Those Immortal Letters Of Transit, Signed By…

My wife was away last night. Hmm, a suggestion (sitting as always in the stairwell just outside my office) as to the night’s viewing while home alone? Not a single unnecessary scene or even line. Darn near perfect. The best film ever made: Casablanca:

[Photo by me, 2018.]

Some of its dialogue has entered the realm of popular culture, quoted constantly. (“Here’s looking at you kid.” “I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” And more.) However, within it there are also controversies. One is this scene where “Ugarte” (Peter Lorre) tells “Rick” (Humphrey Bogart) that he has “the letters of transit”:

When I saw that again last night, suddenly I had a moment of inspiration. Does he actually say “de Gaulle?” I decided to turn on the DVD’s subtitles and as you see I photographed our television screen. Yes, according to those subtitles there, he does say “de Gaulle.”

But does he really say “de Gaulle?” (This is a European DVD, not normally viewable in North America, so is not meant for Americans, but for British, Irish and other non-North American English speakers.) Lorre there does sound as if he may be saying “de Gaulle.” However, he is semi-whispering the name and it is difficult to understand for sure.

Yet if he is saying “de Gaulle” is the papers’ signatory whose authority “cannot be questioned,” that makes no sense in terms of the actual history. In December 1941, General Charles de Gaulle is in exile, having fled to Britain in June 1940 as it was becoming clear the Germans were going to defeat the French army. As the leader of the “Free French” (later called the “Fighting French”) opposed to the French collaborationist “Vichy” government that worked with the Germans starting in July 1940, he is considered a traitor and is a wanted man. So nothing de Gaulle had signed would have carried any legal weight in French Morocco in “December 1941” – the timeframe of the film (which must be before Pearl Harbor, with the U.S. still officially neutral) as indicated by “Rick” saying so in one scene.

If he says “de Gaulle” that is a HUGE historical inaccuracy, and it has bothered film buffs for decades. I thought to myself as I watched this time, what about other languages? So I had some fun, changing the subtitles to others and rerunning the scene each time. First, here translated into Italian, Lorre says:

And in Spanish:

And in Romanian:

And in Bulgarian:

Uh, okay, if any of you understand Bulgarian, feel free to help me out there.

And how about in GERMAN?:

Even the Germans say it was “de Gaulle.”

Above all, vitally, how is it translated into French for French speakers wanting to listen to the original English language soundtrack, but use the French subtitles for help?:

That’s what they see in FRANCE. The French translation is NOT “de Gaulle.” It is General Weygand.

Indeed Maxime Weygand makes much more historical sense. He would also be mostly unknown today to anyone outside of France aside from historians and World War II “fanatics.” Even during 1942/43 – when the film was being made and first released – he would have been unknown to most American filmgoers, whereas de Gaulle, due to his resistance stance, would have been familiar to them.

Weygand was commander-in-chief of the French army from mid-May 1940, trying to hold off the invading Germans until the surrender in June. Afterwards, unlike the far more junior de Gaulle, Weygand stayed in a high position in the post-defeat “Vichy” French army in north Africa that existed under German-occupying sufferance. Thus Weygand could well have been the signatory of those “letters of transit” that could not have been questioned. That is why the French translation uses his name.

The only issue – and it is relatively minor – is he was dismissed from his Africa command in November 1941 because the Germans did not consider him enough of a “collaborator,” and “Rick” had made that later reference in the story to it being “December 1941.” Even so, Weygand’s orders just prior to being fired would likely still have had their full weight. Weygand was not outright arrested by the Germans until a year later, to end up imprisoned eventually in an occupied Austrian castle with other prominent French, including de Gaulle’s eldest sister. (He was freed with those others after one of the weirdest battles of World War II, on May 5, 1945, when a small number of American soldiers, Austrian resistance, French prisoners, including a former tennis star, and German army soldiers fought on the same side defending the castle against attacking Waffen-SS until American reinforcements arrived. Wikipedia says a film version is due to be released this year. Given the long-known of battle’s bizarre nature, it is hard to understand what has taken “Hollywood” so long to discover it. Sounds like a Brad Pitt film for sure.)

So the best answer as to what Lorre says is the French version. For accuracy and historical reality, it could never have been “de Gaulle.” When you watch that scene, Lorre is not saying “General de Gaulle”; logically he must be saying “General Weygand.”

Interestingly, the Dutch subtitles also note him as saying “Weygand.”

See what you learn here on my blog!

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂

7 thoughts on “Those Immortal Letters Of Transit, Signed By…

  1. I own a copy of Casablanca: script and legend (The Overlook Press, 1973), by Howard Koch, who wrote the screenplay after Julius and Philip Epstein quit working on it. On page 7 (in the chapter, “The Making of Casablanca: conceived in sin and born in travail”), Koch writes (referring to Lorre’s Ugarte), “In his opening scene we learn that he has acquired two letters of transit signed by General Weygand, granting the bearer the right to travel without passport or visa.” However, in the script (page 33), the lines read:

    Myself. I found myself much more reasonable.
    he takes an envelope from his pocket and lays it on the table
    Look, Rick, do you know what this is? Something that even you have never seen.
    lowers his voice
    Letters of transit signed by General deGaulle. [Marshal Weygand] Cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.
    Rick looks at him, then holds out his hand for the envelope.

    Unfortunately, this further muddies the water.

    I watched the scene, then muted the sound and watched it, doing some lip-reading, and then listened to it with my eyes closed. I did each of these things more than a dozen times. Lorre definitely says “Weygand,” because the initial “v” sound is there (not a “d”), and he doesn’t end with the “ol” sound that should end the pronunciation of “deGaulle,” but ends with the “aw” that terminates “Weygand.”

    Since Koch himself says it was General Weygand, it’s a mystery why the book version of the script includes “deGaulle,” except perhaps by the time the book was printed, the misunderstanding of Lorre’s accent was already widespread, and a meddling editor decided to amend the script to reflect that (which may be why the script says “Marshal” within the brackets).

    Fascinating study of this cinematic icon. Thanks for bringing it up!

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    1. It’s one of those great Hollywood “oops” moments. Obviously those who did the main English subtitles got “de Gaulle” from somewhere. Other translators may have translated into their languages based on that English translation.

      Except for the French. It seems pretty clear the French translator there chose to go with “Weygand” based on whatever source. On screen, it does perhaps sound like Lorre says “de Gaulle,” but there is enough ambiguity in his pronunciation that he could well have said “Weygand.” Obviously since the war the French – Gaullists in particular – would have taken great umbrage at any assertion Charles de Gaulle had anything to do with collaborationist Vichy paperwork in 1941 and they would have every right to that reaction even in a fictional film, and particularly so for one as high-profile as this one has become.

      Had the film instead used a fictitious general’s name in that scene (which would not have been unreasonable, given the film is dominated by fictional characters), naturally none of this would have been an issue.

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      1. By the time the book was printed, Lorre was long since dead, so nobody could ask him “What did you say?” and Koch may have lost an argument about it with his editor. But by studying the shape of Lorre’s mouth when he speaks, as well as focusing on his natural Austrian accent, it’s evident that he’s saying “Weygand,” not “de Gaulle.”

        It’s a pity that such a misunderstanding should persist, since, as you say, the film is nearly perfect. (My issue is with the scene when Laszlo and Carl come back from the Resistance meeting, and Laszlo is supposed to have been injured by broken window glass, but there’s no blood on his arm or hand, and the bar towel he’s unsuccessfully trying to wrap round his wrist is as tidy as it was when it came out of the laundry press.)

        Another interesting thing about the movie is that so many of the actors were themselves refugees from Hitler’s regime – including Conrad Veidt.

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        1. Indeed in the film using so many refugee actors, there’s poignancy. (I’m sure you know all about Veidt’s life.) Some films just “nail it” overall – and this is one of them. It is why we watch it still and closely study something like one name Lorre said in a role that he saw at the time only as a few weeks of work before it was on to the next contract acting role. It’s fascinating.

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  2. (The script direction about Rick at the end of the quoted passage should have been in italics. Looks like I had an HTML typo at the beginning of the line. BTW, you can edit comments you get and fix such glitches.)

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