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The African Queen

Any discussion of the greatest cinematic romances of all time must, invariably, include John Huston’s classic 1951 adventure The African Queen. In fact, short of classic film couples like Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable/Vivien Leigh, Humphrey Bogart and Hepburn’s romantic turn may be the first couple that film buffs normally think about in this regard. That being said, it’s interesting to note how far Huston tends to tilt the film in the direction of white-knuckle adventure vs “falling in love.”

By this point in film history, the plot of The African Queen (adapted for the screen by Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Agee, who also wrote the screenplay for Night of the Hunter) should be familiar to just about anyone. Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother Samuel (the always excellent Robert Morley) are missionaries stationed in East Africa during the onset of World War I. Local riverboat captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart) drops by to inform that the Germans are on the move and that they should (probably) abandon their posts. Determined to stay, the Sayers soon realize that even good intentions and God can’t stand in the way of the rampaging Germans, particularly once they burn the village (and church) to the ground and beat poor Rev. Sayer.

After her brother dies, Rose goes with Charlie, ostensibly to relocate to safer territory. Instead, the headstrong Rose has determined that she and Charlie should single-handedly take on a nearly impenetrable German fortress and one completely badass German battleship named the Louisa. The Louisa, you see, is the key to the German control of East Africa and would be quite the fight for another battleship. Attacking a battleship with a rickety riverboat? Why, that’s just crazy talk! Rose, however, knows two things like the back of her hand: she’s too damn stubborn to ever admit defeat, regardless the odds, and she’s fallen head-over-heels in love with the slovenly, equally pig-headed Charlie. Will love and a boat full of explosives be enough to thwart the German troops? Will Charlie and Rosie ever stop arguing long enough to kiss?

As a youngster, The African Queen was (easily) one of my parents’ favorite films and something that they seemed to watch about as frequently as I watch my favorite films…which is to say, quite often enough to make neophytes sick and tired of the whole thing. I was never a big fan of The African Queen but I’ll freely admit that this had as much to do with me as the film: as an avowed Clint Eastwood/Charles Bronson fanatic, Huston’s modest little war pic was always going to have an uphill battle in the “Make Phillip’s blood boil” sweepstakes. Nonetheless, even though I wasn’t a huge fan of the film, there was still always one scene that got my complete and undivided attention: if you guessed anything besides the leech scene, you probably didn’t know pre-teen/teen me very well. As a kid into ooky, gooky and icky things of all sorts and sizes, particularly those that paraded across the big/small screen, things didn’t get much ickier than the bit where Charlie emerges from the river only to find himself covered in those slimy little bastards. I still get a chill every time I think about that scene, which certainly must say something as to the film’s staying power.

Re-watching The African Queen as an adult certainly reinforced one thing that my adolescent self managed to miss entirely: despite what I initially thought, there’s plenty of action to be found in Huston’s jungle journey. This isn’t to say that the film’s reputation as a romance is undeserving: there’s still plenty of lovin’ to go around. My initial memories, however, ended up being pretty unfairly weighted: between the numerous “over the rapids” scenes and the incredibly tense moment where the German fortress first catches sight of The African Queen and proceeds to bomb the living crap out of Rosie and Charlie, there isn’t much fat (if any) on the film.

In fact, if anything, I actually found the romantic angle to be a bit too comfortable and rather cliché: the scruffy bad-boy falls in love with the prim-and-proper good girl and changes his life for the better. Hepburn and Bogart spend so much time feinting and verbally sparring around each other that their inevitable falling in love seems more a fact of sheer exhaustion than any kind of aligning of the stars: they’re too tired to keep fighting, so they may as well smooch. Perhaps I’ve become numb to this type of character development since I’ve seen it so many times over the years but this aspect of the film definitely struck me as routine and “by-the-book.”

If I have trouble affording The African Queen the same amount of esteem that other critics do, however, I have absolutely no problem in extolling the films many (many) virtues. Bogart is pretty great, even though my favorite role of his will forever be Angels with Dirty Faces: he won the Best Actor Oscar for the performance, which ended up being his only win. Hepburn is absolutely perfect as the starched-stiff Rosie, although her transformation into a moony-eyed, swooning schoolgirl seems rather an odd fit.

The cinematography, by DP Jack Cardiff, is astounding and immediately impressive: some of the shots here are pretty enough to frame. There’s a real sense of grandeur to some scenes, such as the first glimpses of the mighty German fortress and the massive Louisa, which makes Charlies African Queen look like a wooden rowboat. Cardiff really makes the African locations pop and the various shots of local wildlife (such as the eye-popping scene where dozens of sunning crocodiles slide into the river) really set the scene and help blur the line between what was filmed in-studio and what was shot on location. Production-wise, my one complaint would be with the musical score, which often struck me as both too whimsical and too intrusive. It reminded me a bit too much of the overly leading scores in modern films, scores which seem to want to control ever audience reaction/emotion.

More than anything, I’m glad that my re-evaluation of a classic film has led to new appreciation for said film. While The African Queen will never be my favorite John Huston or Humphrey Bogart film (or Katherine Hepburn movie, for that matter), I still found myself thoroughly entertained and swept up in the action. If you’ve never seen The African Queen before, do yourself a favor and get acquainted: if your heartbeat doesn’t race at least a few times, you may already be dead.