Thursday 3 October 2013

The African Queen (1951)

Humphrey Bogart impersonates a hippopotamus.
I quite like boat-films set on rivers.  I'm not a fan of boats, and have in past made sweeping statements about my lack of interest in films set at sea, but there's something rather pleasing about this and 'Aguirre: the Wrath of God' (1972) and 'Apocalypse Now' (1979), stories set in tiny boats traversing tangled rivers in the middle of jungles.  It's never clear whether the river will go where it ought, and in each film we're told it would be madness to attempt the course, but times are always desperate.  The river's basically a road that nobody built and nobody knows, and it could easily lead you into traps or else disappear entirely, leaving you lost without hope.  Thinking about it, perhaps that's why I don't like being in boats, but as the concept for a movie it really works.

At first the film doesn't look to be so boaty.  We're introduced to the continent (Africa, if you're curious) with a scene of Katharine Hepburn playing the harmonium for her unnamed brother, a missionary who we're meant to dislike from the off: he makes the Africans moan English hymns (and moan they do, in what seemed a rather racist portrayal of black incompetence to a basic task), and he bitches about how he ought to be a bishop by now.  He's mercifully released from the film inside a quarter-hour by some World War I Germans, meaning we can focus on the real stars.

Into Katharine Hepburn's life comes Humphrey Bogart.  Not the slick Bogart of 'Casablanca' (1941), but a crude and stubbly commoner, with a proper workman's tan.  It's not the sort of role I'd associate with Bogart, more the sort of thing I'd expect of Charlton Heston - indeed, Chuck appeared in a film of strikingly similar tone and setting two years later, 'The Naked Jungle', except that had killer ants rather than the German army, but was in all other respects cashing in on the success of this picture.

Katharine Hepburn pours away the gin.  Based on my recent experiences, a good idea.
So With the 'natives' written out as a homogenous crowd of no intelligence, and the missionary a berk, and a dead berk at that, it's left to Humphrey Bogart to carry the film.  Him and Katharine Hepburn, but with such a prim character she has a fight on her hands if she's to rival his charisma in this old age of men.  Her somewhat puritanical manner gives us the delight of watching a slow transformation, as she discovers the pure physical delight of white-water rafting, a love of danger that turns her into a reckless Mary Poppins, more than a match for Bogie.

The premise seems to promise constant jeopardy, with the dangers of water, jungle and war all in close proximity.  In actuality, our pair of heroes are hardly ever under threat.  For the first hour, what we get is almost a two-hander, the most of the film an unfurling romantic comedy between the two characters.  Indeed, the film seems much more interested in showing us colour footage of elephants, crocodiles and the like (it's strange to think of this as having a novelty value) than delivering on the river's potential for tension and drama.  But when threats come they are tense indeed, and John Huston showing himself to an incredibly good director (an attribute he hid expertly in 1967's 'Casino Royale', for instance).

P.S. I always confuse Katharine Hepburn with Audrey Hepburn who was in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (1961), and confuse both of them with Barbara Hepworth, whose sculptures littered my garden when I used to live in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

P.P.S. The African Queen of the title is the boat, though I suppose on some metaphorical level it may be Ms Hepburn.  There's never any suggestion that it might refer to anyone who's actually African.

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