The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
[originally posted 13Jul2000]
The best way to watch The African Queen is just after watching White Hunter, Black Heart. Once you’ve seen the shenanigans that accompanied the putting together of this picture, it becomes all the more enchanting. (One wonders how Huston was convinced to film pieces of it in England, however, since he insisted on shooting the whole thing in Africa, and Viertel didn’t elucidate that point in the film version of WHBH; if it’s in the book I haven’t gotten that far yet.)
For those unfamiliar with the plot (if you’ve been living in a cave for the last fifty years): A missionary (Robert Morley) and his strait-laced sister (Hepburn) are ministering to natives in what was known in 1918 as German East Africa (at the time of the film it was known as the Belgian Congo, and is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo… you get the idea). The village is burned down by the German occupiers, the missionary dies, and his sister hitches a ride back to civilization with the mail carrier The African Queen, piloted by the hard-drinking Charlie Olnutt (Bogey). Bogey and Hepburn, of course, wind up in a classic romance plot, fighting like cats and dogs until they wind up falling in love.
The beginning of the film is godawfully overacted, mostly by Robert Morley (but the look on Katherine Hepburn’s face when she realizes the village is on fire is straight out of a bad silent film). It improves once Bogart and Hepburn are stuck on the boat; Hepburn seems to get more into character, and the chemistry between the two is fabulous. It is, and deserves to be, considered an American classic. ****