EDITORIAL: Here’s Looking at You, Russia


Here’s Looking at You, Russia

The latest news is Georgia’s revelation of Ossetian radio transmissions showing Russian armor moving into Ossetia, Georgian territory, without authorization a full day before Georgian forces moved against Ossetia’s capital, making a boldfaced liar and naked aggressor out of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.  Meanwhile, Robert Amsterdam reports that China, supposedly Russia’s ally, has joined the rebuilding effort in Georgia in a big way.

Now that the United States and Russia are again at each other’s throats again, let’s talk war  movies.

If you were to ask the average American citizen what was the greatest movie ever made, quite likely the answer you’d get would be 1942’s Casablanca by Michael Curtiz, a film very few Russians are aware of and which fewer still can even begin to understand.  And therein lies America’s greatest advantage in the new cold war.

Casablanca starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Bergman was a foreigner, and spoke English with a thick Swedish accent.  You’ll look long and hard trying to find a counterpart to Bergman in the annals of Russian film, indeed to find any Russian films, much less national treasures, where the Russian language is spoken with a thick accent by anyone, much less the hero(ine).  That is an expression of Russian xenophobia, leading to ignorance, leading to failure in battle — a problem compounded by the lack of press information self-examination through opposition politics.  A large number of other examples can be found on the American side, however, and not just in American film generally but in Casablanca itself:  co-stars Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre all spoke thickly accented English (Greenstreet and Lorre co-starred again with Bogie in the classic Maltese Falcon).  In a great modern example, Arnold Schwartzenegger, perhaps the most thickly-accented Hollywood actor in history, not only became a titanic star but governor of California.  Such a thing is not only unheard of but starkly inconceivable in barbaric, benighted, paranoid Russia.

Casablanсa is the story of an American bar owner living in the eponymous city who helps a Czech freedom fighter escape from Europe through North Africa and flee to America, from where to continue his heroic resistance against the Nazi hoards.  Rick is shown making a terribly stupid mistake (he allows Captain Renault to call the airport to clear the letters of transit for the Lisbon plane  without dialing the phoe for him, giving Renault the chance to put out the alert by calling a different number) and the Czech hero only barely escapes with his life, mostly through dumb luck.  Escape he does, however, because Rick risks all to help him, sacrificing the love of his life. Still, Rick is shown throughout the film as a fairly wretched character, bitter and cynical with few specific achievements, and his role in the film is merely to support and enable the real heroes of World War II.  Yet, of course, there is a subtext, carrying the classic American theme that the “wretched refuse” invited in by the Statue of Liberty can be capable of great deeds if given the chance.

What can Russians make of a people who would elevate a film like this to such iconic status? Indeed, what can Russians make of America pride in Lady Liberty’s message, inviting the world’s “huddled masses” of every bizarre stripe and description to flock to America’s “golden door.”  What can they make of a film that glamorizes and glorifies patriots of other countries, and shows America figures in such a pedestrian light, merely enabling them? It’s hardly consistent with the Russian view that Americans think they won World War II by themselves — an ironic criticism coming from a people who believe exactly that themselves.

Casablanca doesn’t fit the narrative that the Soviet and neo-Soviet rulers of Russia like to put forth about America, so naturally Russians aren’t overly familiar with it.  If they were, they’d see a film with a very low level of violence and a dazzling fireworks display of prose, particularly in the climactic airport scene.  None of the characters praise America at all, much less in the jingoistic manner Russians believe characterizes the attitude of every American.

It’s critical to be self-aware in battle, and Russians aren’t. They can’t be. To equip them for that task would mean letting them become aware of uncomfortable facts about their government and their history, facts which might tend to undermine their government’s ability to control them like sheep, as it is very successfully doing now.

So Russia will end up losing the second cold war for the same reasons it lost the first one.  Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Russia walks back into the Soviet Union.

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