Thursday, July 26, 2012

#32 - The African Queen

POSTER -  The central figures are straight off a Harlequin romance.  They must have posed on the first day of filming.  The rest of the poster is too busy and confusing.  Even if you've seen the movie, it's hard to tell what is being referred to.  If you haven't seen it, you would assume the movie is about a shipwreck.  Grade =  D

BACK-STORY:   “The African Queen” had one of the most famous productions in cinema history.  Director John Huston insisted on filming half the movie on location in Uganda and the Congo.  The production was beset by climate, critters, and diseases.  Virtually the entire cast and crew suffered from ill health (ex. dysentery) with the notable exceptions of Huston and Humphrey Bogart who inoculated themselves with copious amounts of alcohol.  The teetotaler Katharine Hepburn later wrote of enjoying the experience, but had to overcome dysentery, drunken pranks from Bogart and Huston, and Huston’s unique directing style.  (Clint Eastwood later made a film about the production entitled “White Hunter Black Heart”.)  The movie was a big hit with audiences and critics.  It turned out the suits that felt an action / romance about an older couple would be icky were wrong.  Bogart won his only Oscar and the film was nominated for Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress.  In the most recent AFI ranking of the best movies it placed #65.
OPENING:   The movie is set in German East Africa in 1914.  Missionary Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his sister Rose (Hepburn) are conducting a mass for villagers when a rickety old boat captained by Charlie Allnut (Bogart) arrives.  The subsequent tea with the straitlaced Sayers is made more awkward by Allnut’s growling stomach.  Charlie informs them the war is on which they don’t seem concerned about until the Germans almost immediately arrive and conscript the villagers, burn the village, and beat up Samuel who suffers a nervous breakdown and dies soon after.  When Charlie returns he helps bury the missionary and puts Rose aboard.
SUMMARY:  It doesn’t take long for the feisty Rose to make the ridiculous suggestion they go down the river to the lake to attack the German warship Louisa.  Off the top of her head she comes up with a plan to turn the African Queen into a torpedo delivery system.  (Apparently even missionaries day dream during their brother's sermons.)  Charlie grudgingly gives in to her stronger personality and they start on their adventure.  He figures she will see reason when they run the first set of rapids, but they only exhilarate her.  Charlie reacts by getting drunk, but awakens to Rosie pouring out his entire stash (see the clip below) and reminding him that he promised her to give the mission a shot.  The silent treatment wears him down quickly and he cleans up his act.  A little too pat, but it’s a movie.
ladies, do you look at your man like this?  you should
                The next problem is passing by a German fort that frowns on the river.  They survive gunfire with minor damage to the boat.  (Later, the audience must survive Bogart mugging at various animals.  Comic relief from Bogie!)  Next are bigger rapids which results in an awkward kiss that when paired with the moony eyes (see above) and the schmaltzy music reminds us we are watching a 1950s movie.  Soon after Rose is butt naked and doing the nasty with Charlie (or at least that is what I was imagining during the fade).  They come out of the fade fully in love (see poster).
                Here comes a waterfall that for some reason riverboatman Charlie was not aware of.  The boat propeller and shaft are damaged.  There is a great conversation where they calmly discuss repairing the boat.  They are now partners.  They work together to do the repairs.  For a missionary's sister, Rose is very game.  She's like Ripley's grandma.
soon after the woman started steering, the boat crashed
                Pressing on, Charlie has to literally pull the boat through a marsh.  A leech-infested marsh!  Ewwww, says the audience.  Tragically, the movie ends with them running aground unable to move forward or backward.  Unless a sudden rainstorm raises the water level they will die in each other’s arms and become crocodile food.  Is that thunder?
                Hiding in the reeds they spot the Louisa and move on to the plan implementation stage.  They make the torpedoes out of oxygen cylinders.  It turns out Charlie has a green thumb for homemade ship killers.  They fix the boat so when it rams the Louisa it will take both ships down.  Piece of suicidal cake.
CLOSING:  Their night kamikaze mission is literally overturned by another storm and Rosie is drowned (or so the idiots in the audience are led to believe).  Charlie is captured and interrogated by the Germans on the Louisa.  Since he does not care to live now that Rosie is dead, he cops to everything and is sentenced to be hanged.  Rosie is then fished out and she defiantly corroborates the story.  Their last request is for the Captain to marry them (with the nooses in the background).  As they say “I do”, so does the African Queen as it resurfaces in the path of the Louisa.  The ships kiss too.  It’s explosive!  Charlie and Rosie go swimming off into wedded bliss (hopefully with no crocodiles involved).
Acting -  A
Action -  6/10
Accuracy -  N/A
Realism -  B
Plot -  A
Overall -  A-

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?   I would think so.  It’s not a testosterone fueled war movie.  It’s more of a romance with adventure thrown in.  The leads are amazing and the chemistry is great.  There is certainly nothing to turn anyone’s stomach.  (I did mention that Hepburn does not get naked, right?)  I must have been an almost perfect date movie for the 1950s.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The film is not based on a true story.  There is a small seed that might have grown into C.S. Forester’s novel.  The Germans had a warship named the Graf Von Gotzen that dominated Lake Tanganyika until pressure from the British caused them to scuttle it.
                In comparing the movie to the book, it appears the plot of the movie improved on the book.  I have not read the book, but a summary of its contents finds that the film sticks close to the book.   The few changes enhance the story.  For instance, in the novel the Germans do not beat Rose’s brother so she has less reason for vengeance.  The ending is vastly improved.  Forester’s conclusion is weak and would definitely not have been crowd-pleasing.
CRITIQUE:  This is old fashioned entertainment.  It’s an almost perfect blend of adventure and romance.  There is suspense in each of the travails they go through and it builds to a surprising and satisfying ending.  Although a little stodgy, the plot holds up better than some other supposed classics.  The acting by the two leads could not be better.  This is probably Bogart’s best performance and Hepburn matches him.  In her book about the making of the movie, Hepburn tells that Huston felt that she was playing Rose as too serious.  He suggested she channel Eleanor Roosevelt and adopt her hopeful smile.  She admitted this was the best acting advice she ever got (and from a man she thought at the time was off his rocker).  Bogart and Hepburn appear to be having a lot of fun with their roles (although Bogart hated the comfortless African locales and couldn’t wait to get home).
                The plot has some refreshing unorthodoxy to it.  Rose and Charlie may have a disagreement about the wisdom of the mission at the beginning, but they are not at each other’s throats like in most romances of that (and this) era.  The opposites attract angle is there, but it’s not overemphasized.  The arc of the romance is a bit simplistic and speeded up, but it’s not mushy.  However, it does fit comfortably into the "shared hardships bring people together” school.  Making Rose the more dominant personality is a nice touch, but it is diluted a bit by the obvious Bible defeats booze theme.   The success of the mission, while predictable, takes some interesting turns that could not have been anticipated.  The theme of the movie is where there’s a will there’s a way.  Throw in a little "God helps them that help themselves".   
                The cinematography is not mesmerizing.  It’s adequate and some credit must go to the difficult conditions much of the movie was shot in.  The film does have more flora and fauna than your typical Tarzan movie.  You will see hippos, apes, elephants, crocodiles, giraffes, lions, and antelopes.  And, of course, leeches.  Surprisingly, there are no problems with animals (even when Charlie taunts them).  Charlie does not have to wrestle a crocodile.  They catch hell from the leeches and mosquitoes.  The scenery is beautiful, making the decision to shoot in Africa a wise one.  The one flaw is the pompous score.  It really is intrusive at times.  Give us a break, we know how to feel!
CONCLUSION:  While undoubtedly a classic, “The African Queen” does not sit comfortably at #32.  This is mainly because I am not sure it is a war movie.  Two of my three main sources (Video Hound and Freitas) do not have it.  I know it fits even my definition of a war movie, but there is just something about it that does not make me see it as a war movie.  By contrast, I would compare it to "Casablanca" .  While “Casablanca” has no warlike action like the sinking of a warship, it feels much more like a war movie.  To tell the truth, neither movie is solidly in the genre.  What’s puzzling is that Military History magazine determined both to be war movies and then put “Casablanca” at #65 and “The African Queen” at #32.  This is perplexing because not only is “Casablanca” more of a war movie, but it is clearly the better movie.  It is #3 on AFI’s latest list of the Top 100 of all time.  And if you are defining "greatest" as synonymous with "important", "Casablanca" would have to come before "Queen".  So once again, what was Military History thinking?

the trailer

TRAILER -  Definitely old school.  Does a good job on the relationship, but you get no idea of the mission to sink the Louisa.  You also get a taste of the score.  B+

Bogart acting (?) drunk


  1. Another case of critics stretching the definition of a war movie to include what they wanted. And "Casablanca" does somehow seem more of a war movie than "The African Queen," although neither is "solidly in the genre." Maybe it's because "African Queen" emphasizes adventure and romance more, and the Germans appear in relatively few scenes. It was even unofficially remade as a Western, "Rooster Cogburn," with outlaws instead of Germans, proving that the war was not central to the plot. In "Casablanca," the Nazis are a menacing presence throughout the movie, and a lot of scenes involve the good guys trying to outwit them or escape from them. It would be hard to remake it as a Western. BTW, that poster does look like "Titanic" or "A Night to Remember."

  2. the war movie buffJuly 27, 2012 at 9:34 PM

    Excellent points. I have to say that in my trek through Military History magazine's greatest 100, there are several movies that are even less war movies than "The African Queen".

  3. I don't really see it as a war movie but as a movie with a war theme. I also think Casablanca is superior but I enjoyed African Queen much more than I though I would and even got Katherine Hepburn's memoir about the filming which is said to be very interesting. I wouldn't even call the movie a romance, it's s crewwball comedy which is soethign a bit different in my opinion. As a couple they don't really work, do they? that's often the case in screw ball comdies while the couples seem to have more chemistry in romances.
    It's a weird list, that's for sure.

  4. the war movie buffJuly 28, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    I've seen a lot of screwball comedies and I'm not sure I would put it in that subgenre. I really did not find much comedy in it. There is some comic relief. I am more comfortable with it as an action/romance. I actually thought the romance worked okay other than the time frame being too short.

  5. I view it as a romance, admittedly a strange one, set in wartime. While I liked the movie when I saw it a few years ago, I agree that Military History's decision to rank it higher than Casablanca is simply weird.

  6. Wartime romance is an appropriate subgenre, but most of those do not have the action this movie has.

  7. Showed it to my ten year old son a few years ago and he loved it. He really got that it was an adventure romance. The war theme is a conduit for the adventure. I think he also liked that Bogart was playing a Canadian (created a sense of identification for him). As for myself, I have been a fan of Forester's for about 35 years now and it took forever to get around to reading this one. You are right, the film is a definite improvement on the book.

  8. I am a strong believer that movies should be better than the books they are based on.

  9. I didn't read your review word for word, but what I read, I liked. Thank you.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.