June 10, 2010

#65: The African Queen

I knew less about John Huston's 1951 romantic adventure The African Queen than I knew about maybe any other movie on the list so far. When I checked Netflix for what their ever-helpful but sometimes strange and misleading summary might say, I read the words "missionary," "pre-WWI" and "German gunboat" and thought I had a pretty good chance of being bored out of my mind. But the description credits the film with being a "a classic study in star charisma and pitch-perfect casting," so I had some hope. Turns out I didn't even need it.

Company: just me on a rainy June afternoon.

Cuisine: just had brunch at the Sunny Side Up Cafe, and now slurpin' on my sugar-free vanilla latte from Bob's Java Hut -- delicious!

As was already mentioned, the film opens on a missionary in German East Africa (what is now Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania) in the first days of World War I, an event whose existence is news to the Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his missionary sister (Katharine Hepburn). They only find out about it because they're warned by Charlie Allnut (Oscar winner Humphrey Bogart), a mail-by-riverboat carrier with a deep affection for gin.

When the Germans show up and torch the village where the Sayers have lived, worked and worshiped for ten years, the survivors are understandably upset. (Can I just say: strange that this is the second film in a row where the Germans are the enemy?) But the elder, Reverend Sayer, is ... driven mad? Struck with trauma-induced dysentery? Really super sad about it? Anyway, he dies, and Rose is left alone in the village to wait for the mail carrier, her only contact with the outside world, who drifts by and notices the complete devastation. Well, it just won't do for her to stay there all alone. I guess her only option is to join him on the African Queen.

That she does, and what transpires is part buddy movie, part road movie, part romance/adventure/thriller. Did not see that coming. To exact her revenge on the Germans for taking her brother and her village, she convinces Charlie to navigate the dangerous river all the way to the lake at its end where the Germans' battleship Louisa is standing guard and blow the ship up using homemade (or, more precisely, boat-made) torpedoes. Charlie is initially hesitant but agrees, and then gives her the what-for when he gets drunk on gin and tells her what he really thinks of her plan. Little does he know...

... you don't cross Katharine Hepburn. What she says goes, unless you want all your gin dumped into the river. When he tells her that it's just his nature, she responds, most piously, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above."

What she discovers, with the help of Charlie and the forces of nature in sub-Saharan Africa, is that nature rises above her and takes her away with it. As they plunge down waterfalls of increasingly height and treachery, she grows more and more intoxicated by her own love for adventure, and consequently so do we. How can you not get behind someone like Katharine Hepburn? She's of course a fine actress, but no woman in Hollywood more keenly represented a spirit of adventure (usually reserved only for men) like she did. Add to that Humphrey Bogart's unending charm (he won his only Oscar for this) in a intellectual-vs.-Kanuck war of wits and it's a match made in movie heaven.

And of course, they just have to fall in love thanks to the adventure. These characters are both so alone, and now alone together, that naturally they'd long for a companion. What a beautiful credit to the film, too, that they have to come to this realization of romance and then sustain a sincere level of mutual love and respect without a sex scene. The arc of their love story is so clearly realized, largely because it's just the two of them vs. the world. No pesky subplots threaten to get in the way. It's Charlie and Rose vs. the Germans, Charlie and Rose vs. Nature, Charlie and Rose vs. the African Queen.

And when their faith is tested, Ms. Sayer gets down on her knees and prays for their souls to be joined in heaven. I can't possibly spoil any more of the plot, because I just didn't see it coming, and if I do you'll have so much less of a reason to Netflix this. Do it. Not kidding.

This was a film that hadn't been digitally remastered or committed to DVD until only a few months ago, and while I'm glad for the beautiful restoration of it, there's one serious scene in particular featuring an angry swarm of insects that is made laughable by the poor effects. Other than that, it's all quite stunning. The more I think about it, the more I think of The African Queen as the ultimate patriotic adventure in that our two heroes are entirely motivated by their love for their country. Their love for each other ultimately spins from that, which is just so cinematically satisfying.

I'm not sure the Germans are much at fault in the next film on the list, Network (one I LOVE), but I'm sure they didn't help.

No comments:

Post a Comment