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The African Queen

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The African Queen

Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley
Director: John Huston
Rated: NR
RunTime: 103 Minutes
Release Date: February 1952
Genres: Classic, Action, Romance, Drama

*Also starring: Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell, Gerald Onn, Peter Swanwick, Richard Marner

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

As I wrote in some of my earlier reviews, I encounter somewhat embarrassing phenomenon when I watch cinema classics. There are films that are universally lauded and cherished as great achievements of seventh art. These are movies I'm supposed to like and appreciate. But more often that I would like, I find that some of those films don't meet my expectations, made sky-high through the decades long hype. These films, naturally, have some qualities, but those qualities are not enough to justify their cult status. One of such examples is THE AFRICAN QUEEN, 1951 romantic adventure by John Huston.

The plot of the film, based on the novel by C.S. Forester, is set in German East Africa in September 1914. In a remote jungle village of Kundi, Reverend Samuel Sayer (played by Robert Morley) and his spinster sister Rose (played by Katherine Hepburn) are running Methodist mission. The only link to civilisation comes in the form of "African Queen", small river steamer that occasionally brings supplies and mail. Its owner and captain is Charlie Allnut (played by Humphrey Bogart), rough Canadian who would warn Sayers about the war that erupted in Europe. Soon after his departure, German troops enter village, burn houses and capture inhabitants for the purposes of forced recruitment and slave labour. Sayer is so devastated with the shock that he suffers nervous breakdown and dies few days later. When Allnut revisits now ruined mission, he finds Rose to be alone. He volunteers to bring her to safety. He wants to wait for the end of war in his jungle hideout, but Rose has different plans. She not only wants to come to the British-controlled territory, but also comes to the crazy idea to use Allnut's supplies of explosive to sink large German gunboat standing in their way. Allnut reluctantly agrees with her and this is the beginning of the long and perilous journey.

THE AFRICAN QUEEN was constantly hailed as masterpiece, and often referenced as movie that finally brought well-deserved "Oscar" to Humphrey Bogart. But, this film is disappointment nevertheless - hardly a zenith in the careers of Bogart and Huston. Of course, there are some good elements, mostly in the script written by Huston and John Agee. The script uses good old motive of "opposites attract" by putting two totally opposite characters in unusual circumstances and gradually showing the evolution of their relationship, as well as the evolution of characters themselves. We watch those characters - uptight, stiff-upper-lip British spinster and rough and insensitive Canadian riverboat captain - finding not only that they have more in common that they had to admit, but also finding romantic attractions towards each other. Both of the actors who portray protagonists - Bogart and Hepburn - were past their prime when they made this film, but they gave superb performance nevertheless, often using humour to make their on-screen chemistry more believable.

Unfortunately, when movie doesn't deal with Allnut and Rose, it gets rather disappointing. The journey itself is interesting, with many realistic problems and even more realistic solutions. But the realism of the film is severely undermined with melodramatic scenes in the latter part of the film, followed by even more melodramatic, unbelievable deus ex machina ending. It is even more so with extremely dated special effects that fail to connect footage shot on locations in (then) Belgian Congo and British Uganda with characters obviously shot in London studios. Some of viewers who are sensitive about "political correctness" would frown upon not so favourable, even racist, treatment of natives in this film.

The biggest problem I have with this film is, however, the lack of historical accuracy. The film suggests that Germans in East Africa at the start of WW1 had the upper hand, as well as intention and resources to conquer the whole continent, using the same brutal force and employing same methods as Nazis would use in WW2. Nothing could be farther from the truth. German colonies were scattered and isolated from mother country, manned by small garrisons and generally destined to be easily taken over by superior forces stationed in bordering Entente colonies. It happened with each of German overseas territories, with the exception of German East Africa. Local commander, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, was putting stiff resistance to Entente and lasted until the capitulation of mother country in 1918, mostly using the hit and run strategy. That earned him the reputation of one of the most successful guerrilla commanders in history, and that success is impossible to explain without at least some support from local natives. German forces in East Africa perhaps were as savage as depicted in this film, but such savagery was probably common to their Entente counterparts; native Africans had no reason to favour one colonial master over another. THE AFRICAN QUEEN, one of the rare that actually deals with this exotic theatre of WW1, fails to take that into account - flaw that would be corrected only quarter of century later by Jean-Jacques Annaud in his NOIRS ET BLANCS EN COULEUR.

Historical inaccuracies, bad special effects and script flaws aside, THE AFRICAN QUEEN is still entertaining film which is worth watching. Mostly thanks to excellent performance of Bogart and Hepburn; two of them would make us forget that the same story was later told in much better, yet less celebrated films.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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