Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Nearly every film ever made fits rather neatly into the format of the Hero's Journey.
Casablanca is not one of them. There's no physical journey at all; heck, practically the entire movie takes place in one set location.
Nevertheless, we're going to give this the old college try, and see where the movie does and does not fit the mold. However, this might be a good lesson for all you aspiring filmmakers out there—oftentimes breaking away from the tried and true is what defines something as a true work of art.
Either that, or you produce some garbage like The Happening.
This one's simple enough. For Rick, life has gone on uneventfully ever since he got royally dissed back in Paris. He wakes up, he opens the club, he closes the club, he goes to sleep. Yeah, the occasional Nazi officer wanders in and spices things up, but other than that it's all pretty much status quo.
Call To Adventure
Ilsa and Victor walk into Rick's place and all of a sudden there's drama. Rick, who's in possession of those two letters of transit, is unavoidably involved, as he represents the couple's only real chance of fleeing to America via Lisbon.
Refusal Of The Call
Rick hasn't quite forgiven Ilsa for tossing him to the curb years ago, and he makes sure she knows it. And if he isn't ready to help the woman he once loved (and still does), he certainly isn't going to throw her husband a bone. Not unless it is strategically aimed at his head.
Meeting The Mentor
Here's where we definitely deviate from the usual journey. There is no mentor, per se, no one who steps in and gets Rick to change his mind, or who motivates him to be the bigger man.
It could be argued that Renault is sort of an anti-mentor. By being exposed to the Captain's corrupted, unprincipled ways, Rick perhaps sees who he might become if he doesn't take a stand for what he knows is right. Thanks for setting such an awful example, Renault. He couldn't have done it without you.
Crossing The Threshold
If we argue (and we will) that Rick doesn't really cross any threshold or break away from his former self until he decides to let go of Ilsa, then we're looking at a point already very near the end of the movie. Which is not usually how this Hero's Journey deal works.
Don't blame us. Blame Rick for being so pigheaded for an hour and twenty minutes. He should have gotten his act together earlier. Then we could have had something.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Now that Rick has made the decision to provide for Ilsa and Victor's safe passage, executing the plan is a whole other animal. First he has to convince Renault to let Victor out of prison, where he's been holding him on a trumped-up charge to keep him from riling up the locals. Then he has to get Renault to have his "watchdogs" stop tailing Victor everywhere, and finally everything has to go smoothly during the actual attempted arrest, with no interference from Strasser or anyone else.
Fortunately, things go precisely as planned. Well, except for that call Renault places to Strasser, unbeknownst to Rick. Hey, these are called "tests" for a reason.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
In this case, the inmost cave is the airport, and Rick arrives there with Renault, Victor and Ilsa in tow. Here Rick not only has to make sure that the plane takes off without interference, but he also has to do the hardest thing he's ever done in his life—let Ilsa go.
Did that just make anyone else think of Elsa singing "Let It Go"? No? Guess we can't get Adele Dazeem out of our head.
Obviously, the climax of the movie can't possibly go smoothly. Renault doesn't try to pull any fast ones (as always, he is careful and cautious, looking out only for his own well-being). But Strasser shows up and grabs a phone, preparing to call the radio tower to have the flight halted. But, as Rick knows, the best way to handle an ordeal like this is to shoot.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
With Strasser dead and no one left who can delay the plane's departure, Rick has achieved his goal of seeing Victor and Ilsa safely off. It probably doesn't feel like much of a reward, since he's now probably going to be executed for murdering a Nazi officer. But, come on. Let's give him at least a second or two of mild satisfaction. He's earned this.
The Road Back
After a minor miracle, Renault tells his boys to "round up the usual suspects," choosing not to give Rick up to the authorities who would have him answer for his actions. For Rick, his "road back" is going to be the path back to normalcy. He clearly can't go back to being the successful, cheerless club owner now. Instead, he's got to find some way to expand on this new sense of nationalistic pride he's exhibited, and carve out a new, more fulfilling life for himself.
So it's not the road back as much as it is the road to somewhere else.
This one's a bit of a stretch, but if we're going to argue that any moment in this film is Rick's resurrection, it's Renault joining forces with him. Now, instead of having to go it alone, he's got a partner in crime—someone he understands, and someone who can even hold his own in a verbal sparring match. As the two characters walk off into the distance, we feel confident that they'll find a way to rise to the challenge of whatever lies ahead.
Provided that one of them doesn't first bang their knee on an unseen table. It is really foggy out there.
Return With The Elixir
Again, this one doesn't quite fit, especially if Rick's resurrection is the final moment of the film. He never returns to his "ordinary world," but hopefully he has a hand in building a much better one. One with less corruption, less vice, and far fewer Nazis.