The African Queen is what I would describe as a “Man vs. Nature” film in the guise of a “Man vs. Man” film, particularly done as a very claustrophobic character piece. It’s also, unintentionally, the latest in a theme of reviewing World War I movies.
The African Queen is set in World War I German colonial Africa, just at the start of the war. The film focuses almost entirely on two characters. The first is Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) the skipper of a very small riverboat named The African Queen (from whence the film takes its name). The other is Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn), the sister of a Presbyterian minister who dies of disease after the village to which he was ministering is torched by the German army, and the inhabitants are conscripted to be part of the German labor force.
With neither Rose nor Charlie having any reason to stay in Africa and both on the bad side of the Germans (Rose wanting revenge for her brother’s death, Charlie being hunted for a cargo of mining explosives he’s carrying) – Rose proposes making some improvised torpedoes, and attacking a German riverboat in a lake downstream. However, to do that they have to actually get there, braving rapids, waterfalls, and other challenges along the way.
The majority of this film is basically made up of Charlie and Rose on the boat. There’s a scene with Rose’s brother and some extras earlier in the film (plus the torching of the village), and some German soldiers firing at them on the way down the river, but ultimately, this is film that is done with some very tight shooting on a very small boat, on a soundstage. What makes this particularly notable is that director John Houston brought the entire cast and crew down to Africa to shoot some of the sequences there at great expense in what was by all accounts a hellish shoot, when most of the footage would have been done by second unit even as late as 20 years later, in the 1970s – not due to advances in technology, but due to just general changes in how film shoots are organized.
Instead, what makes this film isn’t any of the big landscape shots or an epic scope of the movie – it’s the chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart on that boat – and that part works. They’re two characters who are in a rough situation, in multiple senses, and are both trying to make the best of this situation, with varying degrees of success. It’s also a pair of performances where you really get the sense that these two characters aren’t hostile to each other and do like each other and are warming up to each other, but the proximity between the two – which neither is familiar with – is getting on their nerves, up into the point where they come to like it and like each others company.
That said, the sequences with the African village that Rose’s brother is ministering to are… problematic. Having the locals not speaking English with any degree of fluency is okay – but they’re also introduced being universally completely unable to hum along with a tune that they’re listening to, which takes the sequence from not great to pretty damn bad.
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