Casablanca Letters of Transit, 1942
Star-crossed lovers in wartime; chaos and intrigue; champagne cocktails and dinner jackets; and the origins of a completely fictional document.
What’s your favorite line? There are so many, it’s hard to choose, and every time we watch, we’re reminded what a grab bag of quotable lines it is, ingrained on our collective consciousness. We’re forever “shocked, shocked” or rounding up the usual suspects, and of course, we’ll always have Paris.
Yes, Casablanca. Routinely named as one of the top movies of all time: glamorous, star-crossed lovers, torn apart by the forces of war, thrown unexpectedly back together in a whirlwind of rekindled passion, jealousy and intrigue. The café, the piano, the champagne cocktails, the evening gowns and dinner jackets, the Nazis, the threats at every turn.
Much as we all love this movie, though, there are parts that, frankly, don’t make a great deal of sense. For example, um, why exactly is the runway wet in the climactic airport scene, when they’re in the Moroccan desert?
Not that anybody cares. And besides, these few problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy mixed-up world, do they? One central error, though, three little words, conjures an idea so convincing and seductive, that it forms the impetus and backbone for the entire story, and reinforces the ways in which words can support journeys of all kinds.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School. No, there are no such things as letters of transit, but why let that get in the way of a good story? The idea of documents to facilitate travel goes back at least as far as Bible times; in the Old Testament, Nehemiah asks King Artaxerxes for permission to travel and is given a letter “to the governors beyond the river” requesting his safe passage. 2500 years later, the language in your passport is effectively the same thing, stated as a request to other countries to allow the bearer to pass “without delay or hindrance,” though of course it is just that—a request, subject to the laws and occasional whims of the other side of the river. It’s a diplomatic nicety, part and parcel of a complex system of controlling the movement of people across, and occasionally within, borders.
For a long time this was an informal, catch-as-catch-can system, not unlike Nehemiah. Nations were mostly kingdoms and domains, travel over great distances was uncommon and dangerous and only the noteworthy needed to ask for permission. The King’s License was required to enter or leave 11th century England, though clause 50 of Magna Carta guaranteed the right to come and go in 1215. For several decades, individual American states issued passports, which must have caused occasional amusement around the world; it was only in 1856 that the State Department was given exclusive authority to issue American passports.
The entire worldwide passport system, somewhat surprisingly, fell into disuse in the latter half of the 19th century. The increasing volume and speed of travel, made possible by the development of railways, made the old system unworkable and untenable, and it was largely abandoned. Only the fear of espionage, and the opportunity to keep a closer eye on people, brought it back during World War I, since which time it has remained firmly ensconced. The first international standards were established by a conference of the League of Nations in 1920, and photographs added soon thereafter, replacing the somewhat comical practice of elaborate physical description for identification of the bearer.
The passport is proof of identify and citizenship (which is not, by the way, the same as nationality). It’s one of a number of forms of travel documentation we now use, including the visa, an authorization to enter and stay for a given period of time and under certain circumstances. I’ve taught a couple of times in Canada and so was required to go through Immigration to get a work permit, which specified how long I could remain and what I could do. It was a curious experience standing in line, as officials periodically came through looking for anyone who was requesting refugee status or asylum. Visas can be refused, for people with a criminal record or disease, for example, who are seen as a threat to national security or who show no intent to return where they came from. There are also specialized travel documents for stateless persons (people with no citizenship) as well as fake or fantasy ones; for a price, you too can have a passport from the World Service Authority, for all the good it will do you.
The closest genuine document to a “letter of transit” is probably a “laissez-passer,” a safe conduct issued for one-way travel to the issuing country, sometimes for humanitarian reasons, but also to allow diplomats of newly enemy nations to leave after war is declared. But the actual letter of transit exists only in fiction, invented, seemingly quite casually, for the play and then adopted by Howard Koch in his mad scramble to concoct a screenplay for Casablanca, writing pages nearly as fast as they could be filmed. As the Peter Lorre character says, these letters would get the bearers out of the country: “Cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.” All well and good, but—he also says, in his exotic middle-European accent, that they’re “signed by General deGaulle.” Why, we are left to wonder, would the occupying Germans or even the collaborationist Vichy government care in the slightest about papers signed by deGaulle, who by late 1941 was in exile outside London? The printed screenplay suggests maybe he was supposed to say “Marshal Weygand,” a Vichy official of the time, though that’s hard to mistake for deGaulle. But c’mon—like it matters.
Travel documents are interwoven into the fabric of the film. In the first line of spoken dialogue, the police dispatcher describes the murder of two German couriers carrying the letters of transit. The opening narration also highlights the importance of exit visas—which are uncommon but real, often used by governments such as Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan who fear emigration. In 1940s unoccupied France, exit visas were indeed difficult to acquire because nations such as Spain and especially Portugal were continually changing their requirements, opening and closing their borders, frustrating people who desperately wanted to flee to the promise of the New World. The first 10 minutes of the film are filled with talk of exit visas, letters of transit, and the immortal “Can I see your papers?” leading to a man shot in the street rather than betray the Free France literature in his pocket.
The rest of the film is an increasingly intense search for those letters, against a backdrop of desperation; a line cut from the final version has a beautiful woman telling an older man “It used to take a villa at Cannes, or the very least, a string of pearls. Now all I ask is an exit visa.” We know, of course, that the letters are in Sam’s piano as he plays “As Time Goes By” first for Ilsa and then for Rick, before they are ultimately used on that suspiciously rainy runway.
The play was written in 1940, though rarely produced; the screenplay in 1942 and the film released the following January, nominated for 8 Academy Awards and winning for Best Picture, Director, and for the screenplay. At that time, international travel had become difficult at best, dangerous or impossible or prohibited at worst, and which side of a shifting border you were on could be a life- or-death matter, so it’s little wonder there’s a fascination here with the idea of a magical document, a few words on the right paper that could mean escape, freedom, a new life.
So this is a story about words and movement: letters and visas, lies told and plans made on a tarmac, the end of regained love and the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Words written and spoken that help us to move, and that move us still.
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