Saturday, September 6, 2014

The African Queen: A World War I Romantic Comedy



THE AFRICAN QUEEN

While The African Queen involves World War I, the war really is secondary to the main plot: that of two complete opposites falling in love.  There certainly is a "Hun" menace (and one or two moments that do not shrink from showing German brutality) but for the most part The African Queen is a love story, and a very funny one at that.  It also brings two of the great stars (the Number 1 male and female stars according to the American Film Institute) in their only collaboration, making it a showcase of the acting prowess of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

It is German East Africa, September 1914.  Missionaries Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother Samuel (Robert Morley) are reaching out to the East Africans, who look rather disinterested in what these two stiff and formal white people are doing and more interested by their occasional visitor.  That would be Charlie Allnut (Bogart), the coarse riverboat captain who delivers supplies and mail but whom the Sayers tolerate.  Things, however, take a quickly ugly turn when war between Germany and Great Britain is declared.  The Germans take the village, burning it to the ground and spiriting away the residents.  Brother gets a beating physical and emotional, and the shock quickly kills him.

Mr. Allnut comes to this sorry sight: a burned village, a dead man, and a woman in shock.  He quickly suggests that they flee to safety and basically hide out until this is all over.  Rose, after hearing that there is a German gunboat nearby, suggests they attack it with Allnut's ship, the African Queen.  Allnut is shocked by this idea: it means going past Germans and dangerous waters, but she will not be denied.  With that, it's off down the river, where they not only face Germans and their African allies but leeches, alligators, hippos, and eventually fall in love.  In the end, they are captured separately, and after the briefest (and slightly comic) wedding at sea, the African Queen does her duty for King and Country.


There is something delightful in seeing two great actors play to and against type.  You have Hepburn's rather haughty patrician and Bogart's rough-and-tumble Canuck, and while you don't really question why Hepburn's Rose has little to no British accent it is her imperious nature in the beginning that marks her out as a loyal servant of the Crown.  However, as the journey down the river continues, we see that both slowly soften to each other, and John Huston has this in a very subtle way.  As the journey continues, we see how much in love they are when she slowly goes from "Mr. Allnut" to asking his name, then calling him "Charlie", and he too goes from "Miss" to "Rose". 

Everyone aboard The African Queen (pun intended) knows that this is a romantic comedy, but is smart enough to not overplay it.  After surviving a fierce set of rapids, the spinster Rose tells Charlie, "I never dreamed that a mere physical experience could be so stimulating", with a perfectly straight (albeit enthusiastic) face.  If one doesn't get the double entendre of Huston and James Agee's screenplay, one isn't listening.  This is primarily a two-person show, and Hepburn and Bogart manage to hold our attention because they are simply that good.  They compliment each other with their styles to where they become real-life people in this odd circumstances, and as they start to fall in love with each other, we start to fall in love with them.

Subtlety is a key here.  After they kiss, the screen fades to black, and while nothing overt is shown, one can only imagine that Rose found more physical experiences to be equally stimulating.

The greatness of The African Queen is that it is less a film about war than about romance between the two most unlikely of people, and people who are not 'sex symbols', but people who are going on in years but still have a lot of life in them.  This isn't to say that the war is not important: it is patriotism (along with a chance to avenge her brother) that motivates Rose's actions (and sets the plot moving).  It is interesting that The African Queen, albeit briefly, did not shrink from making the Germans in the beginning rather brutal (burning down the village and taking the villagers away, perhaps never to be seen again).  However, by the end, when first Charlie then Rose are being questioned, the Germans appear more comical and goofy.  "I now pronounce you man and wife.  Proceed with the execution", the Captain says after marrying Charlie and Rose. 

There's something to be said for German efficiency.

Alan Gray's score suggests that this is a light, comic film, one where we get adventure but more importantly, romance, where the determination to strike at the enemy isn't as important as finding these two wildly different people find themselves in each other's arms.  This being a comedy, it was important that they succeed in their mission, even if it took longer and a different route than they expected. 

The African Queen is rightly described as a classic.  Why?  It has two brilliant performances, beautiful imagery (when location shooting, especially in a rather inhospitable place like Uganda and the Congo was rare), a solid script where the story flows naturally.  However, what really sets The African Queen apart from other films of the time and time-frame is that it isn't afraid to be funny, to present characters who at times can be terribly unlikable, but whose flaws go along with their virtues. 

War was never so amusing.




DECISION: A+



Wrong African Queen, Whoopi...


23 comments:

  1. You captured the charm of "The African Queen" beautifully. It's a movie that ages gracefully.

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    1. Thank you very much. Some movies can truly be called 'timeless', and this is one of them.

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  2. This is one of those films I grew up with--it fascinated me as a kid (hippos! Leeches!) and it's still a favorite of mine today. I'm happy you chose it to be a part of our blogathon, Rick--thanks!

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    1. Thank you for the privilege of participating. It was a great experience and I hope to do more in the future.

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  3. Great idea to write about this movie, and you did it well. I liked "There's something to be said for German efficiency." Lauren Bacall's memoirs have some great stories about the expedition to Africa when they shot the movie. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

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    1. No, thank you. That scene at the German boat always makes me laugh. My favorite story is that of how Hepburn got sick for drinking the water after refusing Bogart & Huston's beer, but they never got sick BECAUSE they were boozing it up.

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  4. Thank you for joining in! This has long been one of my favorite movies and you hit the nail right on the head. No one overplays their hand. Not the actors, not the director.

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    1. Thank you. That's the most important thing in film, especially in comedies. Actors must be 'broad', otherwise they make the characters (and themselves) look foolish, and the director has to rein them in or guide them to be more comic. W/Huston, Hepburn, and Bogart, the film was in safe hands.

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  5. Wonderful movie and I enjoyed your review. My 18 year old son recently watched it with me, his first time to see it, and he enjoyed it a lot. Yesterday, my twin 14 year old daughters and I watched How to Marry a Millionaire and I caught a funny bit of dialogue uttered by Bacall. She's trying to convince a wealthy William Powell that she loves older men, just crazy about them, "including that skinny guy from The African Queen!"

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    1. Thank you. It's always great to see young people discover the real great films.
      I saw How to Marry a Millionaire a few years ago but don't remember that line. That must have been a great in-joke the audiences then would have laughed at.

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  6. You know, I enjoy this film so much that I forget it's actually a WWI film. I just bought my own copy of it a few weeks ago and – believe it or not – I haven't watched my new copy yet! Well, your review has prompted me to drop everything to watch it. Thanks for a terrific review of this beloved film.

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    1. Thank you, and I hope you unwrap African Queen and enjoy it again and again. And don't worry: I have a few DVDs still in their wrapper too (just don't tell anyone).

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  7. great read, definitely the romance element between unlikely older people is what helps the film age so well, as there are things I simply couldn't appreciate about it when I was younger, that I see and like now.

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    1. It's always great to see films again and find new things to love and/or appreciate. It's too bad a lot of today's films think only those between 20-40 have 'romances', but at least w/African Queen, we get two of the best actors in two of their best performances. Glad you enjoyed it.

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  8. The African Queen was the movie that made me a Bogart, while it is not my favorite (that would be The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), it is one of his best.

    -James

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    1. My favorite Bogart is still Casablanca, along w/Maltese Falcon, but you're right: Treasure of the Sierra Madre is also one of his greatest. African Queen is great because we see a kinder, gentler, funnier Bogart.

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    2. I figured as much. Then again, I haven't met anyone who isn't a Bogart fan (since there's only one Bogart).

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  9. Thank you to everyone who has read and commented. I apologize for responding so late. This week has been unusually brutal school-wise. However, all the comments and positive remarks are highly appreciated, more than you'll know.

    I enjoyed both the movie and blogathon, and hope people enjoyed my contribution too. More important: WATCH THIS MOVIE!

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  10. Yet the adventure is the highlight, we can't deny this is a romantic comedy, and a very unusual one: screwball in the jungle? People who are 40+ flirting? I think the public was amazed at the time, but also delighted.
    There are two things of this movie I won't forget: the scene with the leeches and the fact that the German ship was called Louisa...
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Greetings!
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/09/a-epopeia-do-jazz-alexanders-ragtime.html

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  11. Excellent take on an excellent movie. And ya gotta love that poster which gives the producer credit to S.P. Eagle (was that a pseudonym for Sam Spiegel?).

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    1. The more I see it, the more I love it. And thanks for pointing out the credits. I hadn't even thought of it till you mentioned it.

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Thank you.