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Thursday, February 4, 2016

THE AFRICAN QUEEN -- Movie Review by Porfle

THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) is the story of two people you'll want to get  to know very much--Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut, a goodnaturedly uncouth little man who runs a tiny supply boat up and down the river in German East Africa in 1914, and Katharine Hepburn as Miss Rose Sayer, a Christian missionary who, along with her brother Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley), brings God's word to the natives until German soldiers burn down the church and village, kill her brother, and leave her all alone in the jungle.

Director John Huston deftly blends comedy with tragedy in the opening scenes.  Shortly before their horrific encounter with the German military, the Sayers invite Charlie to tea during a supply stop.  He hasn't eaten in awhile, so his stomach starts making the most impolite growling noises to which Rose and her brother react with growing dismay until finally Charlie explains brightly, "Ain't a thing I can do about it!" 

Charlie returns later to bury the brother and take Rose away in his boat, the "African Queen".  But her first thought is to somehow aid in her country's war effort by whatever means available.  Hearing of a German gunboat, the "Louisa", which is terrorizing the countryside from a large lake somewhere downriver, she hatches a scheme in which Charlie will devise a couple of torpedos out of compressed gas bottles, with which they will then ram the Louisa with the torpedos sticking out of the African Queen's bow. 

Humoring her for the time being--and not realizing that he has begun something he won't be able to back out of--he later mocks Miss Sayer's request in a grumbling approximation of her prim accent: "Can you make a torpedo?  Then do so, Mr. Allnut." 

This belly-laugh moment, courtesy of Bogart's irresistibly natural, likable performance as the ragtag river rat, is just the beginning of what will be a rip-roaring adventure, a tender romance, and a gut-busting comedy.  The independent production, filmed mostly on location in Africa in lush Technicolor, is one of John Huston's warmest and most heartfelt films.  This is due in large part to the chemistry between the two stars and Huston's ability as a master director to showcase them at their best.

Miss Rose Sayer is naturally brave and resourceful, which helps make up for her naivete' and inexperience with life in general.  She adapts quickly and becomes instantly addicted to the thrill of adventure as a substitute for sexual intimacy (her first excursion down the rapids leaves her as though she'd just had her first sexual release). 

Learning to handle Allnut's boat is symbolic of her growing familiarity with the man himself while he, in turn, finds himself suddenly yearning to bring out the inner woman behind the straight-laced exterior. 

Allnut is one of Bogart's funniest and most uninhibited characters--his emotional honesty and expressiveness are at their peak here.  Often a single look on his face will convey more thought and emotion than many actors can manage with an entire speech. 

Hepburn is ideally cast as the initially very proper, timid spinster who gradually lets her hair down (literally) and begins to appreciate the more sensual and even carnal aspects of life as her love for Charlie Allnut blossoms toward fruition.

Their journey down the river is a series of funny and romantic vignettes interspersed with moments of harrowing danger which are excitingly staged.  The rapids are a major obstacle, as are mosquitoes, leeches, and, in one suspenseful sequence, German bullets.  Through it all, Rose's indefatigable attitude brings out the best in Charlie, and together they give each other something to live for even when things are at their worst.

Huston's technical skills are dazzling throughout the film.  The location photography is not only stunning but often amazing as well, as when we see a number of large alligators diving off the bank into the water right after Bogart has moved out of the frame--all in a single shot.   The process shots are as well integrated into the action as possible for the time and, for me at least, proved little distraction.  Allan Gray's musical score is another of the film's many pleasures. 

The story reaches its triumphant conclusion aboard the German gunboat, where our unlikely hero and heroine reach the end of their journey in fine style.  Like SHANE, which is tied with KING KONG (1933) as my favorite movie of all time, there are scenes throughout THE AFRICAN QUEEN which bring me to the verge of tears.   Not because these scenes are particularly sad, or particularly happy, but simply because they're quite disarmingly beautiful. 

Read our review of the BEST OF BOGART COLLECTION



blackwalnut2001 said...

You've tackled two of my top faves this week, Porfle. This one and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Hope the reviews are read by a new audience who might not have seen them, and are inspired to seek them out. This one is truly a masterpiece, and should never fall into the memory hole. Your last line resonates with me. It isn't too often you feel emotionally moved by the sheer beauty of a film, quite aside from any sentimental aspects. And kudos for pointing out the erotic elements in Kate's reaction to the thrill of adventure. Boy do they all pull it off, and under extreme conditions, too. I recommend Kate's book about the adventure of making the film, as well as Clint Eastwood's White Hunter, Black Heart for a double feature. That one is underrated, as far as I'm concerned. Thanks for the review!

Porfle Popnecker said...

Thanks for the nice comments! I'm glad you noticed and appreciated those things about the film too. I haven't read Hepburn's book or seen the Eastwood film yet but I'll put them on my to-do list.