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Now that I've had a taste of it I don't wonder why you love boating.


The African Queen
(1951)

The film that bagged Humphrey Bogart his Oscar, and generally regard as an unqualified classic. I’m not sure its reputation is really justified, however. The African Queen coasts along happily enough under the star power of Bogart and Katherine Hepburn but the construction is so lightweight it would float away without them.

Nevertheless, John Huston received dual Oscar nominations (for directing and co-adapting C. S. Forester’s novel with James Agee). On neither front is it the director’s most memorable work. The story takes place at the beginning of WWI, and the opening section suggests a film with a bit more bite than transpires. Hepburn’s Rose and Robert Morley’s Samuel are British missionaries working in German East Africa. When German soldiers burn down their village, Samuel’s mind is afflicted and he dies. It’s interesting to see Huston taking in the bored villagers attending the missionaries’ church service, and Samuel’s preoccupation with a colleague who has climbed the Methodist career ladder more quickly than he.

But that wit soon absents itself; Rose is bundled aboard Charlie Allnut’s (Bogart’s) titular boat, ostensibly heading for safe harbour. But she hatches a hare-brained scheme to destroy a German gunboat, the Queen Louisa. To reach it downriver, they must negotiate treacherous waters. During which time romance inevitably blossoms.

As soon as Rose’s plan is revealed, it’s clear that this is going to be a fantasy romance set against an unlikely (for Hollywood) real location. The events of Forester’s novel are very loosely based on a true story, but the function of the attack on the Louisa in the film is purely to provide a trajectory for the narrative and a source of conflict between the odd couple; there is little weight given to the dramatic moments; even when rapids are surfed, the boat comes under fire or execution is imminent. There’s a knockout line at the climax, from the extremely dry Louisa captain (Peter Bull, who was most memorable as the Russian Ambassador in Dr. Strangelove), but mostly the dialogue lacks sparkle.

And, it has to be said, Rose and Charlie are much more interesting characters when they’re at loggerheads. Once they are canoodling the boat trip becomes almost insufferably sweet. There’s some enjoyment in seeing Hepburn essay Rose’s midlife sexual awakening, and Bogart slightly at a loss without the crutch of hardboiled cynicism to rely on, but it only stretches so far.

Huston meanders with the film as much as the featured river. Consequently, the jarring mismatches between the location filming in Uganda and the Congo (problematic and eventful, eventually inspiring Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart) and the studio work in England, replete with ropey rear projection (highlighted all the more by the choice to shoot in colour), distract the attention. It may seem like a shallow criticism (and it probably is), but it’s inevitable if the romance between Rose and Charlie fails to completely captivate you.

Although an atypical role for Bogey, this is far from the best of his six collaborations with Huston. Likeable but inconsequential, it says something that giving The African Queen only faint praise seems tantamount to slaughtering a sacred cow. I always laugh heartily at the clip of Charlie used in Road to Bali, however.

*** 

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