It feels as though film historians that participate in the hour-long extras documentary on this edition of John Huston’s infamous 1951 film The African Queen — including directors Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Meyer– are looking at the whole affair through distinctly rose-colored glasses. The film’s legend, it seems, has almost eclipsed its actual quality and the trials and tribulations of making the film, one of the first to be filmed on location in Africa with big Hollywood stars (Oscar winners Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as “Allnut” and “Rose”), have become the main draw for the curious.
Filmed in the Belgian Congo during prime McCarthy-era years full of paranoia and suspicion, the plot of The African Queen, which in one of the earliest stages of development attracted Bette Davis, involves the central theme of leaving the United States, of escaping on a 30 foot skiff to another wild place far from the acidic reach of the American government, which at the time could completely destroy an actor or a filmmaker with a simple accusation of being un-American. Bogart and Hepburn were playing fervently patriotic characters in the lush film, raising the Union Jack and thwarting German spy plots, so as to reinforce and perhaps even ward off suspicion that they might be doing anything even remotely shady while filming out in the jungle; their images as stars were only fortified by the good-hearted characters they played.
Written by celebrated film critic and author James Agee (The Night of the Hunter), from the original C.S. Forrester novel, Huston’s vision was shaped on the page by the author into a prestige adventure story, a moral tale and a mismatched romance that offered the film’s actors a bravura chance to shine. Bogart as the earthy captain and Hepburn as the prim missionary are like oil and vinegar, and Huston’s juxtaposition of these two very different styles of performance, delivery, and real-life experiences is truly the main draw of the film. Though both actors were nominated for Oscars, only Bogart would eventually take home the Best Actor award for his work here, beating out Marlon Brando’s Stanley from Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (Hepburn lost to Vivien Leigh for the same film in the Best Actress category).
Legend has it that Huston’s main aim in making The African Queen was to tour the African countryside and to hunt wild game, specifically an elephant. Hepburn, according to the informative documentary feature included in this edition, was eager to talk about her character with the director and became incensed when at a meeting with Huston, she was instead simply given a tour of his hunting gear.
Actress Lauren Bacall, married to Bogart during filming, took on a behind-the-scenes role as a camp cook, nurse, and general morale-booster as the cast and crew became sick daily from dysentery, malaria, and even appendicitis, much as she had in 1948 for another legendary Bogart-Huston collaboration, the far superior The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. So one element we are left with on The African Queen is the insistence of those involved to reduce the entire production to yet another chapter in the storied “Bogie and Bacall” love story, with Hepburn posited squarely as the spinster prima donna of the crew who was upset when her contractually-ordered toilet barge had to be cut loose and she was forced to defecate in the brush like everybody else.
It is precisely because of all of these various myths and romantic anecdotes that Huston’s film has grown in reputation, and the levels of difficulty in actually getting the production completed successfully (filmed by Jack Cardiff, who according to Scorsese is one of the greatest Technicolor camera man ever to work) are unfortunately more interesting than the actual story, as presented in the film, turned out as a finished product. For a film with such a rich production history, the final product feels decidedly lackluster, which is not a reflection on the actual craftsmanship of the movie, which is top-notch, as is the beautiful, newly-cleaned-up print that played at Cannes last year.
The African Queen is about two people, actually two really big losers, essentially, bickering their way down a small river in an inhospitable environment, and after two hours, this conceit tends to get tedious, with Hepburn’s fidgety fussiness and Bogart’s laconic boozy bellowing as the only constants. Yes, the scenery is gorgeous, and Huston’s eye for detail and his fondness for literature comes through loud and clear, but in the end, something is missing and the film is neither as legendary and classic as its famous fans make it our to be nor is it among Huston’s finest achievements in adapting difficult literature for the screen.
See instead his 1987 reworking of part of James Joyce’s The Dubliners, The Dead, 1984’s Under the Volcano, 1975’s The Man Who Would be King or even his Tennessee Williams adaptation The Night of the Iguana instead for proof of his prowess in this area. If you’d like to see a more refined presentation of opposite male and female characters in a Huston film, look to the better in every way Heaven Knows Mr. Allison with Deborah Kerr and Robert Michtum. The African Queen, though entertaining and well-made and decently-acted, is not the preeminent classic film that most critics would have you believe it is, though it’s mythology – filled with movie stars battling armadas of soldier ants, packs of wild elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and other assorted Darwinian nightmares — is indeed worthy of four stars.