A One-Set Movie Starring Mismatched Lovers
American Film Institute Ranking: #17/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for four (Best Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Director) winning Best Actor for Humphrey Bogart (his only Academy Award).
Director: John Houston
“How can we put Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in close proximity for a couple hours and let them work their magic?”
Enter the adapted screenplay by James Agee (who also wrote a top 100 book of all time “A Death in the Family” which I review here). The African Queen is an interesting movie just from the set up alone: about 90% of the movie involves the two main characters floating down a river in a steam boat with the entire focal point on their relationship. There is some window dressing to get them there, but none of it matters. What is important is that Humphrey and Katharine are stuck together and have to work through their differences. This movie explores the classic motif of mismatched lovers using stereotypical traits that are diametrically opposed (messy vs. clean, prude vs. crude, etc.). Thankfully, we have two power houses of Hollywood that end up pushing this ridiculous script along and somehow make a successful go at it.
[Spoilers] The plot device to make this all happen hinges on two events. The first is that Rose Sayer is a missionary in Africa who refuses to leave their village when war breaks out between Germany and Britain in WWI. This leads to her village being burned down (and indirectly the death of her brother), so she decides to escape with the Charlie Allnut, a crass sailor who has been delivering them supplies. Upon a successful take off (sorry to the maritime crowd if there is a better nautical term for this), Charlie mentions a predicament for the British: there is a German gunboat wreaking havoc down the river. Rose then decides that they must successfully destroy the German gunboat, I’m assuming, as retribution for what they did to her brother as well as to fulfill some patriotic duty.
Thus begins the friction between our two foiled characters as they head to destroy a German gunboat. Rose is iron-willed, proper and a teetotaler. Charlie is more of a free-spirit, rough around the edges and a serious drinker. From the get go, the tension starts: Charlie thinks this plan is crazy and would rather hunker down somewhere while Rose is adamant that they must do something about that German boat. Charlie spends most of his time drinking until a fed up Rose pours out all of his spirits.
Charlie Allnut: What are you being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.
Defeated, or maybe since he now has nothing better to do, Charlie joins Rose full force and goes along with her crazy plan. From here, the predictable transition happens: the odd couple start to gravitate towards an invisible, moderate middle, taking on the best traits of the other while leaving their worst behind. Rose starts to admire Charlie and his ability as a jack-of-all trades and loosens up in attitude. Charlie starts to become close to Rose and view her in a more favorable light. As the trip continues, the annoyed occupants become romantic lovers.
Even though predictable, the two leads get it just right. When faced with adverse events such as a broken boat, leeches (yikes!) or the white water rapids, the bits and pieces slowly conglomerate into the flowering of their relationship. This transition, while obvious of where it is going, is done at just the right pace and not all of that is due to the script. The two leads have an electric chemistry together and play their parts well, vapid as the characterizations are. It’s a good thing, too, because there is not anything else to save this movie. The ending is a complete wackjob, involving being captured, sentenced to hanging, a shot gun wedding, and then a successful explosion at the height of the romantic fervor.
There is a lot of lore about this movie because most of it was shot on site in the Congo of Africa, a rare occurrence for a movie form this era. This includes a story of how dysentery ravaged cast and crew that exempted Bogart and director John Houston because “they always drink scotch with their water.” Even with all the craziness that would be expected from moving Golden-Era Hollywood to the jungle, the production was successful in creating one of the most celebrated romantic adventure films of all-time.
While this film is short on any meaningful plot, watching Hepburn and Bogart play their cards right with a threadbare motif was well worth it in its own right. It’s quite telling of their performance prowess that using what little they were given they were still able to make a good film.