Friday, January 20, 2012

Director's Spolight #3.5: John Huston's The African Queen

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next up is 1951’s The African Queen.
Grade: 84 (A-)
Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage wasn’t quite the triumph it should have been, but the director had little time to mourn its death. He was too busy prepping and shooting The African Queen, a film inspired by the director’s own love for adventure, boating, and Africa. His fourth collaboration with Humphrey Bogart saw the two and co-star Katharine Hepburn as liberated as they’d ever been, and the result is one of the most exhilarating films of their respective careers.
1914: Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother, Samuel (Robert Morley), are British Methodist missionaries in East Africa. Canadian steamboat captain Charles Allnut (Bogart) pilots the titular boat and delivers the Sayers mail and supplies. The two barely hide their disdain for Allnut, but when the Germans destroy the village and Samuel dies of fever, Rose has no choice but to accompany Allnut up the river. When the two learn that a German gunboat, the Queen Louisa, blocks the British counterattacks, Rose comes up with a plan: take the explosives on the African Queen and ram into the Louisa to give the British a fighting chance.

Huston knew the importance of casting the right people in the right roles, and it matters in The African Queen more than just about any other: Rose and Charlie are the only real major characters in the film, and the vast majority of the film takes place on the boat with the two, essentially alone. It’s fortunate, then, that Huston rarely found an actor more suited to his purposes than Bogart, and vice versa. Allnut is another classic Huston outsider, but he’s no Sam Spade/Fred Dobbs cynic: Allnut is fun. He enjoys boating, drinking, smoking, eating, and being alive in general. Bogart was always great, but rarely was he ever this joyous; it’s almost as if Bogart channeled a bit of Huston’s spirit. The role won the actor his only Oscar, and while it’s hard to imagine him winning over Marlon Brando’s revolutionary performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s still one of his finest. Nearly as good is Hepburn, prim and proper as ever but a bit less brass than usual; it’s fun to see a gentler version of the Hepburn character, although she’s just as stubborn as ever (the character was reportedly modeled on Eleanor Roosevelt).
Their energy matches that of the film. The African Queen is, as Huston’s best films are, brilliantly constructed, well-paced, and wonderfully alive. The film doesn’t cut quite as deep as The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (the look at Western imperialism is fleeting), but it hardly matters: Huston and company are putting on an adventure film of the highest order, with set-piece after set-piece. Bogart and Hepburn face rivers, rapids, Germans, crocodiles, mosquitoes, leeches, swamps, and storms, and when the action lets up, the characters clash (or come together). Huston fell in love with Africa, and he shoots it as if to say, “this place is goddamned incredible”.
That isn’t to undersell the danger: the African setting is well used, but the performances and action often become frantic in the later going, no doubt inspired by the very real dangers of shooting in the Congo (Hepburn later wrote a tell-all book about how trying the filming was). Bogart and Hepburn grow dirtier, sweater, and more ragged as the story progresses; no doubt the real trials and tribulations took some of the Hollywood out of the great Old Hollywood actors. There’s some drawbacks: the cinematography is sometimes frustratingly one-note, a necessary evil given the difficulty of shooting on the river; the reliance on stock footage is also unfortunate. These are minor quibbles, however, when the film is so consistently exciting.

The African Queen features the sweetest love story in any of Huston's films; the director often dealt with doomed romances, where at least one of the principals would end up dead or in jail. Not so here: it’s a classic case of characters first disliking, then understanding, and finally loving each other, and love triumphs over all. It’s an old story, but the people involved are so talented that it works. Rose first dislikes Allnut’s drinking, coarseness, and general unkemptness, and Allnut doesn’t take kindly to her orders (he thinks her plan is nuts). The two gain respect for each other as Allnut keeps them alive and Rose’s idea turns out to be the right thing to do. They keep each other alive, bond over shared near-death experiences, and eventually fall in love.
When they first kiss, they spend the next several minutes trying to carry on as if nothing happened. It’s no use: they’re in love all right. When it comes time to destroy the Louisa, they argue over who should stay on board and steer the boat. The plan fails as the African Queen sinks during a storm. When they’re caught by the Germans, they’re given a last request before they are to be hung: they choose marriage. It’s a wonderfully sweet moment that would have been some solace had the two actually died (not unheard of in a Huston film). But the Louisa happens to drive into the half-sunken African Queen right before the hanging, and love ends up conquering all after all as the two swim towards the shore and marital bliss. It’s a fitting ending to the most pure piece of entertainment Huston ever crafted.

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