“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.**See Mr. Overmeyer’s note below. 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 sign­er 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 char­ac­ter 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, Mr. Overmeyer.)


(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 stood for lib­er­ty all along.

Inci­den­tal­ly, Claude Rains loved New Hampshire’s beau­ti­ful lake dis­trict. For many years he lived in Cen­ter Har­bor, five 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 nov­el for Casablan­ca fans. Walsh tells what hap­pened after Ilsa and Vic­tor left on the plane for Lis­bon. He also relates 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, Mr. Walsh’s book brings them to life. Not to spoil it, but Rick and Ilsa meet and love again. You won’t put this book down.

Click at right for Mark Steyn’s account of the almost-still­born theme song on Ser­e­nade Radio. (SteynOn­line)

Further reading

The Plea­sures of Prague: ‘You Must Remem­ber This‘”: The Blue Duck­ling restau­rant in Prague. We could almost see Sam at the piano play­ing that song for Rick and Ilsa….

< As Time Goes By: the song

Mark Steyn’s beau­ti­ful account of “As Time Goes By,” Her­man Hupfeld‘s 1931 song which hardy any­body remem­bered by the time of “Casablan­ca.” Except for one man….  Click here.

** Note: Darlan and Oran

Secrets of the Dead: Churchill’s Dead­ly Deci­sion, nar­rat­ed by Liev Schreiber, pro­duced by Richard Bond, is a one-hour DVD. The con­clu­sion (includ­ing com­ments by a French sur­vivor) seems some­what reluc­tant­ly to pro­vide sup­port for the Churchill Cabinet’s deci­sion to attack the French fleet. 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 the Sec­ond World War? I would sug­gest instead Lady Soames’s con­clu­sion: “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.

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

  1. Rick’s Café Amer­i­cain, which was fic­tion­al, has been cre­at­ed by a for­mer Amer­i­can diplo­mat at a house in Casablanca’s old med­i­na, with decor appro­pri­ate to the peri­od. My wife and I had the plea­sure of din­ing there in June and Sep­tem­ber 2019. Any­one who loves the film will enjoy vis­it­ing the cafe, whose piano play­er includes “As Time Goes By” in his reper­toire. Our meals were tasty and the cafe has inter­est­ing sou­venirs. Advance reser­va­tions are advised. The cafe’s web­site is http://www.rickscafe.ma/.

    Thank-you. Search­ing Duck­Duck­Go for we find oth­er appar­ent repli­cas in Cape Town, Mem­phis, and Wau­kee, Iowa. Per­haps a read­er can tell us if these approx­i­mate the recre­ation in Casablan­ca. —RML

  2. 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

  3. 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 

  4. 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

  5. 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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