The most straightforward hero in Casablanca (1942) would seem to be Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the Czech resistance fighter who has rallied multitudes with his moral leadership to battle German tyranny in Europe. After escaping from imprisonment in a concentration camp, he comes to Casablanca, like numerous others, in hopes of getting letters of transit so that he can fly to Lisbon – and eventually America – with his wife, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Even in Casablanca, he risks his life for his beliefs, as when he defies German officers and orders the band at Rick’s (the film’s central watering hole in which the disparate lives of locals, officers and refugees intersect) to play La Marseillaise as a reminder of the necessity of French resistance. Even more dangerously, he meets with the local members of the resistance movement to encourage them to keep up the fight against the Nazis.
Meanwhile, Rick (Humphrey Bogart), owner of the eponymous bar, is the film’s central character, but what type of hero is he? He appears to be a lapsed one. The film reveals that he once helped in the fight against fascism, always siding with the underdogs. However, he was disillusioned by the apparent betrayal of the love of his life, Ilsa, who didn’t show up at a train station in Paris on the day they were supposed to leave the city to flee the Nazi onslaught. Maybe he chose Casablanca not for “healing waters,” as he jokingly says at one point, but for just the opposite reason – because its desert surroundings reflect the barrenness of his cynical soul. He has become a person who says he sticks his neck out for nobody, asserting,“I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” He has no allegiance to any country; when asked about his nationality, Rick drily responds, “I’m a drunkard.” More seriously, he now also does business with criminals, such as the one played by Peter Lorre, and corrupt officials like Captain Renault (Claude Rains), who collaborates with the Nazis and takes advantage of women seeking escape from Casablanca.
Despite Rick’s current moral ambiguity and anger about Ilsa, Rick still admires Laszlo. When the latter says that he tries to help the cause, Rick says, “Many try. You succeed.” Laszlo’s presence and actions in Casablanca awaken in Rick an awareness of the necessity of self-sacrifice for one’s ideals and the nobility of working for a cause. When Rick finds out that Ilsa thought her husband was dead when they were together in Paris and only left once she found out Laszlo was alive, he sees that she still loves him, and his cynicism melts away. He is the one who allows the band to play the French anthem, and he eventually rises to Laszlo’s level by sacrificing his love for Ilsa, putting her on the plane with her husband because he knows that Laszlo needs her. Rick is finally willing to join the resistance; as Laszlo says to Rick, “Welcome back to the fight.” Rick finally learns that their lives don’t amount to “a hill of beans” in the larger context of the world’s problems.
One could say that Laszlo is the model others must emulate to become heroes, as his heroism inspires others in the film, including Rick, those singing at Rick’s club, and the other resistance fighters. You can see Ilsa’s admiration for Laszlo in her eyes, and even Captain Renault catches the patriotic fever, joining Rick at the end to form their “beautiful friendship.” But ideals are abstractions and hard to touch -- and, throughout the film, we never see Ilsa kiss Laszlo on the lips.
But perhaps both men represent the types of heroes the world needed at the time of the film’s release. Laszlo is a champion for those already immersed in the European struggle with Nazi Germany, affirming the need to fight for the patriotic ideals that preserve their independence and human rights. Meanwhile, Rick can be seen to symbolize the United States, which had to overcome the comfort of isolationism to join the rest of the world in the heroic fight against totalitarianism.
Rick is the type of hero that the rest of us hope to become. Unlike the saintly Laszlo, he feels love, anger, hurt, and jealousy, but he can transcend his self-centeredness to perform heroic actions when the chips are down.