“I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
One of my fondest memories of collegiate life was a weekend in 1982 in which the activities department at Marshall University put together a film tribute to actor Humphrey Bogart as part of their weekly showing of classic and cult movies. I can’t recollect the exact scheduling (the MU people would showcase a feature on Friday afternoons/evenings and then have a matinee on Sundays) but I do recall that Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca made up the lineup and this little event exposed me to three of Bogie’s major classics for the first time. The last film, which I have forcefully stated many times at my home base of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, is my favorite movie of all time. I still can remember the audience cheering wildly at Claude Rains’ discovery that Bogart, as Rick Blaine, has double-crossed him (“Not so fast, Louie…”) and will be helping Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid out on the next plane to Lisbon.
That weekend wasn’t my introduction to one of my favorite actors, however. Years earlier, through the magic of television, I saw the film that earned Bogie his best actor Oscar, The African Queen (1951), because my mother was a huge fan of the film and it soon became one of my favorites, one of those movies which gets watched to the very end if I should happen to see it playing on, say, Turner Classic Movies. Fortunately for classic movie fans, you don’t have to wait for its TCM scheduling — Queen made its Region 1 DVD debut (it had only been previously available in Region 2 releases) on March 23, 2010 (simultaneously with its Blu-ray debut) in a breathtakingly gorgeous restoration from Paramount Home Video. In fact, it was explained that its long absence from DVD was due to the difficulty in locating the film’s original negative. Queen, based on the 1935 novel by C.S. Forester, made the rounds of motion picture theaters 60 years ago today.
It is September 1914, and Anglican missionaries Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) spread the gospel to natives in the German Eastern African village of Kungdu when they receive a visit from Charlie Allnut (Bogart), skipper of the African Queen. Allnut is responsible for bringing their mail and supplies, and during his stopover informs the Sayers that since war has broken out between England and Germany, their mail delivery will be affected; he also advises the two of them to abandon their post because of his concern that the German army will recruit Kungdu’s able-bodied young men to fight for their cause. Samuel staunchly refuses, but only seconds after Charlie departs he and Rose are visited by German soldiers, who respond to Samuel’s protests with the business end of a rifle butt as his fellow conscripts start rounding up the natives and setting the village ablaze. With Kungdu in ruins, Samuel soon comes down with fever and dies — Charlie returns to the village in time to help Rose bury her brother and then agrees to spirit her away on his boat.
Despite the vessel being well-stocked with provisions, Charlie and Rose’s escape from their circumstances will not be an easy task; the Ulanga River presents obstacles in the three sets of rapids and a German stronghold in the form of a fort in the town of Shona. Because the ship’s supplies also include blasting materials (gelignite) and oxygen/hydrogen tanks, Rose, filled with both stiff-upper-lip patriotism and bitterness over her brother's death, proposes that the two of them fashion makeshift torpedoes out of the materials and use them to take on the Queen Louisa (or as the Germans refer to it, the Königin Luise), a large gunboat guarding the lake in which the Ulanga empties. Charlie is convinced that what Rose is suggesting will be a suicide mission, but he agrees to the plan only to get cold feet shortly after navigating the first set of rapids. He declares his intentions to have nothing to do with Rose’s plan after a gin-sponsored bender. The next morning, suffering from a hangover, Charlie watches helplessly as Rose pours every last drop of his precious gin into the Ulanga and follows this up with “the silent treatment,” Charlie reconsiders the mission.
German soldiers fire upon Charlie and Rose as they pass the fort at Shona, and though the two of them avoid being hit by gunfire, the men do manage to hit the African Queen’s boiler, disconnecting one of its steam pressure hoses and bringing the vessel to a temporary halt. (Charlie manages to reconnect the hose and they pass by the fort unscathed.) The boat then hits the second set of rapids and survives the ordeal with minimal damage, prompting the duo to engage in a celebratory embrace which leads to a kiss. It is by this time in their adventure that they cannot deny the strong attraction that has developed between them, which leads to an amusing scene in which Rose asks her new boyfriend awkwardly: “Dear, what is your first name?”
The couple finally navigates the final set of rapids, but in doing so sustain damage to the Queen’s shaft and propeller. Rose convinces Charlie that he has the skills to repair the boat and, using what is available on a nearby island, he restores the Queen to working order and they’re off again down the river. However, they soon discover the deception of the Ulanga River; they “lose the channel” and become stranded on a mud bank surrounded by reeds in all directions — with Charlie sidelined with fever (after an experience in which he emerges from the murky water covered with leeches). When all appears lost, Rose offers up a prayer asking that she and Charlie be granted entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven…and in answer to that prayer, rains from a monsoon soon lift the boat out of the mud and into the mouth of the lake — as it turns out, they were less than a hundred yards from their destination.
Charlie and Rose, having spotted the Louisa patrolling the lake, prepare the makeshift torpedoes and go after the German craft come nightfall, but en route they get trapped in a squall and the African Queen capsizes due to the holes made in its sides to accompany the torpedoes. The Louisa’s crew captures Charlie who is crestfallen because he thinks Rose has drowned, so much so that he stoically accepts the captain’s decision to hang him. Surprisingly, Rose has survived the Queen’s sinking and is brought aboard to face questioning where she proudly tells the Louisa’s captain of their plot to scuttle the ship, resulting in her sentence of execution as well. Before the couple's hanging, Charlie asks the Louisa’s captain if he’ll marry him and Rose; that buys enough time for the Louisa to run into the Queen’s wreckage, detonating the torpedoes and sinking the ship. The newly married Allnuts swim to safety toward the Belgian Congo as the film concludes.
Upon its publication in 1935, The African Queen originally was optioned for a film adaptation by several studios including RKO and Warner Bros. — Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester even made a movie (with a similar story, though the source material came from W. Somerset Maugham) in 1938 entitled Vessel of Wrath (aka The Beachcomber). Over the years, several actors were suggested for the part of Charlie Allnut; John Mills, David Niven and James Mason being the most prominent — Bette Davis was the only actress in serious contention for Rose, but after an abortive attempt to do the movie in 1947 (scuttled because of Davis’ pregnancy) she was passed over two years later in favor of Katharine Hepburn when the production got underway. (Director John Huston, who had already chosen Humphrey Bogart for his Charlie, once stated in an interview that Hepburn was tabbed because Bogart had expressed an interest in working with her.) While it’s possible to see Davis playing the part, the choice of Hepburn (in what would be her first color film) was the right one despite some initial reservations on the part of Huston with Kate’s performance. Thinking she was making the Rose character a little too severe, John suggested that Hepburn imitate the indomitable spirit of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who always remained cheerful despite any adversity. (Hepburn later observed that Huston’s suggestion was the finest bit of directing she’d ever received.)
Hepburn’s performance in the film is a marvel because the actress bravely allowed herself to be filmed au natural, which no doubt stunned audiences at the time as they saw the great Kate playing her true middle-age (something that she would go on to do from that point in her career, particularly in David Lean's wonderful 1955 film Summertime) and yet they witnessed a woman who transforms from a “crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid” into a spunky, sexy woman whose romance with the unlikely Charlie makes her giddy as a schoolgirl (I love the scene where she giggles and laughs uncontrollably at Charlie’s animal noises on the boat). The relationship between the characters is so genuine and feels so right, you literally watch the barriers between the two melt away during the course of their adventure. Pay particularly close attention when Rose helps Charlie pump water out of the boat and she stops momentarily, caught up in her romantic reverie. Charlie has got it bad as well. In assisting Rose with the task,c you can just see how dazed and delighted he is to have found true love. Director John Huston could scarcely ignore the magic between the two characters and decided to buck the tradition of most of his films (which tend to feature what one critic has called “beautiful losers”) by allowing Charlie and Rose’s torpedo scheme to succeed (in Forester’s book the plan doesn’t quite come off) and joining the two in holy matrimony (a plot device also designed to ward off criticism by bluenoses finger-wagging at Charlie and Rose’s cohabitation outside marriage).
Huston and Bogart were not only close friends in real life, they had made onscreen magic working together as far back as the director’s feature film debut, The Maltese Falcon, and as recently as one of Huston’s masterpieces, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. To accommodate the handicap of Bogart’s inability to do a Cockney accent, however, the character of Charlie Allnut became a Canadian, prompting a hefty rewrite of the script. Though the role of Charlie would seem a departure for Bogie, known for his tough-guy antiheroes, there are many shared characteristics between him and other Bogart characters (Allnut shares the same unshaven scruffiness as Sierra Madre’s Fred C. Dobbs, for example), particularly that of the individual who eventually comes around in support of the cause for the greater good. Bogart was nominated for a best actor Oscar for his performance (Hepburn also was tabbed, along with Huston for his direction and screenplay with co-writer James Agee) and despite stiff competition that year from Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Fredric March, the Academy got sentimental and awarded the actor the coveted trophy.
The realistic atmosphere and look of the film stem from the decision by Huston and producer Sam Spiegel (along with brothers John and James Woolf, who financed the movie through their Romulus Films company) to shoot on location in Uganda and the Congo in Africa. Under normal circumstances, this production would have been daunting but because it was a Technicolor film (which necessitated large, unwieldy cameras), the shoot proved to be an ordeal for all involved. Hepburn later detailed the colorful history of the production in a book, The Making of the African Queen, or: How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, and a fascinating featurette included on the Paramount Home Video DVD, Embracing Chaos: Making the African Queen, also contains enthralling anecdotes about this remarkable motion picture. The cast and crew survived any number of adverse conditions, chiefly among them sickness due to the dysentery resulting from contaminated drinking water. Hepburn, for example, became so ill that a bucket was placed near the pipe organ she plays in the opening church scenes. According to cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the actress was “a real trouper.” The only two individuals on the film who escaped illness, according to legend, were Huston and Bogart, primarily because the men subsisted on the imported Scotch they had brought with them. (Bogie later cracked: “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.”)
The size of the African Queen also presented problems where the Technicolor cameras were concerned — because there was not enough room for the cameras on the boat (which measured 16 feet long and 5 feet wide), a mock-up of the craft was put together on a larger raft and the production used several such rafts to the point where the river hosted a small flotilla, with the last pontoon housing Hepburn’s “loo” (her contract stipulated that she be provided with private restroom facilities). The waters of the river, considered poisonous due to bacteria, animal excrement, etc., were never utilized in shots or sequences requiring Bogie and Kate’s immersal — they were filmed separately in studio tanks at the Isleworth Studios in London. Despite the challenges presented in the making of the film, what resulted was a certified masterpiece — at a time when “independent” films are the Hollywood darlings of today, The African Queen was a noteworthy example of that particular type of movie (made outside the dictates of the studio system) even though industry wags remained skeptical about its performance at the box office. (The film was a tremendous success, but director Huston never collected on the payday because of his desire to sever his ties with producer Spiegel; cinematographer Cardiff also had the option of taking a percentage of the profits to subsidize a lower salary but he begged off, having had a bad experience with another film he had worked on in that same year, The Magic Box.)
Queen enraptured me as a young movie fan, and continues to do so today — I think it would be the perfect film to introduce to classic movie-adverse audiences because of its skillful blend of adventure, romance and even comedy (There are some hilarious moments in this movie, chiefly the scene where Charlie sets down to tea with the Sayers). The fact that it’s in gorgeous Technicolor also is a plus, particularly since new generations often shrink from movies filmed in monochrome. Writer-director Nicholas Meyer observes in the Embracing Chaos documentary that “Movies are like soufflés — they either rise or they don’t — and people seldom are able to predict or tell you why. The African Queen is an improbably cinematic triumph, made against seemingly insurmountable odds and comprising a bunch of disparate, desperate characters who, saving the movie business, would probably not even be in the same world let alone the same room with each other.” The results of that grand moviemaking adventure captured on film make The African Queen a must-see for audiences of any age.