Sunday, 20 February 2011

The African Queen (1951) - John Huston

Of course this is one of those films that everyone has seen time and time again, a timeless classic that no true film fan would get to almost forty without seeing, right? Um, well everyone it would seem except me. This is just one of the many so called classics that I've never seen. Not that I haven't wanted to, it just happened that our paths haven't crossed until now. The same goes for Gone With the Wind, Grease, Top Gun and a whole host of others. Although truth be told I've gone out of my way to avoid those three. Still the important thing is that I've seen it now, and better than that I can totally see why generation after generation have kept this films flame flickering. For me the genius of the film wasn't John Huston's direction, James Agee's screenplay or even Jack Cardiff's glorious Technicolor cinematography, no it's the on screen chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart. Together they really spark off one another, and make their fate something that you really care about.

For the few that aren't already acquainted with the story of The African Queen, I'll briefly run through it. It's September 1914, Rose (Hepburn) and her missionary brother are doing Gods work in deepest darkest Africa. Charlie (Bogart) is a the polar opposite of Rose, a swarthy sweaty uncouth tramp steamer operator. The first world war breaks out, the Germans raid the village where Rose is based, her brother dies and Charlie offers to sail her out of danger. You can see where all this is heading can't you? Like all good road movies (and make no mistake that's exactly what this is, a road movie without the road), there are adventures aplenty, each bringing our couple closer together. They're heading for a huge lake to destroy a German gunship, supposedly they are going to Macgyver up a couple of torpedoes out of the bits and bobs on Bogart's boat. This leads to one of the best lines in the film when Bogart claims 'There ain't nothing so complicated as the inside of a torpedo', except we all know that he is about to embark on a journey with the one thing in life that is infinitely more complex - Rose. Oh how will it end?

To be honest there isn't much suspense in the film since it's fairly obvious that neither star will be making the journey upstairs. That doesn't stop it being a joy to watch though since the pleasure comes from the two leads battling their way down stream, which I guess in it's own way is just a metaphor for the way relationships work. Or am I reading too much into it? I like the fact that neither of them were spring chickens anymore, Hepburn isn't covered in lippy and has a birds nest haircut that Robert Smith would have envied for the majority of the film. Bogart as I mentioned earlier looks like a hobo, you can practically smell him through the speakers.

This was shot on location in the Belgian Congo which adds to the sweaty feel of the film, although Huston isn't so good at marrying the studio footage with that shot on location. So while the studio bound scenes look just that, the African location scenes look as lush as one would expect. Funnily enough Jean Renoir was also taking those huge cumbersome Technicolor cameras out on location too that year, although he was in India making (for me at least) the superior The River. Funny old world. So to sum up, this is a perfect Sunday afternoon film, I can't see it ever becoming greater than any of those other Bogart/Huston films for me, but then when you're up against Key Largo, The Maltese Falcon or best of all The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it's not all that surprising is it?

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