The African Queen
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn
I shall not mince words: I consider The African Queen a disappointment. It’s Katharine Hepburn. It’s Humphrey Bogart. It’s John Huston. It’s got quite a pedigree, and a definite reputation. It’s on a lot of Best Of lists. It’s one of those films that I had huge expectations for. A great classic film. I was excited about seeing it.
And then I saw it.
And had a huge attack of the “mehs.”
Rose “Rosie” Sayer (Hepburn) is a prim and proper reverend’s sister living and working in German East Africa in 1914, trying, with her brother, to bring Christianity to the locals. Charlie Allnut (Bogart) is a rough and tumble mechanic in the local mine who runs his boat, the African Queen, up and down the river carrying supplies. When World War I breaks out back in Europe and German soldiers destroy the local village, Rose’s brother dies leaving her with no other option than joining up with Allnut on his boat. She decides that Charlie is capable of both navigating a treacherous river and building torpedoes in order to destroy a German ship, The Louisa. As the two make their way together down the river, they encounter many different adventures, including the blossoming of love.
Look, The African Queen is hardly a bad film. I would never call it a bad film. But for how much I was anticipating finally getting a chance to see it and revel in its glory, it came up sorely lacking.
And I realize that right there, that issue of expectations versus realities, The African Queen was already set up for a bit of failure on my part. Having such huge expectations meant it would be quite a feat, living up to them. I’ve certainly had this experience before, of eager anticipation, only to be let down. My husband and I have had lengthy discussions about this (I will always remember that I somewhat enjoyed my time with The Scorpion King because I expected it to be utter crap, while he was disappointed because he thought it might be good).
To get back to the film, itself, however, it is, as I said, not a bad film. It’s a blend of adventure, comedy, and romance. Think Indiana Jones-light. But while I will usually be diverted by such a mixture of genres, it never quite gels for me in The African Queen. The adventure seems too superficial. We get our thrills from a quick episode where The African Queen runs down the rapids, or an all-too-short sequence when she drives past a German fort. The tension has barely had time to develop before it is resolved.
Undercutting the attempt at adventure is the comedy aspect of the film. A soundtrack full of cheery, happy boop boop de doo xylophone melodies does nothing whatsoever to convince you of the perils of our main characters. The comedy itself is fine, very gentle, very nice, very much based on the opposing personalities of the two main characters. We laugh at Rosie emptying the bottles of gin into the river and the pained expression it gives Charlie. It’s nice, it’s cute, it’s perfectly acceptable gentle family comedy. It just doesn’t gel with the other parts of the film for me.
The romance of The African Queen, the genre which it is best known for, is, once again, fine. What an awful word, “fine.” Practically an insult, really. Like the comedy, the romance is gentle and family-friendly, and despite that it is so clearly playing off of the polar opposite personalities of Rosie and Charlie, both characters still feel too nice and wholesome (yes, even gruff Charlie feels wholesome) to give their falling in love any kind of desperately needed edge. I don’t necessarily expect “edge” from a romance in a movie from 1951, but I think of some of the searing heat of film noir, and I wish there was just a dash of that here. The wooing of Charlie and Rosie does little to woo me.
Bogart and Hepburn turn in perfectly acceptable performances. Bogart won his only Oscar for his role as Charlie Allnut, and I’m alright with that. Do I think it’s the best Bogart performance I’ve seen? Not even close. (I’m thinking Treasure of the Sierra Madre and In a Lonely Place instead) But it’s more than just a “standard Bogart performance,” if you know what I mean. He doesn’t feel as if he is simply rehashing his standard film anti-hero in Charlie Allnut. Hepburn delivers everything I would expect from the character of Rosie: tough as nails and surprising you at certain turns despite her uptight demeanor. Hepburn was nominated for an Oscar for her role in this film, and although I am a fan of Katharine Hepburn, I will add that the Academy got it right (or at least, right-ish) in awarding Vivien Leigh for Streetcar Named Desire. While Hepburn’s performance is definitely good, I would stop short of calling it great.
My favorite part of The African Queen is the fact that it was, in fact, shot in Africa. From what I’ve read, the tales of the filming seem easily more exciting than the actual film itself. The perils of shooting in an exotic location like that – disease, contaminated water, etc. – were constantly an issue, and to keep themselves from getting ill, Bogart and Huston were apparently drunk most of the time. Better to drink alcohol than contaminated water, they thought. For her part, Hepburn protested their drunkenness by drinking only water and getting herself frightfully ill in the process, to the point where she needed a bucket constantly offscreen to vomit into between takes. But all the misadventures pay off in the shots of going downstream when it is clearly Bogart and Hepburn actually on a boat. It is so refreshing to see a film from 1951 use a minimum of back projection to convince us of foreign locales. There is some, true, but for the most part, that boat was actually on that river, and Bogie and Hepburn were actually on that boat. Cardiff’s cinematography takes advantage of the real location to produce some very nice images indeed.
It’s tough when I have every intention of loving a film and then… I don’t. I suppose it’s not really The African Queen’s fault. It’s a fine movie. I was just expecting something so much more.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10