The following is my entry in The 2nd Annual Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, hosted from May 9-12, 2015 by the so-cute-you-could-pinch-her MargaretPerry.org. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ critiques of their favorite movies starring Katharine Hepburn!
(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
“Road movie.” As soon as The African Queen shifted into gear, that was my first thought.
You know the road movie. It’s a genre that throws together two disparate character types (strait-laced vs. free-spirited, or when more blunt, black guy vs. white guy) and gives them an excuse for a road trip neither one wants, just so that we can watch them rub together like two worn-out sticks, eventually striking fire with each other — either bad (in a loud, verbose argument) or good (hey, that white guy isn’t so bad after all).
Co-writer/director John Huston came up with the ultimate road movie — even though it’s set on an African river in World War I. From Rosie Sayer and Charlie Allnut to Bonnie and Clyde isn’t as huge of a leap as it first seems.
We first meet Rosie (Katharine Hepburn) running a Sunday service in a makeshift East African church in 1914 with her preacher/brother Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley, in a role nearly as thankless as that of the countless half-dressed African-native extras). Samuel, a British missionary, is nonchalantly and gamely trying to lead the local natives in hymn-singing, but from the dispirited warbling we hear, it appears that the natives are just humoring these missionaries rather than being truly imbued with any holy spirit.
Charlie (Oscar-winning Humphrey Bogart), the captain of the tramp steamer from which the movie gets its title, stops by on a semi-regular journey to deliver the pair’s mail. The Sayers are so out of touch with civilization that Charlie has to explain that there’s a war going on between the Germans and a lot of other countries.
There follows a lightly satirical scene in which the Sayers and Charlie try to have a civil cup of tea while trying to ignore Charlie’s empty stomach, which is gurgling more mightily than Charlie Chaplin’s did during tea with the preacher’s wife in Modern Times.
The trio try to convince themselves that the Germans wouldn’t have any reason to occupy their outward village. But practically right after Charlie leaves to set sail again, some nasty Germans enter the village, take all the natives away, and burn down the village’s houses and the Sayers’ church, leaving the Sayers in shock.
In what appears to be a week later, Samuel has gone into full-blown dementia over losing his makeshift congregation, and eventually gets a fever and dies. I say that Robert Morley’s role is thankless because the first 20 minutes of the movie are definitely its weakest. John Huston seems to be in such a rush to get his movie going that he zips right through the exposition in order to get to the juicy stuff. That includes Morley’s portrayal of Samuel losing his mind in record time, even managing to get off a condescending remark about his sister Rosie in the process.
In any case, Charlie returns to tell Rosie that his makeshift crew of natives deserted his ship as soon as they found out that the Germans had invaded. When Rosie tells Charlie that Samuel has died, Charlie kindly offers to help bury Samuel and then take Rosie on his boat to get her out of the burned-down village.
While riding out of the village on The African Queen, Rosie examines some maps and asks why Charlie thinks it will be difficult to get out of the jungle. Charlie explains that the main route out of Africa is occupied by a massive German gunboat that nobody cares to take on in battle.
When Rosie discovers that Charlie has detonators and other potentially lethal weapons aboard his boat, Rosie suggests that Charlie create a torpedo with which to blast the German gunboat out of the water. When Charlie says that the main thing such a torpedo would be lacking is a propeller, Rosie blithely proposes that she and Charlie use The African Queen as said propeller.
Never mind that Rosie wants to use his boat as a bomb; Charlie gets apoplectic at the thought of navigating the many rapids that lay between them and the gunboat, and he assertively informs Rosie of this. When Rosie guilt-trips Charlie into fighting for his (actually, her) country, Charlie gives in.
Thus, the movie’s modus operandi is established: Rosie will come up with some Lucy Ricardo-like crazy scheme, Charlie will sputter and scream about how it can’t be done, and Rosie waits for Charlie to calm down before informing him that they’ll do it anyway.
Huston, his co-writers, and C.S. Forester (upon whose novel the movie is based) may have thought that setting the movie in German-occupied Africa in World War I turned the story into a serious statement, but in the end, it’s still a road movie. Nobody but a deluded historian would watch this movie thinking that he’s getting a glimpse into a WWI battle. Let’s face it, we’ve come to see sparks fly between two established movie stars.
On that basis, happily, the movie works in spades. It has to, because despite the movie’s life-or-death setting, Huston still can’t resist glossing over major plot points. After Charlie launches a gin-fueled (and somewhat justified) rant at Rosie, he wakes up the next morning to find Rosie quietly dumping Charlie’s entire gin supply into the river.
Now, I can believe that Charlie is so hung over that he doesn’t have the strength to counteract Rosie’s temperance movement. What I can’t believe is that, after it’s been established what a boozer Charlie is, we hardly even hear about Charlie’s alcoholism again. No withdrawal, no D.T.’s. All it took was some hard-nosed abolitionist destroying Charlie’s liquor supply to get him off the sauce. I wonder if Lauren Bacall ever tried that method with Bogie?
Also, when the movie is quietly making a feminist statement — notice that I said “quietly” — it really works wonders. It’s rather refreshing to see Rosie declaring that she will work side-by-side with Charlie whether he likes it or not, and then turning out to be his equal in every way.
(Probably the best scene in the movie is when The African Queen conquers some seemingly deathly rapids, and Charlie and Rosie embrace each other in triumph, culminating in a kiss that neither one of them had expected.)
The worst aspect of the movie is seeing Charlie and Rosie billing and cooing and using flat exposition to recap the heroics that had just been successfully portrayed through eye-popping visuals. “You were so brave when we were coming through those rapids, dear.” – “I couldn’t have done it without you beside me, darling.” That’s not an exact quote of the movie’s cornball romantic dialogue, but it comes pretty close.
I don’t think I’m giving much away by stating that the movie has a happy ending, but besides the action-packed sailing scenes, the movie’s finale is one of the most satisfying parts. The late film critic Roger Ebert called it “a closing scene of unmatched melodrama,” which Ebert apparently intended as an insult. But in the end, Ebert turned back on himself and agreed — as do I — that such a scene is just what is called for at that point.
Huston, Hepburn, and Bogart fell all over themselves giving credit for the movie’s success to the others. Whoever was responsible, Hepburn and Bogart truly combine for star power of a kind that is no longer seen in the movies, simply because we no longer have movie stars of their magnitude.
If any scene summarizes the movie’s underlying theme, it’s the one where the exhausted Charlie and Rosie reach a dead stop in their journey and come to terms with what they think is their impending death. Charlie falls asleep, as does Rosie after she says a prayer to God asking Him to accept them into heaven. The camera pans from the sleeping duo over to the nearby river, which the couple didn’t realize is separated from them only by 100 yards or so of jungle brush.
Both The African Queen and The African Queen seem guided by providence — full of suspenseful twists and turns, but eventually guided to immortality by the hand of God (or John Huston — who, as the movie’s legend has it, thought he was God anyway).