The African Queen (1951)

Directed by John Huston


The African Queen is the boat Charlie Allnutt (Humphrey Bogart) pilots through Africa in newly German-occupied land during World War I.  Among other things, he delivers mail between villages, including to one in which Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) works as a missionary.  When the village is ransacked by the Germans and Rose’s brother killed, she takes up Charlie on his offer to bring her down river with him.  Rose, however, doesn’t just want safe passage, she really wants to torpedo an enemy German boat, even if it means her life.

The African Queen is really a buddy road trip comedy.  The road, in this case, is the river, and the buddies, Charlie and Rose are opposites in many ways who fall in love.  What I’ve noticed about many studio pictures from this time period is that the leading man and lady seem only to get together at the very end of the film.  In the case of The Major and the Minor and Desk Set, another Hepburn film which I’ll write about next, the two lovebirds finally say yes to each other in the film’s waning seconds.

Maybe those are two outliers, but both of those films are really just love stories masqueraded as something else.  In other words, a film like those has an obligation to show two people falling in love, and it often seems like a burden to the film, at least from my perspective.  By now, love stories have had a history of being shoe horned into stories that don’t otherwise need them.

In The African Queen, however, the love story feels much more important to the story as a whole.  First of all, there’s not much of anything for Charlie and Rose to do as they float down the river for all of act 2.  All this floating, and the occasional hoard of mosquitoes or occasional waterfall, offer the two of them time to bicker and grow closer together, as you do in a road trip film.  It’s not until act 3 that the plot picks up, and the love story takes a backseat, though it still serves a narrative purpose.

At the end of act 2, Charlie and Rose, after enough arguing, agree to a plan to blow up the German war boat.  In the process, however, their boat sinks, and they are captured.  In the best sequence of the film, we watch as Charlie is interrogated and sentenced to death, later alongside Rose once she is caught as well.  As they are about to be hanged, we see that The African Queen, still capsized, has floated to the surface, right in the path of the German ship.  Before Charlie and Rose are to be hanged, Charlie asks the German officer to marry them.  Of course, he does, which might seem odd, but the scene is hilarious.

“I now pronounce you man and wife.  Proceed with the execution,” he says, and the brief marriage ceremony gives them enough time to survive until the ship hits The African Queen, sinking the ship and allowing them to escape.

Act 3 is surprisingly thrilling considering how devoid act 2 is of any action.  They’re almost completely different stories, but at some point, Charlie and Rose’s courtship is fun to watch, once they give into each other.  Before that we’re left to watch them argue, debate the merits of Rose’s plan, and experience a host of lifestyle clashes.  Charlie has case after case of gin, enough to get him drunk for months on end, and eventually Rose dumps it all into the river.  In another sequence, they bond when Rose shows an affinity for the thrill of steering the boat over a small river rapid.

A lot of the beats of this part of the story feel predictable by now, as we’ve seen them in hundreds, maybe thousands of movies, but I’m sure there might’ve been more suspense and weight given to these moments at the time.  Later in act 2, their boat gets stuck only a few hundred feet from the lake they were aiming for, and “the dark night of the soul,” almost seemed like it might last forever.  So there, they almost got me.  I thought it might be a bold way to end the film, with Charlie and Rose dying of starvation so close to their destination, but of course they made it, do to possible diving intervention after Rose prayed for their salvation.

Much of this film was actually filmed in Africa, other than the obvious green screen moments whenever there was a rise in action.  In my brief research of the story, Katharine Hepburn battled dysentery during production, but director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart avoided getting sick by drinking their own imported liquor.  This film seems like the type to have a crazy behind the scenes story, much like Apocalypse Now.

I’m not sure I know what else to say about this film.  I’m eager to watch more John Huston films, if only because I know he’s a name often discussed in film history, particularly The Maltese Falcon.  The same goes for Bogart, particularly Casablanca.  It’s funny to think of him as a Hollywood hero.  Our Hollywood A-listers today are meant to be gorgeous, muscular physical specimens, even into their fifties.  At the time of the film’s release, Bogart was 52 years old, and he looked like it.  I mean, he looks great for his age, but look at our 50+ year old actors now, like Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Johnny Depp:

Okay, maybe George Clooney looks a little more normal for his age, but Cruise and Depp only ever seem to play characters intended to be twenty years younger than their actual age.  Think about every movie Tom Cruise is in.  I’m sure the script always reads… “ENTER CHIP DOUGLAS (AGE 35)…” and then the studio head says, “yeah, Cruise can do this.”  You never expect to see the scene description for a Tom Cruise character to say… “ENTER CHIP DOULAS (AGE 54)…” because he’s not what a 54 year old looks like.  I wonder if Tom Cruise can even believe he’s 54.

But Bogart looks like a real guy.  He doesn’t even look like Humphrey Bogart, but it’s not like I’m too familiar with what he usually looks like.  When we first meet him, he has the dark beginnings of a thick beard, and he’s constantly sweaty and dirty, from the humid climate of the film’s location.  This is all because of who is character is meant to be, but it felt like a deliberate attempt to dirty up his character until, halfway through the film, he cleans himself up for Rose and likely becomes the more familiar image of Humphrey Bogart that people had at the time.

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