The African Queen
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
In East Africa, near the start of the First World War, a British spinster, Rose (Katherine Hepburn), and her missionary brother tend to the local tribesmen. When war breaks out, the Germans ransack the mission, and conscript the natives into service, while Rose’s brother is assaulted and later dies of malaria. Rose is rescued by a rough and tumble Canadian boat captain, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), and Rose convinces the reluctant and pragmatic skipper to help her bomb a German destroyer using an improvised torpedo. In order to get to the German ship, the two will first have to navigate the treacherous river on Charlie’s rickety boat, The African Queen. Initially, Rose is put off by Charlie’s coarse behavior, but soon, the two find themselves falling in love, all the while getting closer and closer to their ultimate, deadly objective.
IS IT A GOOD MOVIE?
Being a huge Humphrey Bogart (not to mention John Huston) fan, THE AFRICAN QUEEN’s always been one of my favorite older films. Paired with the great Katherine Hepburn, Bogey was able to play against type in a fairly light-hearted adventure film, which was miles away from the more serious films he’d been doing for Warner Bros., during the forties, when his popularity was at its height. In that time, he appeared in many classics, including my all-time favorite film, CASABLANCA, yet most of his best films tended to be directed by Huston, with whom he worked on THE MALTESE FALCON, ACROSS THE PACIFIC, and the brilliant TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE.
Compared to their earlier films, THE AFRICAN QUEEN was a huge undertaking, as they took the crazy step of actually filming the movie on location, which was something that was exceedingly rare in the era. The film was a huge gamble, but it paid off big time, with Bogart his only Oscar for the film. What makes it so great is his incredible chemistry with Hepburn, which compares favorably to the way she worked with another screen great, Spencer Tracy. The two seem to be having fun onscreen, and the feeling is infectious. It’s also worth noting that the love/hate relationship between Charlie and Rose served as a blueprint for the Leia/Han relationship in STAR WARS, and Ford as Han Solo owes more than a little to Bogart (even my roommate thought Bogey’s ship, ‘The African Queen’ was an obvious precursor to the Millennium Falcon).
Almost sixty years after it’s initial release, THE AFRICAN QUEEN holds up beautifully (much better than some other classics of the era, like GONE WITH THE WIND). There’s really not a heck of a lot that dates the movie, with it having an intelligent script, and muscular direction by Huston. One of the things that makes this DVD/Blu-Ray release special is that this is the first time THE AFRICAN QUEEN has been released on DVD in North America, as a rights issue tied it up in legal red-tape for years, with bootlegs or the occasional television viewing being the only way to see this classic. Luckily, this disc was worth the wait.
There’s only one bonus feature here, the hour long documentary Embracing Chaos: The Making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Produced by Nicolas Meyer (STAR TREK II & VI), it documents the chaotic shoot, which quickly became a Hemingway-esque tale unto itself. During shooting, director Huston became obsessed with bagging an elephant, to the point that he had the shoot relocated the Belgian Congo due to a lack of hunting permits in Kenya. This episode ended up being so dramatic, that the film’s co-writer, Peter Viertel, later wrote a fictionalized account of his experiences on the set called WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART- which later became a Clint Eastwood film, with him playing the Huston-figure.
THE AFRICAN QUEEN is a no brainer purchase, not only for classic film buffs, but even anyone who just likes a good yarn. It’s a terrific film, and is a great introduction for the uninitiated into the careers of Bogart, Hepburn, and Huston, all of whom made films that not only equaled THE AFRICAN QUEEN, but even surpassed it. Buy it!