As I said, I rewatched John Huston’s The African Queen, from 1951.
And I’m pretty glad I did – because I’ve seen it so often that I knew the story almost by heart, and this time I concentrated on a number of details that, when I was younger, I missed.So, let’s do away with the plot.
So, let’s do away with the basic plot.
According to IMDb…
In Africa during WWI, a gin-swilling riverboat captain is persuaded by a strait-laced missionary to use his boat to attack an enemy warship.
Which is pretty straightforward.
The film – based on a book by C.S. Forester, is set in 1914 and it does involve the hare-brained plan cooked up by Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) to sink the Luisa, a German gunboat patrolling a lake 1The movie’s a great adventure yarn, a comedy, a drama, a love story. One of the greatest film of all time. Do they still make them like this? I doubt it.
The movie’s a great adventure yarn, a comedy, a drama, a love story. One of the greatest film of all time. Do they still make them like this? I doubt it.
And there’s the stuff I didn’t remember.
The first is the role played by Robert Morley, as the Reverend Samuel Sayer, which I remembered as a comedic character, but is actually very sad and dramatic – a loser, trying to live uip to expectations in Africa, whose mind and body crack after the Germans set fire to the village in which he set up his mission.
The second, and the one which struck me the most is how the romantic relation between Charlie and Rose develops quickly and early on in the movie. This seems to go against the current popular narrative structure: The African Queen is not the story of two that live through danger and adventure, and fall in love; it’s the story of two that fall in love, and therefore live through danger and adventure.
Which to me seems a lot sounder, as a plot development.
And then, of course, there’s the bit about the two leads – that for today standards are old and (especially Bogart) not exactly glamorous.
But it works – no, it can only work like this.
Put two younger leads in the roles, and the story turns into a prank.
Rose and Charlie need a past, a series of losses and scars.
Because the African Queen looks on the surface as a revenge story – Germans kill Rose’s brother, Rose wants to sink their ship – but it is actually a story of redemption, of two characters that were badly handles by life and by their peers, two losers by all means (a middle-aged drunkard and an equally middle-aged spinster), that get back their dignity in the end.
Which is the reason why I think I will try and get me a copy of the original C.S. Forester novel (and once I read it, I will inflict my opinions on you again).
Because there’s some deeply instructive stuff, in this story, and I might learn a trick or two.
In the meantime, go watch The African Queen.
Or, if you already watched it… watch it again.
- there was a German gunboat patrolling Lake Tanganyika during WWI – but the river the Queen follows does not wash into Tanganyika. ↩