The African Queen

The African Queen

*****

Reviewed by: Max Blinkhorn

The African Queen is a classic Hollywood epic that... Hey just a minute, what's that? Made the Woolf Brothers of Romulus Films famous? British production company and crew? Shot on location in Africa and Isleworth, Surrey? Surely some mistake, here? No - The African Queen is as British as the perniciously pious Robert Morley who plays the missionary burdened by a giant chip on his shoulder from his childhood. But Morley’s performance, limited in scope and frankly, a little weak, unusually for him, is a minor sideshow in a film that is really a vehicle for the giant and obvious talents of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.

By some measures - in particular, special effects - The African Queen is not a great film. Some linking footage is repeated and the same locations are used at different points as the boat chugs its temperamental way down the river - very irritating to a pedant like me. The dummies in the boat going down the rapids are just that and that big boat on the lake behind the bushes is not moving right. But I didn’t mind any weakness once the magic of this film materialised before my eyes in the form of Bogart’s face, and his impolite stomach began its full five minute assault on the appalled, snobby minister characters played by Morley and Hepburn (as his sister, the desperately ladylike Rose). Within ten minutes of this, all I really want to see is the next exchange between our two genuine heroes.

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Hepburn starts the film as someone with a follower’s mindset, assisting her failed brother in his inept missionary work. But while descending the first exhilarating set of rapids she realises that she has probably never had a thrill in her entire life. Her awakening, though quick, is entirely plausible. You can almost see the cogs whirring as she hatches her plans for revenge on the Germans who cause the death of her brother, which to be fair, was not particularly brutal. But her mind is made up and she browbeats Bogart’s character, Allnut, into heading downriver with the intention of sinking the German ship which controls the lake.

There is a peculiar aspect to this film - the near surreal personality of Allnut. He is shifty and nervous as well as an expert drunk. Allnut’s and maybe Bogey’s mannerisms are straight out of the sanatorium and yet he holds the boat together and does his job well. Only a broken propeller defeats him, but then Rose, newly feisty, growing in confidence and not prepared to be a weak and feeble woman, comes to the rescue and together, working as equals, they pull off a convincing, highly technical repair job and get the boat going again. The underwater scenes are very strong and both actors do their own stunts which only adds to the feeling of genuine chemistry that is developing between them. The fact is that there is genuine and tangible affection between Hepburn and Bogart which manages to leech into the characters to produce film magic. The love that develops between them carries them both through and it‘s wonderful to watch.

Aside from the people, there is a third principal character in this film - the African Queen herself. Bogey’s old friend of a boat is temperamental and lets the pair down at just the wrong moment and on cue, though it never dumps them in the water as crocodile food. The boat is both device - Deus ex Boat, you might say - and personality.

The denouement is priceless and story perfect - I won’t spoil it, save to say that this is an out and out happy ending - how could it be anything else? It’s a classic feel good film for grown ups and in this digitally restored form is a real treat and reminder that audiences saw a quality product all those years ago, not the grainy, damaged affair us fiftysomethings grew up with on a Sunday afternoon on the telly.

Five stars are not enough. Take a lovely friend with you and it’ll be better again.

Reviewed on: 07 Mar 2011
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A prim missionary and boozy river trader sail a boat through Africa.
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Read more The African Queen reviews:

Amber Wilkinson *****

Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel, from the novel by C S Forester

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel

Year: 1951

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK

Festivals:

Glasgow 2011

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