In WWI East Africa, a gin-swilling Canadian riverboat captain is persuaded by a strait-laced English missionary to undertake a trip up a treacherous river and use his boat to attack a German... Read allIn WWI East Africa, a gin-swilling Canadian riverboat captain is persuaded by a strait-laced English missionary to undertake a trip up a treacherous river and use his boat to attack a German gunship.In WWI East Africa, a gin-swilling Canadian riverboat captain is persuaded by a strait-laced English missionary to undertake a trip up a treacherous river and use his boat to attack a German gunship.
It's all natural that the two main protagonists of "The African Queen" turn the titular boat into the unsung heroine of a military deed, whose success is as improbable as the very thought that a straight-laced Methodist missionary spinster would fall in love with a coarse, rudimentary and gin-soaked mailman, but not so when the romance serves as the very fuel of that mission, and when it's Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and John Huston on the lead: the miracle of "The African Queen", as movie and story, is the result of three immense talents confidently maneuvering in the same direction.
Film historian and critic Richard Schickel said about Hepburn that her secret appeal relied on the characters she usually played: "a woman on her high horse with slightly pretentious, often comically stated ideas about the world. It was for men to bring her down and get her to reveal herself as quite a good gal, sporty and democratic" generally, the task would fall to "slightly rough-necked and good-natured male" But for once, "The African Queen" provides an interesting twist to the usual formula, because it's Rose who gets Charlie on her horse. The effect is even greater because it forces Bogart to abandon his tough-guy facade, and (for once again) play a man who tries to please a woman.
Huston's "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" had already demonstrated a new range of versatility in Bogart's acting, but even as the anti-heroic Fred C. Dobbs, Bogart was exuding a threatening toughness; as Allnut, it's a new step on his career, as a more lovable kind of loser, in a performance that will earn him an Oscar for Best Actor (Hepburn, Huston and James Agee for the screenplay will also be nominated). The word 'loser' might sound too harsh, but it's still better than coward, which seems to fit Allnut's initial plan to avoid trouble and hide in a spot with enough supply of gin, waiting for that worldwide war (the first) to stop. Too bad for him, he's got Hepburn aboard, an iron-lady who followed her bother (Robert Morley) in German East Africa only to witness the efforts of a lifetime being burned down by the Kaiser's army, a fatal shock for the brother.
But Rose is stronger than her ill-fated brother and when she accepts to set off aboard "The African Queen", she's most determined to be part of the conflict, not in the victim's departments. And the glorious boat, becomes the unlikely arena of two one dominant and one dominated spirit in Allnut, treating Rose as a lady, until he finds out that she's not a passive and fear-stricken female observer. It's indeed Rose who suggests the idea of building a torpedo, out of oxygen cylinders and inflammable material, to destroy a German ship blocking the way to British ships from a lake downriver. Allnut argues that it's going to a certain death, they'll have to navigate along a German fort, to negotiate a few rapids, to get mired on mud across dense reeds, their chances of survival are mighty slim. An unflappable Rose then confronts Allnut to his own responsibilities as both a man, and a Canadian subject of the Union Jack brandished by the boat, and Allnut, not to lose face, accepts with reluctance.
But we know it's a matter of time before Rose drives Allnut all nut, he finally gives himself a little one-to-one gin-soaked party, driving enough anger to finally take his promise back, disappointing his distinguished and courageous host. He wakes up with one hell of a hangover and all his emptied bottles floating on the river; trying to make amends from his behavior, he explains that his drinking is only expression of human nature, to which he gets the greatest cinematic come-back ever "nature, Mr Allnut is what we're put in this world to rise above", and the line resonates as the film's motto. It's never about what we have at hands, but what we can build on it. Rosie ignites the fire of bravery in Allnut, and the exhilarating cross of the first obstacles lead to the victorious embrace, sealing the existence of a love that got from one heart to the other, through a taped adrenalin-filled boiler hose, and a few rows as tumultuous as the rapids.
This is not Hollywood corny romantic comedy; this is John Huston confronting two genuine characters one another, an inspirational believer and a practical technician, both combining their strengths for survival and accomplishment. Katharine Hepburn might play her usual 'strong woman' role but she's never mean-spirited. On the other hand, Bogie is clearly in love with his 'Rosie', he admires her and can see that she's changing him for the better, it's not just about forming a couple, but being a team, not just about being a team, but improving, for love and for duty, whether for sharing a tent during under a heavy storm, to fix a propeller underwater or to even accept that God is still the one who has the last word.
That's "The African Queen": thrilling, romantic, inspiring, starring the two stars, honored by the American Film Institute as the greatest screen legends, Bogart and Hepburn, in interactions full of comedy given the opposition of their personalities and a believable chemistry built on trust, incentive and partnership, this is not 'holding-hands' heroism à la "Titanic", each step is tackled with technical precision. Which makes the climactic duel with the Germans a bit less realistic by contrast but this is another aspect of Hollywood's immortal classics, sometimes; every single element has not to be taken seriously for a triumphal ending.
Indeed, when you have great actors, great writing and great director on the tiller, the story can surely navigate its way to legend.
- Oct 30, 2013