Thursday, August 5, 2010
The African Queen
The African Queen is adapted from the novel of the same name, which tells the story of how a religious old maid and a drunken river rat decided to help Great Britain fight the Germans in World War I. The story opens with Rose (Katherine Hepburn) and her brother (Robert Morley) in a missionary church, doing their best to instill Christianity to their non-English speaking African flock. Their best isn't terribly impressive. Charlie (Humphrey Bogart), the dirty and bearded owner of a small steam boat (The African Queen), shows up from time to time to deliver mail to the mission. This time, though, he also brings news of a war between England and Germany. That's bad news for these British missionaries, because their mission is in German East Africa. The siblings naively believe that they have nothing to fear and Charlie leaves. Soon after, Germans enter the mission, round up the locals (for unknown reasons) and beat Rose's brother; he survives the attack, but falls ill and dies soon after. Charlie stops by a few days later and finds Rose numb with grief. He helps her bury her brother, and the pair take the African Queen to safety.
Or do they? It turns out that Charlie doesn't get a chance to talk to English-speaking people much, and he fills awkward silences with one-sided conversation. Charlie reveals that he is a machinist, and that he can make just about anything, given the right parts. He could even make torpedoes from the material on his boat. Charlie also let it slip that the Germans have a huge gunship in a lake downriver that effectively keeps the British forces at bay. Rose puts these two thoughts together and decides that she and Charlie should sink the German gunship by ramming a torpedo-wielding African Queen into it. Of course, that is assuming they can navigate the treacherous river together, avoiding its natural and man-made dangers all the while. As you might surmise from my brief character descriptions, Charlie and Rose are not very similar and much of the story is devoted to their relationship. Predictably, they start out fairly frosty toward each other, but eventually warm up and fall in love. The film is basically their love story, with the attack on the Germans serving as their zero hour.
I hadn't seen this film in at least ten years before this viewing, so I went in with somewhat fond recollections. I wasn't terribly impressed with the first act of the movie this time around, though. Sure, I appreciated the amount of scenes that were clearly filmed in Africa (which was a hassle in 1951 with their enormous cameras) and liked the subtle jab at the futile efforts of "converting" third world people to Christianity. I've got no problem with missionaries converting people, but to presume that you can create spiritual and moral understanding without having a language in common is just silly. Oh, Colonialism, you are the prankster of all -isms. But I digress. Charlie and Rose's characters are well-established in these early scenes, but something about them bothers me. I don't think they are very likable characters when the movie begins. I understand that their stereotypical presentations are just to establish a quick understanding between the filmmakers and the audience, but these scenes are awkward, both purposefully and accidentally. I see this serving a purpose in their relationship, but the pace is slow enough for this part of the film to seriously drag.
That doesn't last long, though. Once the film establishes its direction with the let's-sink-the-Krauts idea, the main characters loosen up and become very entertaining. This isn't a typical Bogart role; his character has more flaws than most of his memorable characters and fewer obvious strengths. This isn't your normal, debonair romantic Bogart, either. Charlie is dirty and uncouth. This might be the happiest Bogart character I have seen, though, and when Charlie is enjoying himself the movie flies by. Bogart won the Best Actor Oscar for this role, and it is a fine performance, although it might have been one of those we-can't-believe-you-haven't-won-yet awards, since he beat out Marlon Brando's work in A Streetcar Named Desire. Katherine Hepburn is no slouch, either, of course. I'm not usually a huge Hepburn fan (mostly because of her voice), but she does a good job here, showing a very plausible transition from prim and proper lady to a woman discovering love for the first time. Plus, it's Katherine Hepburn...the woman's whole career was Oscar nominated, so you can bet she doesn't mail her performance in here. Together, Bogart and Hepburn are delightful to watch and their romance manages to remain fun and never gets too cloying.
There really aren't many other actors in this film. After Robert Morley's character dies, the next important character is the German captain, played by Peter Bull. They're serviceable, but that because that's all they need to be. This is not an ensemble movie. That means that the director, frequent Bogart collaborator John Huston, spent almost his entire focus on the film's romance, and it pays off in spades. The cinematography is pretty good, although the occasional African animals that receive a quick cut were clearly never near the stars. Huston is a great director, and while this movie is more light-hearted than most of his classic works, he is still able to make an entertaining film with two great lead performances.
John Huston also co-wrote the screenplay, which is substantially less great than his direction. It's not a bad script, by any means, but a lot of the dialogue has become dated in a way that his other screenwriting credits have not. There is also the completely valid complaint that the plot of this movie is implausible as all hell. I don't really mind that so much, since the main characters are so much fun to watch, but it would be a huge problem if the lead actors were, say, Ashton Kutcher and Tara Reid.
The absolute worst thing about this film, though, is the soundtrack. There are long periods where the only background noise comes from nature, and that fits this film's tone perfectly. Every so often, though, Allan Gray's score pops up. I don't have any musical education, so it's hard for me to put those sounds into words. I guess the best I can do is have you picture Denzel Washington, after several tense minutes, breaking into a smile to charm his woman, even in a bad situation...and then the Popeye theme music comes in, not as a joke or an homage, but because they felt that that type of music with those instruments fit that moment just right. Awful, right? Well, it's a little worse in The African Queen. It's so bad that the score should end each of its pieces with a "wah-waaaaah" noise to at least sympathize with the audience that has to listen to it.
To summarize: Bogart and Hepburn are great, and so is Huston's direction. The writing is a little hokey, but the score is distractingly bad (when it appears).