AFI Countdown Challenge #17: The African Queen

Collaboration is an important part of filmmaking, so it should come as no surprise that some people can be found  working together quite a bit, and not just on the AFI list.  There are such pairings as John Wayne and John Ford, composer Bernard Hermann with Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese with either Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio, or even more recent examples like Bill Murray with Wes Anderson and Samuel L. Jackson with Quentin Tarentino.  But here we are at The African Queen, the third pairing on the AFI list of actor Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston.  And, quite frankly, each of the three films were as different from each other as they could get.  There was the meditation on greed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the prototypical noir of The Maltese Falcon.  Bogart would finally get his Oscar for The African Queen, and it’s an adventure story onboard a rickety old boat with a strong romance at the center.

It also has Katherine Hepburn.  I’ve seen a lot of her as I’ve gone through this project, too.

Indeed, there is a romance at the center of The African Queen, and it may be one of the more mismatched ones I’ve seen so far in this project.  One the one hand there is uptight missionary Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and on the other is slovenly river boat captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart).  What do these two see in each other?  To be honest, I haven’t the slightest idea.  Rose at least seems to be lightening up and enjoying the adventure aspects of the trip, feeling excitement she’s never felt before, but why should that transfer to love for Charlie?  Or vice versa especially after she dumps all of his gin overboard after a bout of drunkenness?  Bogart may be one of the most unconventional romantic leads in film history, but his biggest known moment for that is still to come in the countdown, so I’ll cover that later.

Instead, we have two people who barely know each other chugging along in the title barge to try and blow up a German warship in a large lake in the middle of World War I, a distant conflict that Rose and her pastor brother are largely ignorant of when it starts and that Charlie only knows a little more about than the two of them.  The film is set in wartime, but the only confirmed death in the entire film is Rose’s brother, and he dies of a fever.  The German boat is destroyed, but it does seem as if most if not all of the crew managed to jump overboard before the ship completely sank.  Plus, it’s a lake, so they can all probably rather easily swim to shore.  All things being equal, it may be simple dumb luck that brings the Königin Luise down.

That may be par for the course of The African Queen.  The boat has to slip past a German fortress to get to the lake, and Rose and Charlie manage to do that without getting shot.  The Queen does break down, but the pair have the combined ingenuity to replace and repair the broken parts.  Rose proves something of a natural at the tiller, and neither could have succeeded on the mission without the other.  Heck, Charlie wouldn’t have even initially gone if Rose hadn’t prodded him into going.  Furthermore when it comes to luck, when the boat is stuck in a delta, Rose’s prayers are answered and a sudden rain washes the African Queen to freedom.  So, it may not be much of a surprise that while the two did not properly patch the holes in the Queen that they stuck their homemade torpedoes through, causing their boat to sink before it hit their target, it is dumb luck that the Germans hit the partially submerged African Queen anyway and sunk their own vessel.

No, for all that they are sailing through a hostile warzone, the dangers Charlie and Rose face are more from nature.  Leeches and mosquitoes are abundant, and sometimes jumping in the water to escape such things isn’t an option when the crocodiles are swimming around.  I may not find their relationship particularly convincing on some levels, but the two do need each other, something that each would probably not be overly likely to admit to prior to the trip.  Rose might have stayed by her burned down mission, not far from her brother’s grave, and the lackadaisical Charlie would have been left drifting through life with not much to his name.  Heck, it takes the two about half the film to finally ask each other what their full names are.

Adding to the fun may be the fact that roughly half of the film was shot on location in Uganda at a time when that just plain wasn’t done.  While other scenes, most notably any time either Bogart or Hepburn had to actually get in the water, were filmed in England, the cast and crew of The African Queen were there and, apparently, many of them got sick during the filming.  I do recall having an issue of Life magazine that showed Bogart having breakfast with wife Lauren Bacall in what looked like a cabana hut during filming.  I seem to recall it in part because Bacall looked like she’d just rolled out of bed and was still half asleep.  It seems Bogart later bragged that he and Huston were the only two who didn’t get sick because they brought whiskey with themselves to drink and avoided the local water source.  Hepburn, by contrast, had a bucket on hand while filming her first scene since she tended to throw up between takes.  Knowing that, she doesn’t look too good in that scene as it is.

The African Queen strikes me as something of an anomaly this high on the list.  It’s by no means a bad film.  It’s quite fun, and it’s on Netflix right now for the curious.  But it seems to be saying less about the human condition as so many of the films this high on the list do, nor is it a huge technical or thematic advancement worth noting, and is instead just a solid adventure with a romance at the center.  But maybe that’s all you really need when you have two leads this likable in a story that, while familiar, seems to be just different enough to catch the eye like a hippo swimming too close to a boat.

NEXT UP:  We head to 1950 to see the dangers of an ambitious fan in All About Eve.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: