Friday, July 19, 2013

Classic Film Reviews: The African Queen

By Liz Balderston

C.S. Forester’s novel The African Queen takes on the big screen as John Huston, a director notorious for putting his actors through hellish shoots, continues his prodigious career with Humphrey Bogart (who won his only Oscar for this role) and Katharine Hepburn.

In September of 1914, the former colony of German East Africa is notified of Germany’s at war status. Reverend and German missionary Samuel Sayer becomes a hostile foreigner. With his mission destroyed and after being severely beaten,  the Reverend passes away leaving his sister, Rose Sayer (Hepburn), alone as an unwelcome expatriate. Her only way out of the territory is through a sloven, gin-swilling captain of a steam boat called The African Queen (Bogart). What ensues is the legendary adventure of daring, cunning, and romance.

Shot in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the stars and crew alike had to battle against difficult conditions complete with soldier ants, black mambas, and crocodiles. The environment also provided certain health risks; allegedly everyone in the cast and crew got sick except for Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, which Bogart later attributed to their dietary habits: “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.” To protest the amount of alcohol that John Huston and Humphrey Bogart consumed during filming, Katharine Hepburn drank only water. As a result, she suffered a severe bout of dysentery.

Meet us at the lawn Monday, July 22nd for an epic adventure in east Africa, as we hit the halfway point for the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival presented by Bank of America  2013 season. The Hester Street Fair will join us for the fifth time this season bringing back crowd favorites from brick-oven pizza to popcorn. The running of the lawn happens at 5 pm, and the movie starts around 9 pm. See you there!

By William Brogdon
Variety Magazine
Published: December 25, 1951

This story of adventure and romance, experienced by a couple in Africa just as World War I got underway, is an engrossing motion picture. Just offbeat enough in story, locale and star teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to stimulate the imagination. It is a picture with an unassuming warmth and naturalness that can have a bright box office chance through good selling and word-of-mouth.

The independent production unit took stars and cameras to Africa to film C.S. Forester’s novel, “African Queen,” against its actual background. The Technicolor hues come on the screen with the Dark Continent’s natural, soft tints and serve to sharpen the telling of a story that deals with a brave deed done by a couple completely mismatched in every way except their adventurous hearts. While strictly a novel in the way Huston has used camera, the script he did with James Agee, and his direction, the story has a documentary feel without any of the detachment usually noted in that particular technique.

Performance-wise, Bogart has never been seen to better advantage. Nor has he ever had a more knowing, talented film partner than Miss Hepburn.

The plot is a simple affair. It concerns a man and woman, completely incongruous as to coupling, who are thrown together when the war news comes to German East Africa in 1914. The man, a sloven gin-swilling, ne’er-do-well pilot of a steam-driven river launch, teams with the angular, old-maid sister of a dead English missionary to contribute a little to the cause of the Empire.

The impossible deed they plan is taking the little, decrepit 30-foot launch known as African Queen down uncharted rivers to a large Central Africa lake and then use the small boat as a torpedo to sink a German gunboat that is preventing invasion by British forces. They go about such a derrin’-do mission with normal fears and misgivings, but with a kindred spirit of adventure and an air of “it must be done,” that they actually accomplish the impossible.

African wild life passes in stately, natural procession as the little ship threads its way through such hazards as swift rapids, waterfalls, rain, mechanical difficulties, maddening insect swarms, choking, floating grass islands and attack from a German fortress passed on the way. En route, there is a change of relationship from the stand-offish, respectful mood that launched the odyssey to a warm, intimate genuine emotion between the mismatched crew.

Climax comes when the couple reaches its goal, only to meet failure in original plans when a storm swamps the doughty Queen as she charges on the gunboat with ingeniously fashioned, home-made torpedoes. Bogart and Miss Hepburn are captured by the Germans, delay a hanging ceremony long enough to be married, and just as the vows are finished the gunboat runs afoul of the waterlogged, derelict Queen, the latter thus completing her mission, despite all manner of handicap, and rescuing the romantic, middle-aged couple.

Huston’s scripting and direction, and the playing, leaven the story telling with a lot of good humor. Unfoldment has a leisureness that goes with the characters and situations, but is quickened often enough with the excitement of incredible adventure to keep the interest strong throughout its 104 minutes. Critically, there are a few slight flaws, most noticeable in the beginning, when plot establishment and the incidents it involves are a bit drawn out. What comes later, though, is engrossing enough to make the whole a worthwhile piece of screen entertainment that will be thoroughly enjoyed by most any adult.

Of interest in the production quality is the use of music, or rather its absence most of the way. Title cards are run off against a visual background of the African locale, scored only by the sounds of the animals native to the scene. Quick editing has permitted a few reprising shots during the story, but this is minor against the feeling the film creates. Jack Cardiff photographed, with second-unit lensing supplied by Ted Scaife. The score is by Alan Gray, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Norman Del Mar.

Outside of Bogart and Miss Hepburn, cast means little in the States. Robert Morley figures at the beginning as Miss Hepburn’s missionary brother, while Peter Bull is the German captain on the gunboat finally cut under by the Queen.


1951: Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart).
Nominations: Best Director, Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Screenplay

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