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John Huston Blogathon: The African Queen

August 10, 2010
Continuing my series of  posts on  John  Huston,  the  3rd  in  the series,  takes  a look at  his movie, that is  pure  escapist  entertainment  at  it’s  best.  An  adventure yarn,  with a love story woven into it, The African Queen,  is  one of  those  movies we would  go to watch in theaters, just  for  our  2 hours of  entertainment. 
The  basic  plot outline of  The African  Queen  is  simple,  gruff,  rough looking boy  meets  a prim and proper girl,  clash of  characters, opposites  attract, love develops,  and add to the mix,  a couple of  wild adventures, exotic  settings and  nasty  Germans, voila  your  2+ hours of  entertainment is ready to be served.  And the biggest  stars of the day- Humphrey  Bogart  and Katherine  Hepburn,  together  make for  a heady mix. The  African Queen  was  more of  a Titanic  on the  African rivers,  but  where  James Cameron’s  magnum opus, got  drowned in a sea  of  sentimentality  so thick  you  could cut through it,  Huston’s  love story on the the other hand is  more sassy, more  crackling. 

 “Just listen to this stomach of mine. Way it sounds, you’d think I had a hyena inside me…Ain’t a thing I can do about it.

From  it’s  opening credits  shown  on  the  top of a  rain  forest, the camera  slowly  tracks down  the forest to a  small thatched  village  and  the location is shown  as  “German  East  Africa, September 1914”.   Huston  beautifully  sets  up  the  difference  in the  characters  of   Charlie  Allnut(  Humphrey  Bogart), the grubby,  river boat  captain,  and  the  prim  and proper  Methodist  missionary  Rose Thayer( Katherine Hepburn) and  her  brother  the equally  stuffy, stiff  lipped  Rev. Samuel Sayer( Robert  Morley).   Charlie  is  everything  that  Rose  and her brother  are not,  he boozes, smokes, swears,  and is  bereft  of  any  form of  social graces.  Something i  felt  was  missing  in Titanic,  for  all  his  lower class origins   Jack  seemed to be too erudite and refined,  but  then i guess  Cameron  did  not want to take a risk  with  Leo’s  lover boy  image.  In fact  the opening scene here  sets  off  what would be a staple element of  most  African themed  movies, the  rough and ready  white hero,  living  for  a long time there,  coarse,  and then  the  attraction  between him  and  the prim, proper,  city  miss, something  again i  found in Howard  Hawks  Hatari too, where  the  sophisticated  city  miss  Elsa  Martinelli   falls  for  the rough and ready, hunter  John  Wayne.

Things  take  a turn,  with the war  breaking out between  Germany  and England,  a  troop of  German officers  raid  the  African village,  raze  the huts,  take  the  natives  as  prisoners  and  the Reverend is brutally assaulted.  Charlie  had  earlier given  hints  of  the  incident to come,  being the more  worldly  wise person.  However  the  Rev’s  belief  that a  “good  shepherd doesn’t  desert  his  flock, when the  wolves are prowling”  make  him  stay  back.  Something  that  proves  fatal  for  him,  and leaves  Rose alone. Huston’s  own   value  system  as a  agnostic,  comes  through  here,  showing  that  mere  religious  faith  does not  really  work  in  times of  war. Charlie  feels  that  it  is better to  stay  out  in  the village, till the war is  done.  His  view  is  based on  what  he knows,  the  fact  that  they  have to encounter  dangerous  rapids, a  German  fortification  and  most  important of  all, a 100 ton  German  warship  called  the  Louisa.

 If we were to fill those cylinders with that blasting gelatine and then fix them so that they would stick out over the end of the boat, and then run the boat against the side of a ship, they would go off just like a torpedo, wouldn’t they?…We could, what do you call it, get a good head of steam up, and then point the launch toward a ship and just before she hits, we could dive off. Couldn’t we?

However  Rose  for  all  her  prim and proper  manner,  seems  to  be  one  resourceful, street  smart woman  when  confronted with a crisis.  Especially  the  part  where  she  suggests  to  Charlie  to  create  the torpedoes, that  could  be fired  at  the Germans.  I  guess  the  most  fascinating part of  African Queen, is  that  both Charlie  and Rose,  are  extremely  strong  characters, though  opposite  in  other  aspects.  Prim and proper  she  may  be, but  Rose is  no damsel  in distress, she is  a woman, with a mind of  her  own,  some  one  who is street  smart  and quick thinking. And  for  all  his  gruff,  appearance, Charlie is the more laid back  person, preferring to stay  away  from the  war, till  things cool down.   In fact  Charlie  feels  that  Rose’s  hair brained plan,  is  suicidal to the core.

Rose: How do you know? You’ve never tried it.
Charlie: I never tried shooting myself in the head, neither. The trouble with you, Miss, is, you, you don’t know anything about boats!

It  is  this   clash of  opposites,  that  provides  some  of  the  best  moments  of  The African Queen.  Huston  has  always  been  a master  at  characterization,  and  the  way  he  fleshes  out  the characters of  Rose  and Charlie   is  brilliant.  One  brilliant  scene,  is  the  time, when during  a rain storm,  Charlie  sleeps on the upper deck, while Rose  is  sleeping  under the cover  in the stern.  Charlie  trying to come in, Rose  taking it  as an attempt to get fresh,  then again  taking  pity  on Charlie.  Or  the part  where  Charlie has his drink, while Rose sips  daintily on her tea.   Huston  brings  out  the moments  between the lead pair, in a warm and endearing  way, without  wandering too much into Hallmark  territory.

 I’ve only known such excitement a few times before – a few times in my dear brother’s sermons when the spirit was really upon him.

Rose  however  loves  the  adventure,  the thrill  of  going  down the  white  river  rapids, fills her with excitement.  Somehow i feel  it  was also  her  repressed  feelings  coming into the fore. The thrill of the adventure,  the  freedom of the  open spaces,  provides  her  with a  kind of  liberty,  which  she  rarely  experienced  before.  To  me  Rose  would  be one of  the  finest  female  characters  ever created, a prim, proper  Missionary ,with a blithe, free  spirit,  seeking to  explore  the world.  It  is  clear that  she is the more  daring  person,  compared to  Charlie.   It is  not  that Charlie  is a coward,  he  is more  of a realist, having  experienced  enough.  Rose  on  the other  hand  is  the  wide eyed,  enthusiastic  women, experiencing her  first  flush  of  freedom, and  looking  to  enjoy  every  bit  of it, regardless  of the dangers. Charlie  by  now  is  exasperated  with  her,  and  in  a drunken  outburst,  rants at  her, when she calls him  a  liar and a coward. 

Ooooh! Coward yourself! You ain’t no lady. No, Miss. That’s what my poor old Mother would say to you, if my poor old Mother was to hear  you.

Also  i guess  Charlie’s  hatred  towards  Rose, is  the  fact  that  she is  in  control  of  the boat, he  considers  his  own  domain.  The  upstart  outsider,  who is now  dictating terms to him,  something  hard for  him to digest.  But  like  in  most  movies,  the  opposites   begin to love  each  other.  Charlie  feels  its  great  to have “a  lady  with  clean  habits on  board. It  sets  a good  example.”  The  sequence of  events  where  Charlie  tries  to  reform  himself,  and  Rose  responding  with stony  silence,  is  brilliant, with Rose  giving  out  the classic  clincher.  Nature, Mr. Allnut, is  what  we are put in this world to rise above.

For  adventure  movie  buffs,  The  African Queen,  contains  enough  scenes  to  satiate the  hunger. One of the best  being  the  one  where  the  boat  faces  an  attack  from the German  fortification,  Charlie  repairing  the hose  under  enemy  fire,  immediately  followed  by the best  pictured  scene in  the  movie, The  African Queen,  going  on a  perilous  journey  through  the rapids. And yeah  after  they  navigate  the rapids, both the leads,  embrace and kiss passionately,  either  out  of  love or sheer  relief,  on  making it  through.  The  following  romantic  scenes,  sizzle  with a  brilliant  chemistry  between  Bogart  and Hepburn, with an under current  of  sexual  tension  running  all  through. 

The  African Queen,  has  everything  a matinee  lover seeks-  romance, adventure, humour,  action and drama.  Huston  blends the  elements  in  the  perfect  proportion,  making sure  none of the elements  hog  the whole  space.   And  of  course   the  performances  from the two  leads  make it  what it is.  Humphrey Bogart  is  brilliant  in a role,  that  was  tailor  made  for  him, slipping into the role of  Charlie Allnut, with  relish  and gusto,  and  getting  a deserved  Best  Actor.  It  is  ironical  though  he  was not  even  nominated  for  The Treasure of  the Sierra  Madre,  by far  the  more  better  performance.  Katherine  Hepburn, ever the  aristocratic  lady, provides  the perfect  foil  to  Bogey’s  rough and ready  attitude,  imperious, aloof,  street smart, romantic  by  turn,  making for the perfect Rose. All in all, an evergreen  classic  that still retains it’s  appeal.

One Comment
  1. This one I haven't seen yet… As always very well written.. looking forward towards the rest of the articles in this series…. shall come back and read this again… on a quick break from work!

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