Double Take: The African Queen (1951)

What a time they had, Charlie and Rosie. They'll never lack for stories to tell their grandchildren. And what a time we had at Double Take discussing the spiritual and romantic journey of the African Queen.

Steve Pick: I’ve seen that image of Humphrey Bogart towing a boat down a river in Africa, but I had no idea how he got there, or why he was doing it, or what Katharine Hepburn was doing at the time. The African Queen is a film quite unlike other flicks I’ve seen. For 95% of its running time, Bogart and Hepburn are the only two characters on screen, not counting stock footage of hippos, monkeys, elephants, giraffes, and other animals, or some animated mosquitoes. I think we’ll find some interesting things to discuss, from the Christian/Western exploitation of Africa to the most literal representation of marriage as a death sentence ever in fiction. Along the way, well, we can bask in the skills of two magnificent actors making us forget, mostly, all the tics and trademarks that had made them famous in the years before and since this one was made in 1951.

Steve Leftridge: It’s true that these performances contain lots of classic characteristics of both Hepburn and Bogart. However, I couldn’t help referencing the earlier incarnations of these actors as The African Queen marked an evolution for both. It was a turning point for Hepburn, the first of several films that found her embracing buttoned-up spinster roles. And Bogey is transformed here, ten years after Casablanca, with none of Rick Blaine’s confident cool. It seems to me that Hepburn and Bogey might have been a more likely romantic match just a few years before, but here — at least in these roles — we’re offered an opposites-attract love story instead. She’s the prim, repressed, religious marm; he’s the scruffy, drunken river rat.

I know it’s a classic romantic movie, but here at Double Take, we don’t mind calling into question decades of prevailing critical winds. So I’ll throw it to you: Does the love story aspect of this film work? Do you buy these two as lovers?

Pick: I was completely sold on their relationship, mostly because of little ways each displayed such comfort with each other. It might be the way Hepburn touched Bogart, or the way his eyes lit up when he looked at her. I don’t know — once they realized they wanted to kiss, everything changed, and they were transformed not into tentative, questioning prospective partners, but into a solidly connected mated pair. I didn’t really feel such a connection between them until they did. In that respect, I can’t decide if director John Huston should be complimented for springing a surprise, or condemned for changing the game without any preparation. Either way, for me, the last hour plus of The African Queen is the best part. Lovers on a virtual suicide mission to strike a blow which ultimately wouldn’t add up to a hill of beans in the first World War? Yeah, that’s my kind of story.

So, for a minute, let’s circle back to the opening, which sets up the characters of Rosie and Charlie (or Miss Sayer and Mr. Allnut) as polar opposites with virtually no chance of being friends, let alone soul mates. The opening sequence, after the lushly verdant shots of African foliage set to rhythmically precise nature sounds, is interminable and problematic. Rosie and her brother Reverend Samuel (played perfectly by Robert Morley in what amounts to a cameo appearance) are leading a worship service of African natives who eagerly lift up their voices to sing something neither Christian nor traditionally African (at least in my musical exploration experience). The scene is played for laughs via the norms of 1951 American audiences, but it sure is uncomfortable once you realize how badly Western imperialism mishandled Africa. Whether Germany or England was the colonial power in this place mattered little to the people who were essentially forced to conform to beliefs and cultural practices outside their own. It’s not pretty to see all those guys fighting over Charley’s tossed cigar. What did you think of the ways in which The African Queen intersects with real history? We root for Charley and Rosie because they are fighting Germans (which, six years after WWII ended, was only slightly more ingrained in audiences than it is today after 70 years of films fighting the same battles), but could there be any reason to think they shouldn’t have bothered?

Leftridge: Dude, you’re totally raining on my Jesus-ordained parade of jingoistic American entitlement. Can’t you just let me hate and fear Germans and pity ignorant African heathens? But, yes, you raise a good point about the timing — Huston surely knew that post-WWII anti-German sentiment in America was hot stuff, even if this film depicts Germans from forty years earlier in totally different war. I’d like to hear more about this issue — the historical accuracy of The African Queen–from somebody who knows more than I do, which isn’t saying much, but I’m reasonably sure that Germany was the aggressive invader of France, Russia, etc., during World War I, so depicting them as a pillaging and conscripting menace isn’t that big of a stretch.

But from a plotting and characterizing standpoint, Charlie and Rose definitely think they’re helping the good guys by torpedoing the Luise, which is a motivation that moves the story along, even if they’re naive about what they can actually accomplish for the war effort. Plus, according the Charlie, the Luise’s patrol, with its big “six-pounder — the biggest gun in Central Africa”, was the reason the British navy couldn’t access the Bora River, and therefore inner Africa, via the big lake. So if Charlie and Rose can take out the Luise, they can (a) avoid hiding out and starving to death on the Bora until the war is over and (b) remove a strategic element allowing the Germans to run roughshod over the continent.

As far as the Africans being subjected to hideous psalms, I agree that the mission is absurd. But what did you find inaccurate about the depiction? I find the men wrestling over the cigar less ridiculous than Rose sweating over her pump organ for no legitimate purpose. At least the winner of the skirmish gets a cigar out of the deal.

Pick: Germany wasn’t so much aggressively invading anybody in WWI — the origins of that war are a lot murkier and weren’t as invested in gaining European territory the way Hitler was. But still, I’ll grant your point regarding The African Queen, which is that from their point of view, Charlie and Rosie do believe they are doing their bit for King and Country (though I love the fact they had to make Charlie Canadian, as Bogart wasn’t going anywhere near an English accent). As for the Africans, I don’t find it inaccurate at all, just unsettling. Huston was playing the scene for laughs, and to a modern eye, it just seems so horribly wrong to force Africans to drop their own culture and to make them into comic foils unable to assimilate into the lifestyle of the invaders.

Nonetheless, I think Huston is as indignant as I am about the Germans rounding up Africans and forcing them into becoming soldiers while destroying their homes, and in the context of the film itself, that’s as good a way as any to move the story into the meat of its action. Once Charlie shows up and Rosie pushes for the impossible mission of going down that river, all we have to think about is the difficulty of execution and the evolving nature of their relationship. I love the way the supposedly hidebound Rose Sayer comes up with the seed of virtually everything they do from that point on. It’s Hepburn’s classic can-do attitude, of course, but she just constantly surprises us with new ideas in the face of Charlie’s giving up. Whether it’s realizing he could build torpedoes, or her asking him if “weld” is the right word, Rosie is the perfect manipulator of tools, including the skills of her partner/lover/husband. And Charlie needs somebody to push him out of his stasis — he drinks so much because he has no hopes, no dreams, no conviction that anything is possible. When she dumps all that gin overboard, Charlie’s future is assured, even if there are times a good stiff drink might have helped them both (perhaps while pouring salt on leeches).

Leftridge: One of the film’s most endearing moments to me is when Rose apologizes to Charlie for pouring out of all of his gin. She finally understands the power of raw physicality. At the beginning of the film, Charlie represents the body — in all his stomach-growling coarseness — while Rose represents the spirit. But then there’s that great scene when they make it through the first set of treacherous rapids, and Rose announces, “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” This revelation, delivered with breathless, hair-mussing ecstasy, apparently causes a thirst for further explorations into physical rushes, including the carnality that allows her to fall in love with Charlie.

Once they kiss, after making it past the German fort and through another death-defying plunge, Rose’s transformation is profound. We aren’t allowed too many signs in 1951 that these two have just had sex and are therefore cohabitating out of wedlock. But when they kiss, the shot fades to black, and the next morning she brings him tea in “bed”, her hair has come loose, and she calls him “dear”. Just as Rose has grown closer to Charlie’s physicality, Charlie adopts Rose’s strength of spirit and indefatigable determination, and from that point on they are united in body and spirit. She joins him for underwater propeller repair, and after peeling off those leeches, Charlie heads right back into those waters to pull them through the reeds and the muck.

Still, for all of that body-and-mind stuff, I can’t help but see The African Queen as an overtly religious film. Did you come away with that impression?

Pick: Interesting, because to me, the religious stuff felt shoe-horned in. That might just be my natural reaction to that sort of thing, but when Rose deals with despair by bowing her head and asking God to rescue them, I felt kinda squeamish. Of course, huge rains such as the one that fills the muddy banks and raises the ship up and out to the lake can happen in Central Africa. To his credit, Huston doesn’t overplay the deus ex machina possibilities here. He’d put his characters into an impossible situation, and he rescued them the only way he could. If audience members want to read that as an example of God wanting these two Christians to kill some other Christians, that’s an available option, especially since God placed those torpedoes in a pretty convenient position towards the end.

You raised some great points about Rosie moving from a life of the spirit to a life of the body, and I actually really cheered her on for that. Of course, it was her mind, fervently believing in the possible when faced with almost any obstacle, that thought of most mechanical fixes for Charlie to actually provide. I guess from her point of view, suggesting to God that something can be done is about as ordinary as suggesting to anybody else (though it didn’t work for her brother, who just went ahead and died).

So, I may just be too skeptical to see the religious viewpoint of the film itself. School me, Steve.

Leftridge: I’m talking about church, not school. My own skepticism notwithstanding, I just think Huston puts a whole lot of god in this particular machine. It’s one miracle after another: The German officer is blinded by the sun at the precise moment he has Charlie in his rifle’s sights; God appears to answer Rose’s prayers and brings the rains that get them unmired (although, technically, Rose had already accepted death and was asking God to let her and Charlie into heaven, not to make it rain); and they are saved by the extraordinarily unlikely scenario that the Luise would hit those makeshift torpedoes at the precise moment the lovers’ heads are placed in the nooses.

I do see some balance on Huston’s part, namely the aforementioned evolution of Rose into a woman of the flesh (and not just of the cloth). Plus, her god-fearing brother is sort of a loser: He went on the mission only because he couldn’t pass his exams and dragged his sister along with him. But I couldn’t help but notice all the Genesis-sniffing along the river. Charlie and Rose are like Adam and Eve — the only humans around, surrounded by lush unblighted nature, among flowers no one’s ever seen before, so primitive they are yet unnamed. Then there are those rains that lift their boat, Noah-like, and save them from certain death. And whatever steps Rose takes toward secular pleasures, her calm, resolute acceptance of whatever hand is dealt her is, for her, a matter of faith.

Allegories aside, Huston gives us a timelessly fascinating film full of action and romance, shot gorgeously on location in Africa, starring two of the all-time greats. Amen to that.

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