The African Queen

The African Queen. Horizon Pictures 1951.

Before watching the movie:

This is yet another black box movie to me. Until I decided to watch it, I’d never heard what the plot was. Just something about a riverboat in Africa and Humphrey Bogart. Apparently it’s about civilians in World War 1 German-held Africa. And a love story, because every movie needs a love story.

After watching the movie:

In German East Africa, Rev. Samuel Sayer and his sister Rose run a staid Wesleyan mission, evangelizing to the native Africans. Their chief supplier is Charlie Allnut, a trader piloting his boat the African Queen. When word of the war in Europe reaches the Sayers, the Imperial German military isn’t far behind, burning down all the villages so their conscripted Africans won’t have homes to come back to. Samuel’s attempt to intervene gets him brutalized as a hostile foreigner, and he dies of fever soon after. When Mr. Allnut arrives and learns of Samuel’s death, he offers to take Rose out of the colony and into friendly territory, but when Rose learns how close they are to the most powerful German warship in Africa, the Louisa, she browbeats Allnut into taking his boat through a part of the river only a canoe has ever successfully traversed to reach the lake the Louisa patrols and sink it with warheads improvised out of oxygen canisters and blasting gel. Spending days toiling through the jungle on a 30-foot boat, there’s nowhere to escape each other’s clashing personalities.

The most I’d gotten through osmosis about the content of this movie was the image of Bogart dragging the boat through the overgrown jungle river. I got the impression that it was a survival/escape story, that they were trying to get out of the wilderness back to safety. It’s quite a different turn to be struggling through the elements on an endeavor that’s at best a fool’s errand and at worst a suicide mission, a couple of civilians using what’s at hand to strike a blow for king and country. It’s not relevant to long stretches in the middle, where it’s a pure character piece developing the evolving relationship between these two people stuck on a boat together, but the goal still flavors the whole thing.

There’s a different element to Bogart here than I’ve seen before. All the tough, blue collar characters I’ve seen before had a finish to them. A coarse finish, but still an element of class that isn’t present in Charlie Allnut. While in the movie they make him a Canadian subject of the Realm to cover his accent, in the book he’s English, and he still feels very Cockney in spirit. Bogart is very suited to the role, but it’s strange to see him in this new angle on his type.

Unfortunately, Rose seems to feel like two different characters over the course of the movie, but I think that’s more because of the way the writing handles how they bottom out and make up. Dropping her guard dramatically changes her entire personality. Charlie is just more personable with her, but I see nothing of Rose that’s the same after the turn. She just had a bucket of character development dumped on her all at once.

The character-driven writing, aside from the speedy makeup, is the well-tempered heartbeat of this film. Except for the introduction and finale, it’s entirely on the backs of these two alone, and they carry it down the river together with determination and panache. Even the location shoots get the spotlight stolen by this pair adventuring though it.

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