The African Queen (1951)

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And you call yourself a Christian! Do you hear me? Don’t ya? Don’t ya? Huh? What ya being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once and a while, it’s only human nature. ~ Charlie
Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ Rose

Sometimes when great talent comes together we see the result and question where it all went wrong.  Sometimes it just works pure and simple. The African Queen is such a picture and it’s true that the greatest films function on multiple levels finding ways to exceed our expectations, enrapturing us with storylines and developments that are a far cry from what we first considered. Far from not disappointing, they join the pantheon of classics we would gladly watch over and over again. That is probably the highest praise you can give a picture and The African Queen is such a film.

It’s christened The African Queen because she is the vessel that Charlie Allnut calls his own and she is the very vehicle for this entire adventure. Emblematic of their own grit, ingenuity, and indestructibility. Because the narrative begins with missionaries and the hint of colonialism as Rosie (Katharine Hepburn) and her Reverend brother look to bring the Gospel to the peoples of the Congo.

But due to the outbreak of World War I, Africa too is thrown into the fray as the Germans look to overrun the countryside and sweep it into their clutches. Rosie’s whole peaceful existence of Sunday services and afternoon tea are brutally disrupted. The village is burned, her brother’s physical and mental well-being suffers, and in the end, she has no recourse but to leave her little slice of home behind.

Ironically, her savior is the uncouth, uneducated Mr. Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a jack of all trades who formerly worked at a mine before it was commandeered by the Germans. He too is an inbetweener in this war, caught on the fringes and simply trying to survive. It’s in these very circumstances that these two diverging personalities are thrown together. And in an act of defiance and pure survival tactics, they do rise above their present circumstances.

Aside from mere plot points, the very fact that the film was shot prominently on location like John Huston’s previous classic Treasure of Siera Madre benefits the film greatly because there’s an authenticity to the entire undertaking that could never be fabricated. You see the waters and the jungles. You’re almost suffocated by the sheer humidity and apprehensiveness of every successive rapid they must ford because this feels like more than a movie. The dividing line between fact and fiction in many ways feels paper thin.

Huston had some wonderful black and white films including The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and Sierra Madre but it seems rather fortuitous that The African Queen was made in color given the pedigree of cinematographer Jack Cardiff on such earlier vibrant classics as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He brings a certain colorful exoticism to the frames that feels foreign to the eyes and yet still strangely beautiful. It all works so exquisitely.

Likewise, this is not simply a script penned by film critic, author extraordinaire James Agee with direction by Huston and the talents of legendary screen icons like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Yes, those are the separate entities that are joined together in this endeavor but they become far more than the sum of their parts.

Agee’s script which Huston also got partial credit for sings with life because of the two individuals it draws up and the world it dares to place them in. Rosie Sayer is a prim and proper missionary in Africa who nevertheless has a fearless streak brought to life so spiritedly by Hepburn as only she could play it. There’s a wonderful stubbornness that’s undeniable but remove the layers and you have the same giddy passion that crept into some of her earlier screwball performances. Mr. Charlie Allnut, as such, is perhaps the most lovable Humphrey Bogart has ever been. Allnut is content just getting by and surviving and he’s good at it — trying to find little bits of comfort in this world medicating himself when gin and a nice cigar every now and again.

But while he pushes Ms. Sayer’s to be practical and lose some of her stuffier tendencies, she, in turn, prods him to step out and do something worthwhile with his life. And it’s not simply about their romance which begins as a small feud, becomes a friendship, and evolves into a frenzied relationship full of affection. Their romance is being forged as they hang onto the faint objective of driving The African Queen into the ominous German gunboat the Louisa. It feels like a small battleground amidst the chaos of World War I but it all depends on your perspective because for Rosie and Charlie this is really is the very pinnacle of their existence. It involves their very will to survive.

They cling to this purpose and the joy of their adventure is the very fact that they are able to see it to the end, in the name of their country but also for their own vindication. And the telling aspect is that they both have been transformed by their experience. They are not so much forged by fire as the jungles that engulf them and the wildlife, foes, and raging falls that all look to be their undoing. And yet this unlikely pair, these polar opposites, prove to be the most formidable allies you could draw together.

The African Queen also has its own forays into spirituality and although they do not remain front and center for the entire film, there is a certain import to them. In a particularly formative scene, Mr. Allnut calls into question the other’s Christian faith which seems at the very least unfeeling if not hypocritical. But you could say the main conflict of this film is voiced by Charlie. It’s human nature.

Charlie has grown passive towards it while Ms. Sayers affirms that humanity is meant to “rise above” and this statement can be taken spiritually or maybe even with a tinge of imperialism (as man must tame the vast wastelands of his environment and such).

But there could also be a more universal ring in her words, suggesting that humanity must rise above every trial and tribulation whether personal, environmental, or social. Any number of these interpretations have stock. The question to ask is where does that will come from? It seems ludicrous to say it comes from within, closer still to say it comes from others, and maybe there’s still something broader going on in the background. No matter your opinion on such matters, The African Queen is still without question, one of the grandest, most rewarding romantic adventures hewn out of 1950s Hollywood.

5/5 Stars

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