The African Queen, 1951 – Movie Review
Posted by LiveFor on April 20, 2010
Reviewed by pjowens75
THE AFRICAN QUEEN has just been released on DVD and BluRay. So why should we care? After all, it’s a 60 year old movie with a bunch of dead people, no special effects, no sex, and a very slim body count. Ah, that, my friends, is precisely why we should care. THE AFRICAN QUEEN is a movie from a different age; a beloved relic from a time gone by. And like most beloved relics, it should never be forgotten.
Let’s do forget, for a moment, that its leads were two of the biggest stars in the Hollywood firmament; or that its legendary director’s very first film was the “stuff dreams are made of”; or that it was one of the first films shot primarily in a foreign location. Let’s focus, for now, on the story itself.
Charlie Allnut and Rose Sayer are two people faced with an impossible task: take a tiny little river boat (the African Queen) down an un-navigable river, past a German fortress, through never traversed rapids, to a lake so they can single-handedly sink the largest German gunboat in the African interior. Those elements alone would make for an exciting movie, even one made today. It could even be done with a lot less trouble than was encountered by the original. It could be shot entirely in the studio with green screen to avoid all the hardship and disease that came with the African location shoot. Why, with some good CGI, even the African wildlife could be added without any problems. Throw in a love scene and some explosions, and in the hands of, say, a Roland Emerich or J.J. Abrams, it could easily become a summer blockbuster.
Let us all hope and pray that never happens. Because without the involvement of those people mentioned earlier, THE AFRICAN QUEEN just wouldn’t be the same film.
Adapted from C. S. Forester’s novel by James Agee and director John Huston, the choice was made to focus more on the relationship between the two main characters, thus lightening the dark brooding atmosphere of the book and turning it into (dare I say it?) a romance, albeit a romance like none other before or since. And in the hands of a director of less determination and stubbornness than Huston, it could have descended into a completely forgettable studio mess. Without him, and his desire to go big game hunting in Africa, it would not have been filmed in the Congo and Uganda. Without him it would not have starred Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.
The character Rose Sayer is a middle-aged spinster, a missionary left stranded in the heart of Africa, threatened by the encroaching Germans and abandoned by the death of her minister brother. Hepburn effortlessly exerts her claim as the greatest actress in movies by breathing life into a character who could have become stiff & hateful in a lesser’s hands. From the sad confusion in her eyes as she stoically sits on the porch sipping tea in the middle of her burned out village, to the tremble in her lip as she reacts to Charlie insultingly calling her an “old maid”, she’s not afraid to use every tool in her box to make us fall in love with Rosie. All it takes to capture our hearts is to see the unspoken exhilaration on her face the first time she experiences the thrill of running the rapids – a thrill that doesn’t fit into any of the strict Christian conventions or beliefs by which she has lived her entire life. It makes us truly believe her confusion over the growing feelings she has for her polar opposite, the dirty, drinking, Charlie Allnut.
Humphrey Bogart goes completely against his tough-guy image in this film. Chalk it up not only to his relationship with Huston, but in his own confidence and willingness to stretch himself as an actor. And he draws us in with an ease and comfort that no one but himself and Huston ever thought him capable of. We are just as uncomfortable as he is as his stomach grumbles through tea with Rose and her brother in a scene as fresh and funny today as it was almost 60 years ago. We feel his pain as he watches Rosie dump all his beloved gin over the side of the boat as he looks on, helpless to stop her due to a pounding hangover. And our hearts melt at the look on his face as he stokes the engine’s fire and silently wonders at the feelings he’s developing for the spinster at the till.
What makes all of this so much fun is chemistry. The best scripts on earth are empty on film without a chemical reaction among the characters and the actors…they’re just words on paper. And there is an undeniable chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn that spills off the screen and through Rosie and Charlie directly into the audience. That’s what makes us cheer for these two seemingly unappealing people as we watch them grow together. Add to this chemistry the element of a confident and masterful director, in John Huston, and what you end up with is magic.
And, sadly, it’s a kind of magic that may not even be possible the way movies are made today.
So, if you’ve never seen THE AFRICAN QUEEN, please watch it. And if you have seen it, please watch it again. Either way, show it to someone who hasn’t seen it, your children or some friends. Because it is a movie that should be savored and passed on; a cherished relic from a bygone age; a film that leaves us shaking our heads and saying “They just don’t make them like that anymore.”