Friday, October 24, 2008

Repeat Viewing: The African Queen (1951, John Huston)

TSPDT placing: #305
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: C.S. Forester (novel), James Agee, John Huston (adaptation), Peter Viertel, John Collier (uncredited)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull

I can't imagine anybody not enjoying a thrilling romantic adventure like The African Queen (1951). Though it may not pack the emotional punch of The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) or Moby Dick (1956), this is nonetheless John Huston at his most entertaining, thanks largely to the impeccable chemistry between two of Hollywood's all-time most charismatic stars. In 1914, as the outbreak of WWI disturbs even the remote depths of wild Africa, Humphrey Bogart – grizzled, gruff and coarse – must form a tentative alliance with prim and proper British spinster Katharine Hepburn, if they are to triumph over the evil forces of Germany. With only the vague objective of somehow sinking the feared German warship, the Louisa, the two near-strangers strike out downriver in Bogart's small but resilient steam-powered supply boat, the African Queen. A continual bombardment of jungle obstacles, both natural and human, frequently threaten their survival, but the more prevailing question is whether or not the two polar-opposites will be able to survive each other!

John Huston's rousing adventure was largely filmed on location in Africa, though many of the white-water sequences were obviously shot before a rear-projection screen in London; fortunately, these optical effects are far less distracting on a cinema screen. It can often be problematic to build almost an entire film around just two characters, but Bogart and Hepburn are clearly up to the challenge, sharing a chemistry that is infectiously entertaining. Whether they're engaged in awkwardly-formal conversation, at each other's throats, or falling in love, every line of dialogue (from a screenplay by John Huston and James Agee) is an absolute delight, all the more so because we know that Charlie and Rose will eventually end up in each other's arms. At either end of the adventure, Robert Morley lends some pathos to the tale as Rose's humble missionary brother, who dies following a German raid; and Peter Bull, though perhaps too cartoonish to entirely fit the film's overall tone, adds some lighthearted humour as a temperamental enemy captain.

Just what is it about The African Queen that has made it such an enormous viewer favourite? I think that much of this has to do with Huston's predominantly lighthearted approach to the material – if you're not gripping your seat in excitement, then you're laughing at the interactions between the two leads. However, there's also a less-pronounced political commentary at play. Reverend Sayer's death might been viewed as symbolising the inevitable death of British Colonialism. That Bogart's roguish, hard-drinking North American (he's actually a Canadian) effectively conquers the prudishness of Hepburn's formal British spinster may likewise be taken to foreshadow the United States' rise as the world's most influential superpower. All politics aside, I find it amusing that just last week I attended a cinema screening of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), in which an intrepid team of soldiers venture into the darkness upriver. Just consider The African Queen as that film's polar opposite – for this time we're going downriver, and we're gonna have a rollicking good time.

Currently my #2 film of 1951:
1) Strangers On A Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The African Queen (John Huston)
3) The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick)
4) The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
5) The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton)
6) The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks)
7) An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli)


Mike said...

Ahh, you're finally back. I was wondering what happened. You seemed to stop for a while after Liberty Valance. Anyway back to the topic. While I didn't think much of the film itself, I certainly enjoyed it because of the two leads. Anyone else and the movie would have been a disaster.

Mike said...

Oops. I was talking about The African Queen, not Liberty Valance. I just realized I haven't made myself very clear