By John H. Foote
During our podcast for the fifties, which we recorded a couple of nights ago, Alan professed deep affection for the John Huston adventure The African Queen (1951) one of the last classics to come to Blu Ray and DVD. Shot on location in the African Congo, which was not common practice in the fifties, yet was the perfect choice for this film. How does one recreate Africa in a studio, and I mean they have tried before. Better to go there and allow the country to become a secondary character in the film. Without going to Africa, I doubt the film would have been anywhere near as good as it is.
John Huston was a great film director, among the giants in 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 with 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 anticipated by audiences and critics, with his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) being his masterpiece, winning him Academy Awards for direction and screenplay as well as Best 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, unbearable 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, wrapping herself in light clothing and 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 working class man 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 do not know their 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 overboard 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 Bogarts’ 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. Floating in the water, directly in the path of the German steamer is Charlies homemade torpedo, floating in wait like a shark for the ship.
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). Let’s 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.
On the performances each do exceptional work; each brings out the best in the other and for sheer couples’ chemistry the film deserves to be celebrated. Hepburn is a tad self-righteous, but her love for Charlie and their growing admiration for one another, brings her back to planet earth. After shooting the rapids where both she and Charlie thought certain death was waiting for them, she falls into his arms downright orgasmic. It is said the only direction Huston gave the superb actress was to play Rose like Eleanor Roosevelt, and in the early going, before she falls for the river rat, we can see that. One of her most popular performances in a career dotted with genius.
Bogart had deserved the Academy Award for his stunning work in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre three years before but incredibly, almost shocking in its cruelty was not even nominated! Paranoid, frightened, murderous, Bogart went as deep as he had ever gone as a character and was snubbed. I have no doubt that his Oscar win for The African Queen was a makeup award for the snub, something the Academy has been known to do through their history. Many, I included, believe he should have won Best Actor as Rick, the cynical hero of Casablanca (1943) but again another took home that coveted golden man. He is entertaining, and very good as Charlie, but not for a second do I believe this was the best performance of 1951, not when Marlon Brando was stalking the screen in A Streetcar Named Desire. Still, he deserved an Oscar at some point, and the moment this film opened he was going to win.
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. The energy they give off is infectious and by the end you will find yourself downright giddy for having seen the film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.