Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Dreaming in Technicolor. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Though a uniquely spectacular film at the time, The African Queen has unfortunately aged very poorly. A romantic-comedy-action-drama-adventure film shot partly in Africa, the film has everything a 1951 audience would love. It isn’t often, but by today’s standards, much of the film’s adventure content is quite frankly awkward and vain. Special effects for the time were, of course, at their best, but reviewing the film in 2015 it is impossible to see past the obvious superimposition, background posters in place of landscapes, and recreated props. For example, the eponymous raft The African Queen, a 30 foot steam ship used by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) to deliver goods to mines and missionaries in 1914 East German Africa, is only seen in the obvious studio delivered close to medium length shots, while a mock raft which bares slight resemblance to the African Queen is seen, always from a distance, plummeting through dangerous rapids. The same goes for much of the film, which appears as a collage of separately shot events, often using different focal lengths and giving the film a rather awkward, disharmonious rhythm. Some of the animal shots seem to be stock photos and videos from a travel journalist. The setting and adventure appears rather inauthentic by today’s standards, turning the film’s original eau de vivre into a perfunctory gimmick for the purposes of conveying a generic romance story.
It isn’t often, but by today’s standards, much of the film’s adventure content is quite frankly awkward and vain.
Almost all of Hollywood’s classic era was shot in the studio, to great effect. Audiences enjoyed the films, but were naturally inclined to notions of the exotic. Director John Huston tickled their fancy in 1948 with his masterful The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a Bogart film shot in Mexico that fortunately fares the test of time much better than the African Queen. Three years later, when he took Bogie to Africa to film a romance story in the jungles surrounded by wild animals, audiences flocked to their seats. While the film didn’t break any records, it managed to profit in spite of going over its already exceptionally high Warner Brothers budget. It has since been considered an undeniable success and, by the American Film Institute’s standards, one of the 100 best films of all time.
It is difficult to critique the African Queen for dating poorly. At the time, it brought to cinema, particularly American cinema, much of what was previously missing: an ethnographic film that is relevant on the global scale. Set in the early moments of World War I, and dealing with English missionaries, German soldiers, African natives, and a Canadian delivery man, the African Queen attempts to draw upon larger scale filmmaking, something which would later inspire David Lean on his epics Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Bridge on the River Kwai ((957). As one of those early inspiring Hollywood films to take on a global and ethnographical role, The African Queen certainly deserves its place in classic American cinema. But this alone is not enough to make it stand atop all the masterpieces it helped inspire.
It’s difficult to get past the rather nonsense script of a British missionary and ship captain falling in love in East German Africa while trying to makeshift torpedo a German boat at the onset of World War I, but if one does, the romance story itself, which is of course the heart of the film, is rather entertaining if not a bit generic.
When World War I breaks out, the German army attacks a Methodist church where missionary siblings Rose (Katherine Hepburn) and Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) teach natives about God. After Charlie Allnut arrives to a devastated village and a dead Reverend, a romance-action-adventure-drama begins between he and the stern, prudish missionary Rose Sayer, who asks him to help torpedo a German ship, the Louisa.
In the first scene, poorly illustrating the times, the film is rather racist and insulting to African people, whether intentionally or not. Bogart, considered a lower class person to begin with, throws a cigar butt on the ground and a group of African natives fight over it. They appear dumb and uncultured, which of course isn’t right: differently cultured yes, but Huston makes a way of presenting them as if they were animals needing of proper culture and teaching. The German soldiers are also stereotypically presented. With thick mustaches and thick accents, they order around the couple like villainous monsters dispensing their deaths.
The couple and their affairs, on the other hand, make up the large bulk of the story and is rather affable. While Bogart and Hepburn don not have the greatest chemistry, Huston’s direction makes their courtship completely convincing. The stern missionary begins to let loose as her spontaneous, thrill-embracing host takes her down rapids. She realizes the pleasures of physical sensation, and even compares it to the spirit found in a well stated sermon. She begins to feel alive by his side. In comparison, Charlie Allnut, a gin swilling captain with a rough beard, lets go of his freewheeling ways as Rose’s tender love and acceptance teaches him to be happy and kempt and sober. Alone together on a ship heading down dangerous waters, they become closer and closer, eventually calling each other by the first name, staring longingly at one another, and cracking jokes to maintain the romantic levity.
It’s difficult to get past the rather nonsense script of a British missionary and ship captain falling in love in East German Africa while trying to makeshift torpedo a German boat at the onset of World War I, but if one does, the romance story itself, which is of course the heart of the film, is rather entertaining if not a bit generic. While the grandiose setting and content is mostly used in vain, as an exotic background for what would otherwise be a banal romance drama, it does allow the film to convey a certain allure. When the couple is bizarrely married by the German soldier about to execute them, viewers will cheer, even if such content is completely unrealistic. But perhaps this is the film’s charm: it is exotic but it is safe. It therefore remains a happy escapist Hollywood pop film even if certain aesthetic and ethnographical aspects have become laughable.
Though a uniquely spectacular film at the time, The African Queen has unfortunately aged very poorly. The setting and adventure appears rather inauthentic by today’s standards, turning the film’s original eau de vivre into a perfunctory gimmick for the purposes of conveying a generic romance story.