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Correction appended, Nov. 28, 2016
World War II was still years from its conclusion when the city of Casablanca was immortalized at the intersection of love and war. The 1942 film Casablanca highlighted the Moroccan locale as a place where Allied and Axis forces lay in uneasy balance, and a place to which—and from which—European refugees hoped to escape.
The new film Allied, out Wednesday, again brings moviegoers to Casablanca in 1942, but this time with Brad Pitt playing a Canadian military officer who meets and falls for a French resistance fighter—who is perhaps a spy—played by Marion Cotillard.
Casablanca during this period was a space away from the downtrodden centers of Europe, says Allied production designer Gary Freeman, but keeping the fighting at a distance didn’t mean everything was easy there. Freeman says his research into the period taught him that, as the rich found a world apart from their troubles—where European art deco influences combined with Mediterranean architecture, among the gleaming-white buildings that leant the city its name—many locals suffered in poverty. (“Casablanca doesn’t look like it did now,” says Freeman. Thanks to architectural changes and the proliferation of satellite dishes, the city is decidedly modern. The solution for Allied: shoot on a set.)
“As I started to get into the project I realized that Casablanca was not the idyll we think it is,” he says.
In 1942, that was plainly clear, as that November saw Allied forces fight to recapture the city from Vichy control.
“In Morocco tough, muscular Major General George S. Patton Jr. ran into just the kind of opposition for which he had prepared,” TIME reported of the battle. “Months ago, on the deserts of southeastern California, he had drilled his men to fight in blazing heat over terrain such as they would meet in North Africa. Patton had insisted that they keep their sleeves rolled down, that they get along on a minimum of water. He had forbidden that vehicles, moving or standing, be within 50 yards of one another, lest they provide a bunched target. Not long after his men reached Africa, their grumbles turned to praise for what the Old Man had taught them.”
A real-life look at that time and place was preserved in February of 1943, when Casablanca was the setting for an installment of LIFE Magazine’s “Life Goes to a Party” feature. The photo essay followed an American naval lieutenant on a date with a French refugee whom he’d met there.
The two enjoyed a day out, with a picnic and a walk at the beach, but could not forget the world around them: they “hurried back for curfew” at the end of the outing.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the nationality of Brad Pitt’s character in the film Allied. The character is Canadian.