I came here for the waters,” says Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. ”Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert,” his police-chief friend Claude Rains points out. ”I was misinformed,” Bogart wryly responds. There you are; and there we have been through most of screen history.
Morocco in western cinema is a place of the mind. It is a place that film buffs love to the point of folly: which explains why folly - heedless, blithe, almost wilful - distinguishes so much of the foreign moviemaker’s perspective on the country. It explains why nearly every character in classic feature films set in that land (Morocco, Casablanca, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Sheltering Sky) gets the place wrong, in some large or small way. It also explains why scarcely any Hollywood, or non-African, film set in Morocco is ”shot” in Morocco. Backlots and studios are just as good (goes the conscious or unconscious thinking) if you are inventing your own deserts and kasbahs, if you are brainstorming your own saloons and intrigue-infested gambling dens.
By contrast - the other side of the paradox - out of the dozens of films that were shot in Morocco, nearly all are set somewhere else. The north-west corner of Africa provides good settings, cheap production costs, proximity to Europe. Where better to shoot Palestine in The Last Temptation of Christ, the Ottoman deserts of Lawrence of Arabia or Cyprus in Orson Welles’s Othello? Today, top director Ridley Scott has one foot permanently planted in a Morocco of many roles (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven), while his other leg, like a compass, arcs back and forth across the finance-and-production world between London’s Pinewood studios and Hollywood.
Morocco is a place of beautiful landscapes and increasingly made-to-measure location facilities. It is also the land of mirages, so any one thing can be made to look like another. A few hey-prestos on the computer allow the Atlas mountains to be a backdrop for Tibet (Kundun) or the sands of the western Sahara to do for eastward Egypt (The Mummy).
But ”Morocco-for-somewhere-else” is the mere minor cousin of ”somewhere-else-for-Morocco”. That is the real deal in movie iconography. That turns the first principle topsy-turvy. What it says is: ”The real Morocco may be good enough for other countries. But it is not good enough for the true, the mythical, the fabulous screen Morocco.” Photo-reality, however scenic, however gobsmacking, is not the stuff of make-believe.
So when Josef von Sterberg fashioned a desert romance starring Marlene Dietrich as a German singer in Africa, who gets entangled with foreign legionnaire Gary Cooper, he called it Morocco although it had nothing to do with the geographical country and was all shot in Hollywood.
Why? Because it was Morocco the dream. It was kitsch with sand. It was a high-camp tale of camp-following. (See the finale with singer-turned-soldier’s-girl Dietrich shucking her stilettos as she starts her all-for-love slog into the desert.) It was Morocco in the sense that it imagined, without going there, a place where Europe, crossing the tiniest of seas, could gatecrash the old world and create a collision or collusion between civilisation and exoticism, between the bright forward gaze of the west and the dark atavistic gaze (so supposed) of the east.
Casablanca repeated the formula with extra oomph. Most of the film’s audiences in 1942 and probably several of its actors (on first reading the script) hadn’t a clue where the title town was. Warner Brothers egged this on by making it seem as if Casablanca was Marrakesh: an inland desert town, a waterless oasis, where you could only escape by a plane-hop to Lisbon. Barely anyone mentions that the real Casablanca is on the coast.
No wonder that when Bernardo Bertolucci filmed the greatest Moroccan novel of all by a non-Moroccan, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, it seemed a revolutionary step to film it in Morocco. Here were Debra Winger and John Malkovich touching down in the Sahara. Here was cameraman Vittorio (Apocalypse Now) Storaro unpacking all the colours in his palette. The screen was a mile wide. The gold of the sand dunes was so beautiful it could hurt your eyes. And yet - you guessed it - the film bombed.
We know why. Audiences might as well have shouted it out: ”We don’t want Morocco to be played by Morocco, even at its most gorgeous. It has become a place in our brains. It’s a fantasy of the soul.” Babel, again shot in Morocco itself, where key scenes were set, likewise failed to create queues round the block, though it got ”coos” from critics.
Morocco was, and is, too powerful a reality to be contained by realism, however resplendent. We have to make poetry of it, otherworldly poetry. And poetry is a thing of notes and chords and shapes in the brain, not projections of what actually exists.
Bob Hope and Bing Crosby got it right in their musical comedy The Road to Morocco, the best of their ”Road” series. ”Like Webster’s Dictionary, we’re Morocco bound,” they warbled in the main song. A much-loved country, or the much-loved myth of it, was and for many remains a piece of beautiful material in which to wrap our beautiful thoughts and imaginings.