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.
So why de Gaulle’s signature in Casablanca?
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.
In American versions of the film, the Letters are supposedly signed by Charles de Gaulle. But when Norm Rosenberg wrote an article analyzing Casablanca and mentioning this, he ran into a contretemps. A professor in Europe cited a major “auditory error.” The Letters of Transit would almost certainly have been signed by Darlan—not de Gaulle, who had been exiled and outlawed by Vichy.
Norm called screenwriter Howard Koch to ask why the switch was made from Darlan to de Gaulle. Koch simply said it was because de Gaulle was better known.
Can a reader watch a European version of Casablanca and tell us if the name cited (early in the film) is Darlan and not de Gaulle? We may then get to the bottom of Professor Rosenberg’s speculation that the European version is historically correct. (Even if it is, the U.S. version certainly took the more moral approach.)
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.
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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, always to 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. And about 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 lit out of 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: “L’assassin de Mers el-Kebir”
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 finally if 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.