“Casablanca,” Admiral Darlan, and Rick’s Letters of Transit

“Casablanca,” Admiral Darlan, and Rick’s Letters of Transit

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.”)


(Wiki­me­dia Commons)

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.

** Endnote

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.

Further reading

The Plea­sures of Prague: ‘You Must Remem­ber This‘”

4 thoughts on ““Casablanca,” Admiral Darlan, and Rick’s Letters of Transit

  1. Actu­al­ly a more preva­lent the­o­ry is the let­ters of tran­sit were signed by Maxime Wey­gand, who joined the Vichy gov­ern­ment and in Decem­ber 1940 was named del­e­gate-gen­er­al in French North Africa. As I under­stand it his last name is more or less pro­nounced “day-gan.” In the movie it is spo­ken by Peter Lorre who is usu­al­ly iden­ti­fied as Hun­gar­i­an although nowa­days he would be clas­si­fied as Slo­va­kian. He spoke Eng­lish well but with an accent. Since de Gaulle is still well-remem­bered while Wey­gand has fad­ed from people’s mem­o­ries, many assume Lorre is say­ing “de Gaulle.” Sub­ti­tles can vary depend­ing on the lan­guage. I am not quite sure how well de Gaulle was known in Amer­i­ca in 1942 when the film was made.

    Thanks very much and I think you are right. I ran this past a French col­league and we both reviewed Peter Lorre’s appear­ance on YouTube. There is no doubt he says the Let­ters of Tran­sit are signed by “Gen­er­al Wey­gand,” not Gen­er­al de Gaulle, who was then per­sona non-gra­ta in French North Africa. My French friend says: “No French­man would pro­nounce Wey­gand (vé-gã) in any way that sound­ed like ‘de Gaulle’ or ‘Dar­lan’ (except for the final nasal ‘an’).” It’s true that de Gaulle was bet­ter known in Amer­i­ca than Wey­gand or Dar­lan, so for Amer­i­cans to think Lorre’s char­ac­ter said “de Gaulle” would be a nat­ur­al mis­take. I have amend­ed my text accord­ing­ly. —RML

  2. It didn’t make sense to me that a Let­ter of Tran­sit signed by Gen­er­al de Gaulle, the leader of the Free French, would have any author­i­ty in Vichy con­trolled Moroc­co. Accord­ing to the com­ments above from Norm Rosen­berg, the writ­ers used the name de Gaulle because he was bet­ter known by Amer­i­can audiences. 

    There are a lot of implau­si­ble scenes in Casablan­ca that pre­sum­ably were writ­ten into the movie for cin­e­mat­ic rea­sons. How­ev­er, the de Gaulle sig­na­ture on a Let­ter of Tran­sit, even a fic­tion­al Let­ter of Tran­sit, to me was one that wasn’t nec­es­sary to make the movie work. I think that the name Dar­lan or any French sound­ing name would have worked with Amer­i­can audi­ences at that time.

    Thank-you for your thought­ful obser­va­tion, which I think is on the mon­ey. RML 

  3. I am cur­rent­ly read­ing “The Blast of War — 1939-1945” one of sev­er­al vol­umes of mem­oirs by Harold Macmil­lan. Macmil­lan lat­er was Britain’s Prime Min­is­ter; for much of his polit­i­cal career he was close to Churchill.
    At the time of Casablan­ca, Macmil­lan was in North Africa as Britain’s civil­ian liai­son rep­re­sen­ta­tive at Gen­er­al Eisenhower’s HQ. He worked very close­ly there with Robert Mur­phy an Amer­i­can who held a some­what com­pa­ra­ble posi­tion rep­re­sent­ing Wash­ing­ton. A good num­ber of chap­ters in the book pro­vide a very detailed account of USA and British involve­ment with Dar­lan, Giraud and De Gaulle et al, in the long and dif­fi­cult, but even­tu­al­ly suc­cess­ful, mis­sion to achieve uni­ty among the var­i­ous French factions.

    A mem­ber or the Macmil­lan pub­lish­ing fam­i­ly, at one time engaged in their edit­ing busi­ness, Macmillan’s writ­ing style is beau­ti­ful­ly straight­for­ward. Although he writes from the British point of view, it is appar­ent that his rela­tion­ships with Mur­phy and Eisen­how­er were ami­ca­ble and sound, and this book will be found to be an excel­lent means of under­stand­ing the tor­tu­ous pol­i­tics of what went on at the time.
    Agree. I have all of his vol­umes inscribed. RML

  4. Ipso fac­to, de Gaulle could not have signed any offi­cial doc­u­ment in Vichy Morocco!
    Inter­est­ing Q & A on IMDb: “What exact­ly are “let­ters of transit”?
    “For the plot of the movie, they’re spe­cial­ized doc­u­ments that allow the bear­er to trav­el any­where in the world, includ­ing from Nazi-occu­pied coun­tries. The let­ters are actu­al­ly a ‘MacGuffin’—a term direc­tor Alfred Hitch­cock and writer Angus MacPhail coined to describe a plot point that is delib­er­ate­ly left vague so as not to draw too much empha­sis away from the real sto­ry but still is a dri­ving fac­tor in pro­pelling the sto­ry itself. The let­ters them­selves are entire­ly fictional.”
    Fun, thanks. True, but what would “Casablan­ca” be with­out them? Nor would a Vichy police­man have said, “Major Strass­er has been shot. Round up the usu­al sus­pects!” RML
    Veuillez regarder la ver­sion européenne et indi­quer si les let­tres sont décrites comme signées par Darlan!

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