Wednesday 2 June 2010

The African Queen (1951)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

The African Queen begins on the water, just like the thirty foot launch that provides its name, as we gaze at the incredibly lush foliage of German East Africa and listen to the diverse soundscape of the jungle while the credits roll. 'Lush' is the word to use because we can almost feel it seep through the screen in vibrant Technicolor, this amazingly being the first colour film of both lead actors, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, and director John Huston. Happily neither the colour nor the sound let up: they soak into the film stock and make it all the more real. There should always be noise in a jungle, but most Hollywood jungle flicks got made on the MGM lot and so missed out entirely on any level of authenticity. It's only the rare ones that got the full on location treatment to bring in a believable feel and the only other movie I remember offhand from this era that sounded this authentic was Mogambo, with Clark Gable and Ava Gardner.

While most of the film unfolds on water, we briefly switch back to land to find Hepburn singing away with gusto inside the 1st Methodist Church in Kungdu. It's September 1914 and she's a haughty old maid of a Methodist missionary called Rose Sayer, notably red from the blistering African sun even though she's in the shade. While she certainly doesn't look good as she plays the organ, she still looks better than she felt for close off screen, out of our sight, was a bucket for her to vomit in between takes because she was suffering from dysentery. Jack Cardiff, the director of photography, called her 'a real trouper', but this sort of attitude is precisely why she was cast. The other half of her character explains how she got the dysentery to begin with. She stubbornly drank only water in protest at the amount of imported Scotch Bogart and Huston constantly put away. 'Whenever a fly bit Huston or me,' said Bogie, 'it dropped dead.'

Rose is the brother of the Revd Samuel Sayer, played to wonderfully sanctimonious effect by Robert Morley, with much the same expression that he had when being force fed his poodle by Vincent Price in Theatre of Blood. They have a full house but it's an open question how much effect they're having on the half naked congregation who are certainly vocal, if not particularly close to the hymnal, and who happily run out to meet the mailman. This is Charlie Allnut, the grizzled Canadian captain of the African Queen, a part entirely unlike any Bogart had played before, as is soon made abundantly obvious when his first scene with the Sayers has him play second fiddle to his own rumbling stomach. We first see him relaxed in a wicker chair, a cigar in his mouth, a glass of whisky in one hand and the boat's whistle in the other. Charlie Allnut is a happy man, as Bogart would soon be too when the part landed him his only Academy Award.

He drops by with the mail and a few supplies they've been waiting for, but more important than long overdue rose bushes is news that the war is on, though he can't remember much more than that the Germans are on the other side to the English and all those little countries are in it too. As soon as he heads back to his boat though, in come the German troops to march around and torch all the buildings like good German troops do, so that they can force the natives into service without anything for them to run home to. One futile attempt at resistance on the Revd Sayer's part and he goes a little mad. Soon he's dead, perhaps of a delayed concussion to the skull from a German rifle butt. However this is a war story the way Raiders of the Lost Ark is a religious film, the Kaiser's troops providing a source and destination to the plot but otherwise backing out so that we can watch the real story unfold in between their brief but periodic appearances.
The story is really about two people, Charlie Allnut and Rose Sayer, or perhaps three if you count the trusty old African Queen herself. For almost the entire film it's just them, the jungle and the river as they head downstream to almost certain death in an insane attempt to strike a blow for King and Country by sinking the Louisa, a much larger German boat that carries the biggest gun in East Africa. It's a real David and Goliath story, but we safely ignore it because we don't really ever believe that they're going to be able to pull it off anyway. We concentrate instead on the performances of the two leads as their two mismatched characters gradually grow together by putting aside their many differences and finding a common ground through shared experience. This worked so well that Hollywood effectively remade it 24 years later with Hepburn opposite John Wayne, albeit with her character renamed Eula Goodnight and Bogart's Rooster Cogburn.

Without the performances given by the two leads and the solid script by James Agee and director John Huston, this could have been a mess, as could Rooster Cogburn for that matter, and neither would be particularly remembered today. I often wonder how many forgotten TV movies with low budgets and awful casts would have become legendary classics if only they had been made by people like John Huston who didn't tend to go for TV movies with low budgets and awful casts. It only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch. Luckily for us, the script here is razor sharp, based not just on the source novel of the same name by C S Forester but by Huston's observations of the offscreen chemistry of his stars, and those stars are in blistering form, however much they were suffering through the shoot and sometimes even because of it. The ending is a rare thing indeed, a change from the source novel that is appropriate and perhaps even an improvement.

Humphrey Bogart may never have been better, but then he'd have to be good to have beaten out such heavyweights for that Oscar as Marlon Brando (in A Streetcar Named Desire, no less) and Montgomery Clift (in A Place in the Sun). I've never seen him animated like he is here, even when playing second fiddle gangsters for Warners back in the thirties. Maybe he took a leaf out of frequent co-star James Cagney's book: Cagney's acting style was to never stop moving and Bogart never stops here, even when he's not coated in rubber leeches. He's less the captain of his boat and more an integral part of it. His eyes are always looking somewhere new and his face harbours more expressions than you would ever believe the hardboiled dick of the forties could have come up with. Maybe it's the water that did it, given that Bogie was a notable sailor and he successfully defied stereotype again in The Caine Mutiny, as the captain of a much bigger boat.

Co-star Katharine Hepburn is as stubbornly stiff and politely pestering as only Katharine Hepburn can be, and she manages the highly difficult task of remaining stiff and pestering even when she comes to life hurtling down white water rapids. She always had a stubborn and rebellious streak in her, playing tomboys and misfits and getting up to all sorts of unladylike behaviour, because frankly she didn't care two hoots about what anyone else thought of her. She knew she was right and that's all that mattered, even when she was wrong. Here she finds herself prim and proper and in the enforced sole company of a gin soaked but very capable outdoorsman. Most women would happily fall back on stereotype, especially in 1914, and let the man take care of business, but not our Kate. If Rose gets an idea stuck in her head, woe betide anyone who stands in the way of its fruition, even if it's their boat and their supplies and their life that she's gambling with.
It's hard to imagine anyone else's expression going from acute distate to doe eyed and back so quickly yet so believably, yet Kate wasn't the first choice for the part. Bette Davis was the name most frequently associated with the project, having first been offered to her in 1938. She tried to make it again in 1947 and 1949 but by then Hepburn's name was attached and she didn't get another shot. I'm sure it's an interesting question for film geeks to throw around: would this have been as good with Bette opposite David Niven, James Mason or John Mills? Each has possibility but I can't see any of those combinations outdoing how Bogart and Hepburn stamped authority onto their roles. Then again, the original reason Columbia chose to buy the rights to the novel was as a vehicle for husband and wife Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester. That I'd pay to see! Instead they went for a comedic approach to a similar story with 1938's Vessel of Wrath.

There's comedy here, just as there's a war hovering around to be referenced once in a while, but this is a character driven drama. Allnut, who's Canadian anyway and so not too concerned about a war in Europe, is all ready to keep his boat hidden behind an island until the whole thing blows over. After all, there's plenty of food, crates of cigarettes, even a couple of cases of gin: 'all the comforts of home,' he tells Rose but she's having none of it. If you've ever heard Hepburn speak, you can hear the tone in her voice as she states, 'We simply can't remain here in this backwater until the war is over, Mr Allnut.' The British are sure to come but are also sure to not get there as they'd have to pass the Louisa, a hundred ton steamer with a six pound gun, the biggest in all of central Africa. Rose happily decides that the pair of them can redress the balance, with blasting gelatin from the mine, oxygen cylinders for torpedoes and Charlie's skill as a machinist.

For a while he just plays along to humour the crazy lady and wait for her to back out when the inevitable danger threatens, but of course that just isn't going to happen. Charlie Allnut doesn't know Kate the way the viewers know Kate. Charlie Allnut is dumb enough to miss the seizure she almost has when she realises he's drinking alcohol and doesn't for one moment imagine that she would dare to empty it all overboard while he's passed out drunk. He only gets drunk so he can tell her off. 'Whose boat is it anyway?' he shouts before calling her 'a crazy psalm-singing skinny old maid.' And that's it for the Gordon's. At this point they have nothing in common, no frame of reference except Africa itself. Snippets of history, like him coming to Africa to build the Zambezi Bridge and staying on because he can be his own boss, always end up with Rose saying, 'I beg your pardon?' because she no longer remotely understands what he's talking about.

The connections they find grow out of the danger they face. After they head down their first set of rapids, Miss Prim and Proper finds the experience bracing and wonderful, a feeling that she's only ever felt a couple of times before during her brother's sermons when the spirit calls him. 'I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!' she cries. They get past the Shona, a German fort, under heavy fire, only to hit heavier rapids and a combination of exhilaration and relief leads to the ice being broken by a kiss. Suddenly it ceases to be 'Miss' and 'Mr Allnut' and begins to be 'Rosie' and 'Dear'. Suddenly, Charlie isn't looking at the crocodiles to pointedly suggest to his unwelcome guest that they're just waiting for their breakfast, instead he's making faces at the hippos and imitating the monkeys on the bank, though all the noises he makes are surprisingly dubbed. I wonder what Bogart really sounded like.
It's only on these technical points that the film creaks, because of an inevitable contrast. At least half of the picture was shot in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, much of it at the junction of the Victoria and Albert branches of the Nile, and it reeks of authenticity, not least because most of the crew went down with fever. They all lived it, even the folks we don't see on screen. When Hepburn wrote a memoir of her experience, she subtitled it, How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. Even the scenes with the stars in the water look good, though they were shot in studio tanks back in England, but in and amongst are rear projection shots that can't help but stand out against the realism of the rest. It may seem picky to poke holes at bad rear projection in scenes set on river rapids in 1951, but reusing some of the same shots at a number of different points in the film seems a little less forgivable.

Perhaps they'd had enough. By all accounts, the shoot was a memorably difficult one, not that the production was unaware of the likelihood before setting out. Natives were hired to help the crew, but Huston has explained in interviews that many failed to show up, as they believed the filmmakers to be cannibals. Lauren Bacall, who tagged along to cook and camp and be with her husband, even though she wasn't in the film herself, suggests that they weren't always helpful when they did. The African Queen sank twice during filming. 'The natives had been told to watch it and they did,' Bacall said. 'They watched it sink.' Huston also spent time hunting big game, on one occasion unwittingly leading Hepburn into a herd of wild animals, and his exploits, perhaps at the expense of the production, generated a further film, Clint Eastwood's White Hunter, Black Heart, based on the novel by Peter Viertel, who was an uncredited writer on The African Queen.

As a direct contrast to the grim reality of the production's off screen experience, at least except for Robert Morley, who had the foresight to shoot all his scenes in London to be spliced into the film later, the picture itself is a pure joy. It's easy to get swept away into the story and join one of cinema's most memorable pairings down the Ubangi river on the little African Queen to reach a line as memorable as, 'By the authority vested in me by Kaiser Wilhelm II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.' It's full of relieved tension, poetic justice and Hollywood screen magic, even though the Germans are played by actors as quintessentially English as Peter Bull, later a similarly surprising Russian Ambassador in Dr Strangelove. This project saw my maiden voyage on the African Queen but it's obvious why many people take it again and again. I've already taken a return trip and I'm sure I'll be booking my tickets again soon.

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