Reflections on “The African Queen”

Directed by John Huston

Screenplay by John Huston and James Agee, Peter Viertel and John Collier, based on the book by C.S. Forester

Starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

This is an apparently straightforward tale of two ill-matched and unlikely escapees of German expansion in Africa at the outbreak of World War One who set out to use a fairly decrepit old river boat (the African Queen) to find and destroy a German gunboat patrolling the lake at the end of the Ulanga River, thereby allowing an Allied counterattack.

Along the way, we are treated to some wonderful character development, an unusual and totally engaging love story, observations on religion, social status, feminism and tyranny, and we witness the result of the combination of spiritual strength and physical ability. We are also treated to clever and cunning performances from the lead actors and sly, multi-layered and brisk direction from John Huston.

The start of the film is very important as it establishes situation and character. Huston is quite brilliant in terms of managing to condense a substantial amount of information on circumstances and character traits into just a few short minutes.

Our story opens during a religious service conducted by missionary Samuel Sayer, accompanied by his sister Rose. Their work consists of introducing Christianity (and European mores) to the natives of a community living by the Ulanga River. Judging by the scenes in which they attempt to sing a hymn with the villagers, it is fair to say this well-intentioned and gentle attempt to impose European religion and culture on this African community is failing somewhat.

Samuel and Rose appear to be considerably more concerned by this failure than the villagers, especially when they are distracted by the African Queen’s ship’s whistle, marking the arrival of Charlie Allnut and any number of physical diversions from the stout spiritual work being conducted by the missionaries.

After abandoning the hymn as their congregation takes its leave (note we have our first hint of Rose’s determination and strength of spirit as she persists in ending the hymn and giving a full-voiced “Amen” even after her brother has ceased singing and produced a rather perfunctory “Amen”), Samuel and Rose invite Charlie to have tea with them.

Not only have Samuel and Rose brought Christianity and hymn-singing to this remote African community, they have also imported English afternoon tea complete with English etiquette to go with it.

Totally anachronistic, given the geographical, historical and social contexts, Samuel and Rose nevertheless insist on fussy politeness and the maintenance of social standards when serving tea.

Apart from being amused and entertained by the scenes in which tea is served, we learn that Samuel and Rose belong to a somewhat coddled and perhaps sheltered class whose lives are governed by social niceties, rules and position. Charlie, on the other hand, is seen as a pleasant, natural and open man used to industry. He is not afraid of hard work but is equally happy to sit back and enjoy some relaxation. He is willing – even keen – to discuss the embarrassment of his loudly rumbling stomach (and thereby dissipate it), but his hosts are too schooled in manners and etiquette to be able to cope with any infringement of such, and they may even consider him their social inferior.

Samuel’s inability to cope with challenge and difficulty proves too much for him when the Germans invade the community, set fire to the villagers’ homes and, showing a complete disregard for common humanity and human rights, bundle the villagers off for the purpose of forced labour. This is in direct contrast with his gentle (if unsuccessful) attempts to inculcate European values. He is struck, but Samuel loses the place largely as a result of his inability to cope with such brutal violations of his Christian code. He dies, but not before revealing several truths about himself and his sister.

Samuel, it seems, was not bright enough to shine as an academic and opted to pursue what he hoped would be perceived as a worthwhile (if distinctly second rate) career as a missionary. Rose appears to have been included in this “deal” as she was not considered “comely” enough to attract an appropriate husband and apparently it was uncommon for women to be expected to succeed independently. Africa was perhaps viewed as a destination for “failures”, or at least as an inferior career path for those unable to gain a place in Europe, and one wonders if Charlie Allnut (willing and pleasant, but hardly inspirational) also fits into this categorisation. However, Rose and Charlie will shortly display strength of character, determination and courage which will prove these judgments decidedly wrong …..

At the start, Charlie might be described as something of a feckless wanderer - a man who drifts from job to job happy to keep his head above water and displaying competence but no real ambition or direction. He is friendly and at ease with the villagers and shows no “side”. He is also natural, caring and polite – he is willing to make the effort to get along with Samuel and Rose even though they show him scant regard or respect. There is even a hint of innocence and purity in his actions and manner as he shows kindness, goodness and generosity when he buries Samuel and offers to take Rose to safety on board the African Queen.

As has already been suggested, Rose is made of sterner stuff than her brother. Even from the little we see of her at the start of the film, it is clear she is a woman of spiritual and moral substance – persisting with the hymn and “Amen” despite the hymn’s reception, her insistence on etiquette at afternoon tea and her polite diffidence in persistently referring to Charlie as “Mr Allnut”. She is also, however, stirred and distressed by the amoral and selfish actions of the enemy (her brother’s death and their awful treatment of the villagers) and especially her brother’s “indictment” or judgment of her as a woman. She wants to prove her worth and she wants to hurt the enemy.

Principled and idealistic, Rose is highly spirited (and certainly not just in terms of religious fervour), but she has led a sheltered existence and is relatively inexperienced in the practicalities of life. Charlie, on the other hand, is very well versed in the practicalities of life but lacks direction and drive. Together, they make the perfect pair – Rose sees very clearly what to do while Charlie sees how to do it. Consumed with the sense of duty to fight the enemy, Rose conceives the idea to attack and destroy the enemy gunboat (the Louisa) which is patrolling the lake at the end of the Ulanga River, and which is preventing Allied advances. Charlie, somewhat to his own surprise and really just to humour Rose, sees a way to achieve this using potentially explosive and cleverly combined materials already on board the African Queen. Of course, Charlie is convinced the sheltered and inexperienced Rose will abandon her daring and idealistic plans as she encounters numerous practical hardships and faces physical dangers. In the end, however, Rose is thrilled by their physical encounters with peril and is much impressed by Charlie’s ability to navigate the dangers they face together, while Charlie is equally impressed by Rose’s spirit and resilience.

They form the perfect team as each complements the other to allow them to achieve things neither would have considered or been able to do alone. Mutual admiration leads to appreciation and love, inspiring both to even greater acts and achievements.

Of course, what matters in terms of appeal and entertainment is that all of this is accomplished with charm, humour and affection.

Katharine Hepburn plays up her image as a haughty, difficult and aloof woman (her career came close to an early end precisely because of this image) who transforms into a loving, caring and touchingly sweet devoted partner. This transformation is tinged with a youthful innocence and happiness which is playful and appealing to the audience and is in direct contrast with our initial view of Rose, and indeed Miss Hepburn’s own public image.

Humphrey Bogart’s performance is a masterstroke of comic underplaying and playing against type. His excessive politeness and gentleness in the face of danger and provocation ran contrary to public experience and expectation and is crowned by the occasional grimace or reaction of outraged shock (emphasising his innocence and sincerity) cleverly shared with the audience before facing other characters.

The consciously playful interplay between the two leads, combined with the growth and development of the two main characters as they learn to appreciate one another’s qualities of spirituality and physicality, is a joy to behold.

Clearly, the suggestion is that in the right circumstances and with the right chemistry, apparent “losers” can be transformed into glorious winners, and that applies equally to the African Queen herself. This tired, worn and seemingly insignificant little boat provides a metaphor (in essence a mechanical mirror of those who sail her) for apparently spent or worthless forces rising up to fight tyranny and oppression.

At various points luck intervenes to support our pair’s efforts and help them on their way. These moments include the dazzling of the sniper as they pass the fort, the sudden rains that transport the African Queen the last few yards through marsh-land and of course the chance striking of the upturned and armed African Queen by the Louisa, saving Rose and Charlie from execution. Little is made of these strokes of luck, but there is certainly room for several possible interpretations – God working in mysterious ways, karma or just blind luck. I dare say viewers will opt for whichever interpretation best suits their outlook.

Although undoubtedly dated to modern audiences, the film is superbly co-written and directed by John Huston and is principally memorable for the comic yet touching development and evolution of the main characters. Bogart and Hepburn deserve the highest praise for their performances and I cannot recommend this film highly enough.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

www.stuartfernie.org