Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dark Continent

Film: The African Queen
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass DVD player.

If you’re a huge fan of The African Queen, you’re not going to like some of the things I say about it. I don’t dislike this film, as a matter of fact, but I also don’t think it specifically worthy of all of the accolades it gets. It’s a fine film, a good little actioner and a grand adventure. What it isn’t, though, is much of the romance it bills itself as. It has some other problems, too. But I want to go on record as saying that this is a film that I do enjoy some. I just don’t think it’s anywhere near the pinnacle of Bogart, Hepburn, or John Huston.

The action starts with the beginnings of World War I in Central Africa, which was controlled by Germany at the time. This was of little importance to most of the people living there, including the Sayers. The Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) is a missionary working at converting the natives with his sister, Rose (Katherine Hepburn). Their only connection to the outside world comes in the form of Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a Canadian who works on the river on his ship, the eponymous African Queen. The Sayers are very British and very religious, always proper and filed with decorum while Allnut is coarse and crude. Nevertheless, he is tolerated because without him, the Sayers would lose all contact with the world outside.

Allnut tells the Sayers about the war, and shortly thereafter, the Germans show up in their village and set fire to it. This causes a complete mental break for Samuel Sayer, who completely dissociates himself from reality. It’s not actually stated, but I get the impression the loss of his flock gave him something like a stroke. Allnut returns, having lost his crew. Since Rose is now alone, he tells her he’ll do her best to get them out of the area safely.

After a short trip, Charlie pulls the boat off into a quiet area and parks it, telling her that they’ve got plenty of supplies, and that it’s out of the way enough that they can wait out the rest of the war in this spot. The reasons are several. First, the river they are on eventually empties out into a large lake currently controlled by the Germans, thanks to a ship called Louisa. Second, the way down the river is fraught with rapids and other perils, and Charlie is pretty convinced they can’t make it. Rose, however, is adamant that they should try, and that their real goal should not specifically be escape, but the destruction of the Louisa using cobbled torpedoes formed from oxygen canisters, explosives, and rigged detonators. Charlie thinks it’s a stupid plan, but decides to go along with it.

And off they go. The bulk of the film is their trip down the river, their quarrels over her prim nature and his love of gin, and their eventual romance that is sudden and complete. They go over rapids, she dumps all the gin, he survives a massive hangover, she lightens up, and eventually, they make it to the lake, battling insect swarms, ship damage, and leeches. And then, right on schedule, the Louisa shows up and we get a confrontation that leaves us with a Hollywood resolution, but not a real ending.

It’s the romance that’s my biggest objection here. It’s not that I can’t see a romance between Bogart and Hepburn, but that I genuinely can’t see a romance between these two characters, at least not as portrayed here. It seems like a function of the script rather than something that happens naturally in the course of the story being told. It isn’t that the two characters are completely opposite each other. I’ve seen enough films to know that in Hollywood at least, opposites attract, so I expect it. It’s that there’s virtually no emotion between the two of them until the romance actually happens. They needle each other a little, but they don’t seem much attracted to each other or especially annoyed with each other. Then, suddenly, it’s smoochy-time. It simply happens because it has to, because Rose and Charlie are the only two characters on screen for an hour or so.

As for the resolution, it’s a non-ending. I’m going to go ahead and spoil it here, because, well The African Queen has been around for better than 60 years. If you don’t want it spoiled, skip the rest of this paragraph. Also, because this is a film from 1951. If you think for a second that something really bad is going to happen to Charlie or Rose, or that they won’t end up together, or that they won’t contrive a way to sink the Louisa, well, you’re just not paying attention. The Queen sinks, torpedoes in place, and both Charlie and Rose are picked up by the Germans, who plan to hang them as spies. As a last request, Charlie asks the Louisa’s captain to marry them. Then the Louisa hits the Queen, whose bow is sitting just out of the water. Charlie and Rose jump overboard in the chaos and start swimming for the opposite shore. And that’s it—when the film ends, they’re still in the water with the survivors of the shipwreck still relatively close to them. We’re left to assume (I guess) that they make it to Kenya and home, but there’s a part of me that is entertained by the thought of them being trampled by hippos half an hour later.

There is a particular charm to The African Queen that makes up for some of the problems and deficiencies, but not all of them. I can live with the obvious rear-projection and even with the fact that our two principles call each other “Mr. Allnut” and “Miss” for a good chunk of the film. But the basic premise of their relationship is a plot necessity rather than a believable or natural result of their being thrown together, and on that level, The African Queen flatly fails.

Why to watch The African Queen: Do you need more than Bogart and Hepburn?
Why not to watch: I just don’t buy the romance.


  1. I've never seen "The African Queen" before. "Mr. Allnut," eh? Sounds vaguely pornographic (like "Peter O'Toole"), and reminds me of that "Nut up or shut up" line from "Zombieland."

  2. I saw this back in the 80s and my memory is that I also felt the romance seemed to come out of nowhere. Like you I was expecting it, but when it showed up it was almost like the two characters had decided they must be in love so they started saying they were in love.

    I was still entertained by the film, though. It has a favorite quote of mine: "I expect he'd like to be buried in the shade."

  3. There are some great lines from this, mostly from Bogart. I love the part where she tells him to build a torpedo, and comments that he says he can't only because he's never tried. His response of "Well, I've never tried shooting myself in the head, either." is pretty priceless.

  4. As a huge fan of Bogart and a pretty big fan of Hepburn, I went into this with pretty high expectations when I first saw it several years back, and I was actually rather disappointed. I know the romance didn't work for me, but I didn't really get into the rest of it that much, either. It's always been one of my go-to examples of a film I should love but don't. I might give it another try at some point, but I dunno - you're not really instilling a lot of hope that I'll appreciate it any more.

    1. I completely agree with the assessment that I should love this film and just don't love it. It has all of the ingredients of a film that should be one I point to as a great film of its era, but it rings so false so often that I just can't appreciate it for anything more than what it is--a fun adventure with a shoehorned romance.

      And, given that that was my opinion the first time I watched it years ago and that my opinion changed not a notch in any direction this time, my guess is you'll leave a rewatch thinking pretty much as you do now.

  5. ...and here I was feeling guilty for having problems with the romance.
    I think I liked The African Queen better than you and I can sort of gloss over all the silly parts because it is a fun and prety movi to watch, but those two characters making out in the boat... nah. It just annoyed me.

    1. It's an easy enough film to respect, but I just can't get around to actually liking it.