would have suggested instead Lady Soames’s conclusion about wartime strategy: “I daresay Papa had to do some pretty rough things, but they didn’t unman him.”
Balance particularly fails over Darlan. The documentary describes him as an authoritative and trustworthy figure (lots of close-ups of the Admiral splendidly uniformed with determined expressions). But Darlan was an Anglophobe, an anti-Semite, a liar and a pompous ass, one of the most reviled Vichy leaders, and nobody mourned his assassination. A rounder view of Darlan would have better informed the account of his role in July 1940.