By John H. Foote
John Huston was a great film director, among the giants in the film history, an excellent screen writer, a lover of literature and poetry, friend to Hemingway and an adventurer who sought to do what other men had never done. He also proved to be a very good actor later in life, superb as the villain in Chinatown (1974), evil incarnate.
Through the thirties he made a reputation as a strong screen writer, finally getting the chance to direct The Maltese Falcon (1941) which was not only a sensation, announcing Huston as a major new talent, but launched the genre of film noir on film. Each new Huston work was looked forward to by audiences and critics, his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) being his masterpiece, winning him Academy Awards for direction and screenplay as well as supporting actor for his father. The film was robbed of Best Picture by Hamlet (1948) the first non-American film to win the Oscar as Best Picture. To this day The Treasure of the Sierra Madre stands as one of the greatest films not to win Best Picture.
In the very early fifties, Huston decided his next project would be The African Queen, an adventure that was also a love story that was both funny and dramatic, nearly tragic but with a happy ending. He cast his best friend Humphrey Bogart in the film with Katherine Hepburn and decided they would shoot on location in the Congo in Africa. The entire company would be packed up and shipped to darkest Africa for the shooting of the picture, though rumors flew about Hollywood that the real reason they were shooting on location was so that Huston could go big game hunting and shoot an elephant. Maybe, maybe not.
The location became a secondary character in the film, the sweltering heat, constant bugs, unpredictable terrain and weather all added to the stinging realism of the film and certainly had an impact on the actors. Bogart was in his element, drinking whiskey when not shooting, hanging out with his buddy Huston, flirting shamelessly with Hepburn, who both men adored. Hepburn did her best to stay out of the insufferable heat, throwing herself into her work, the sparks between she and Bogart flying.
In any love story, it is essential that the stars portraying the lovers connect, that we believe they love one another, that we are with them every step of the way.
During the early part of the First World War, a Canadian river rat, Charlie Allnut (Bogart), a hard drinking reprobate uses his little steamer to run supplies into East Africa, including the camp of a preacher and his sister who are bringing God to the natives. The German soldiers don’t care about their work for God and when they come to the village they come with murder on their mind, and sack the village, including the preacher. His sister, Rose (Hepburn) is left alive and agrees to go downriver with Allnut to save herself. It begins a dangerous journey for the two very different people, who incredibly fall in love on the river. They have their conflicts, such as when he gets drunk and calls her “a skinny Psalm singing old maid” leading her to dump his entire gin supply over board into the river. They deal with clouds of mosquitoes, dangerous animals, insufferable heat, the constant threat of Germans spotting them, and most dangerous of all the rapids that wait for them farther downriver. Rose gets it into her head that Charlie could make a torpedo and perhaps they could have a chance at blowing up the German war ship that patrols the sea and openings to the river, and he agrees to do so. He takes the boat into the swampy parts of the river, where they cannot be seen, but where eventually the water dries up due to the drought and the poor man is forced to climb into the swamp and muck and pull the boat. When he climbs out, Rose screams as Charlie is covered in large leeches, who attach themselves to him and suck his blood. As she scrapes them off, they know he must climb back into the water to pull the boat, and the look on Bogart’s face might be his best acted moment ever. Before they can use their homemade weapon the Germans capture them and sentence them to death, to be carried out at once. Before the execution Charlie asks that they be married. Yet fate is not finished with the pair nor the African Queen, which is armed and ready, though destroyed.
The film was a huge success when released in 1951, and ranks as one of the great adventure films of all time. The two stars are outstanding together, and both received Academy Award nominations, with Bogart winning his only Oscar, shockingly besting Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Lets be clear on that, Bogart did not give a better performance than Brando, not even close, but he was a beloved movie icon who had not yet won, and the role was iconic Bogart, so what better time to honor the man? Huston received a nomination for Best Director, but oddly the film was snubbed for Best Picture.
Shot in color, the film holds up remarkably well provided you are not looking for absolute realism. This is a Hollywood love story through and through, a Hollywood adventure to its core, and you must give up a bit of realism for the story. Sit back, enjoy the two stars, and go on a trip down the river with them. What a treat to watch two stars of the Golden Era bounce off each other throughout the film, their enjoyment of working with one another paramount.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”