Imagine decoding a secret message that reads “PLAY BALL” on a command ship in 1942. Those were two simple words sent from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to Maj. Gen. George S. Patton instructing him to launch America into World War II and it happened exactly 75 years ago today. As headlines swept across the country about American troops entering the war in a North African city called Casablanca, back home in Hollywood Warner Brothers decided to move up post-production on a film that shared the same name. A few weeks later, Casablanca was released, becoming a hit and eventually glorified as one of the greatest films in history.
But there’s more to this connection for Kenneth Rendell, founder and director of the International Museum of World War II in Natick. “The movie has all the intrigue of what was actually happening behind the scenes before the invasion,” he says. “The movie’s relevance took off immediately because nobody on the homefront knew where Casablanca was. … People at home were desperate to know about where their husbands were and where their sons were.”
Rendell chose the 75th anniversary to open The Real and Reel Casablanca; American Troops Enter World War II, Landing in North Africa. The exhibit opens to the public on Friday and will highlight 75 artifacts from the museum’s collection including Patton’s decoded message from Eisenhower, items from the movie Casablanca and leaflets for the French allies among others. One of the more interesting items on display according to Rendell is Patton’s retained copy of a letter he sent to the Sultan of Morocco. “It basically says, ‘We come in peace. But if you fire on us, we’ll destroy you with the utmost violence known to modern war.’ He really cut to the bottom of it in those couple of sentences.”
Also on display at the museum are artifacts belonging to Winston Churchill, another key figure in the war and the subject of director Joe Wright’s upcoming film Darkest Hour portraying the Prime Minister’s early days facing Hitler’s army. “If you had to look at one person who really made the difference in World War II it was Churchill,” Rendell says. The museum boasts a comprehensive collection of Churchill’s original letters, manuscripts and artifacts, including his “we shall never surrender” speech with handwritten corrections and annotations.
Throughout the museum visitors can get a better sense of the human side of the war. “The museum is not about any particular kind of artifact. It’s about life. And it’s about what did people see. What did people read. What were they influenced by.” He aims to provide what he believes most people have wanted throughout history: to know how others live. “What really doesn’t change is human nature. What you get out of history, if you look at it correctly, is an understanding of human nature. Everybody thinks they’re special.” But the secret is that no one is special, he says. War is hell for everybody.
In a memorable line from Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine asks Victor Laszlo, a Czech rebel trying to escape the Germans and who is also the husband of his former lover, “Don’t you sometimes wonder if it’s worth all this? I mean what you’re fighting for.”
By taking a fresh look at the film in the context of what was happening in Casablanca for America, Rendell hopes visitors can embrace both war’s complexities and its personal human aspects. When visitors finish at the museum he says without question they leave being anti war. “Not that we shouldn’t have been in World War II,” he says. “We had to be. There was just no choice.”
The International Museum of World War II opens The Real and Reel Casablanca; American Troops Enter World War II, Landing in North Africa special exhibit which will run through Feb. 3.