This was a movie I have been looking forward to see for some time. It is another famous movie that has somehow been able go under my radar until I started this project, but early on I figured this would be an interesting one to watch.
First, this is an adventure movie with strong elements of romantic comedy, a bit in the vein of Indiana Jones, and that certainly appeals to the boy in me. An adventurous ride in a small boat through the interior of Africa. Secondly this is a movie with two of my favorite actors, Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, and directed by John Huston, who I am getting more and more respect for. Finally, as if this was not enough, “The African Queen” was photographed by the king of Technicolor, Jack Cardiff, who blew me away with “Black Narcissus”. Really, what is there not to like about this film?
On most levels this movie actually did live up to the staggering expectations I had. Let me start with all the positives.
It is a beautiful movie. The colors are knife sharp, as only Technicolor could do it, but not the glaring exaggeration of early color films. No, here the colors were just right and amazingly this is done for something like half of the film on location in Africa under primitive conditions. There is wildlife and scenery, drama at the rapids and the tepid gloom in the reeds and the cinematography catches it all. There is also very little embellishment of Bogie and Katie’s appearance. They look their age and get grittier and grittier the further downstream they get. It screams Jack Cardiff all over and imagine that he claimed this was just ordinary photography with none of the blows and whistles of his other movies… If there was nothing else to the movie I could look at the pictures for hours on end.
But there is more to the movie than that. A lot more. There is an adventure, two people stranded in German East Africa (now Tanzania) at the outbreak of WWI who has to get through enemy lines to get to safety in Kenya and in the process battle the river, the weather, the wildlife, some Germans and not least themselves.
However, as Huston seemed to love doing, the adventure was just a pretext to place his characters in difficult situations and then watch them develop. I have mentioned before that he did great things with actors and this is exactly what happens here. Most of the movie is really just Katie and Bogie as the prim spinster Rose Sayer and the grimy boat captain Charlie Allnut acting out a relationship. They start out as stark opposites who are only together out of necessity, but develop into something else and because this movie is also a romantic comedy there is really no do doubt what that something else is, but it is interesting to see none the less. And that is largely thanks to John Huston.
Maybe for a modern audience the adventure part is a little too toned down, but that is actually what I like about these old movies that they take the time to let characters develop instead of rushing them from one danger to the next and frankly I cannot get enough of either of them (with a little “but”, but more on that later…).
Lately I have watched a lot of Katharine Hepburn. She had a theme going with Spencer Tracy where she would always play this headstrong modern woman against Tracy’s old school charm. In these movies we would always find that inside the iron lady there was a soft woman’s heart. In “The African Queen” we see another Hepburn, the middle-aged prim spinster who is coming out of her shell. Under the fragile Victorian exterior she has some real backbone and a fighter’s will if not common sense. In a sense the opposite development of the typical Hepburn character.
Bogart is almost always a tough guy. Gangster tough, detective tough, badass tough or just mad. In “The African queen” he is soft as a lamb, comfortable in his little boat with his steam engine and plenty of gin. He is the nay-sayer to all of Rosie’s wacky ideas and he is almost sheepish when he approach her. Almost, because this would not be Bogart if he did not rise to the challenge and got things done. It is a bit odd to see him like this, but also a demonstration of his true range. Bogie got himself an Oscar for this role (in front of Marlon Brando) and although he is good I think this is far from his strongest performance. That would have been in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” where he was robbed while “In a Lonely Place” Casablanca” and “High Sierra” could and maybe should have landed him an award as well. I cannot help thinking that he got it for “The African Queen” A) because it is a more sympathetic character in a beautiful film and B) as compensation for all the times he was robbed. Still I have nothing bad to say about his performance in the African Queen, he did his part very well. I just like his wild side better.
On the negative, because yes, not everything works here, there are a number of silly elements. Beside the absolutely ludicrous idea of sinking a German gunboat with a home-made torpedo there are all these silly small things. Charlie gets bitten by leeches on his chest and ankles, but only as far as Rosie can reach. There are no leeches under the trousers… The two of them spend a lot of time in the water although the actual water where they filmed was practically poisonous and they are just silly lucky at all the right places. In this type of film it is actually okay. Nobody claims this is realism, but at times it is almost tilting over. Secondly, and that is more serious, is the romance between Rosie and Charlie. I loved them when they fought. That was funny and exciting and there was so much energy in those scenes. Then they fall in love and after 10 minutes I get sick from hearing them calling each other Rosie dear and Charlie dear. I understand that they have to be clumsy and unaccustomed to their roles as lovers, but that part just does not work for me.
Yet, I cannot help thinking that it is a bit unworthy of me to crack down on such perceived faults in an otherwise excellent movie, but that is how it is when expectations are high. Also when a movie looks so fresh and modern as this one does I tend to forget that this is an old film and judge it instead by a modern standard. Honestly, this movie looks at least 10, maybe 20 years ahead of its time.
“The African Queen” is a good time in the cinema or a great afternoon in the sofa. Next time I will bring in the family to watch it. I think they will like it too.