The African Queen – 1951
Director – John Huston
Starring – Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn
When I was in junior high, I got my first computer. Along with a 14.4 kbps dial-up modem, floppy disk drive, and the home-edition of Microsoft Works (not Word, mind you, works.) that machine of the future came with a copy of the Encarta Encyclopedia CD-Rom. That laughably slow and instantly outmoded program, had a whole glossary of movies, a few with accompanying video clips, only the best ones mind you. Now since only the most renowned films came with video clips, it goes without saying that it was a point of pride for me that I had seen all but two of those select few films. The first one was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second…was The African Queen. Take that Encarta! It took me till 2012, but I finally beat you!
The African Queen is at its heart a love story, though it’s a love story that’s wrapped up in a war, adventure, thriller, and at times a comedy. It’s the early days of World War 1, and we start at a british-run mission in the heart of an African colony of Germany. Reverend Sayer and his sister Rose (Hepburn) staff the mission, attempting to spread the gospel to the un-enlightened natives, when they receive word of the start of the war. They are advised that German soldiers are on their way to oust any enemies to the interests of Germany, and have to leave behind their life’s work if they want to escape with their lives. This news pushes the reverend too far and, unable to cope, he falls ill and eventually dies leaving his sister to fend for herself.
As the arrival of the German soldiers looms close at hand, supply ship captain Charlie Alnut (a particularly grizzled Bogart) arrives just in time to offer Rose a mode of escape. Though he is course in his manners and seems generally uncouth to the prim and proper English upbringing that Rose is used to, Charlie is a welcome sight. The two make their way down river toward friendly territory, all the while avoiding Germans, Alligators, mosquitos, leeches, harsh weather, white water rapids, and each other along the way.
So I’ve made it fairly plain that I haven’t ever really been a fan of Katherine Hepburn. This has been a point of contention between my wife and I, as she simply adores Hepburn (despite the fact that she has seen Bringing Up Baby, which is one of Hepburn’s most terribly annoying roles). My dislike is ingrained in me so deeply, that I’ve actually avoided The African Queen because of its star. Upon having actually seen it, I am disappointed to say that maybe I was being a bit harsh with my immediate dismissal of Hepburn. It’s a good film. More than that, it’s a great film!
To classify this film is not as easy as it can be with some other films. With so many genres mashed up together in the story, it really fits into so many different categories. Perhaps the best fit for my purposes here is to call it a romance. We really get to see a pair of people go from not really liking the other, through friendship, courting, and eventually we see them emerge as true companions and best friends. While the going is tough, the nagging and pestering they inflict upon each other actually strengthens the bond they have, and raises the stakes of the film in direct relation to the danger level.
When Rose demands that they try to strike a blow on behalf of the british navy against the Germans, Charlie is initially against it. He stands to lose his boat, his lively hood, and potentially his life. It is plain to the audience that without someone to share his life with, a friend, a purpose, he really has nothing to live for anyway. The companionship with Rose illustrates this fact to him, and as they draw closer to their target, the thing he fears most is losing the woman he loves and respects.
Rose, too, gains from this relationship. She learns to soften her rather stuffy and stuck up exterior. Charlie shows her that there is a romance, and beauty to the world that she was here-to-for un-aware of, and that it can’t necessarily be attained through scripture and strict adherence to manners. Ultimately, they learn that they need one another. The off-hand relationship they have at the beginning of the film becomes all-consuming, dwarfing the danger, uncertainty, and even the beauty that lies ahead of them. Each becomes the other’s reason for moving forward, and the pair becomes the reason and the reward for the audience’s continued attention.
As far as the performances, I don’t think Humphrey Bogart has ever been bad. He makes everything I see him in at least a little bit better, and more than likely, he is the reason that it was excellent. There are a select few actors who are capable of doing what other actors accomplish in half the time and with a quarter of the exertion. Bogart is one of them, and is most deserving of all of the praise that is lumped upon him. Hepburn on the other hand is equally matched to Bogart…in this movie. I remain skeptical as far as her other roles go, but I am at the very least excited to find out if my initial impression of her holds true, or if I had her wrong the whole time. I’m not quite sure what to wish for…to be right from the start, or to be wrong but with a fresh new body of films to look forward to.
All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by the African Queen. For a film that I had such an adverse reaction to before watching, it was certainly a treat to be proven wrong about it. The plot, pacing, cinematography (gorgeously filmed in Technicolor, by the way), and yes, even the acting, really do make this one of the best films ever made. A deserving addition to this list, and definitely something worthy of your time and attention.
“Told ya so!” – Ashley