Saturday, 12 January 2013

The African Queen (1951)

The making of The African Queen is almost as famous as the film itself. John Huston moved his whole cast to the middle of nowhere in Africa, virtually the whole cast caught some sort of tropical disease. Huston was obsessed with killing an elephant. Katherine Hepburn wrote a book on the experience, which I have read. A fictional book has been written on Huston's obsession to kill an elephant, which in turn was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood, which I've seen. 

Bogart and Huston were the only two members of the cast and crew who didn't get dysentery, by drinking nothing but imported scotch. Hepburn, determined to counter their drinking, drank more water than anyone else on set, causing her to get dysentery multiple times. The shooting was hot, and during one of her scenes, Hepburn would vomit in a bucket the minute Huston yelled cut.

I could go on and on about things that occurred on set, but in short, it was close to disaster. Under those conditions, its amazing they made a film at all. But they did.

Charlie Allnut is a rascal. He is also a boat captain in Africa, who ferries things up and down the river in 1914. One day he stops at a missionary, where prim Rose Sayer is preaching along with her brother. Charlie has tea with them, but to say they get along is an overstatement. Charlie leaves, but not before telling the English Rose and her brother that Germany has declared war.

Soon after he leaves, the camp is taken over by Germans, who burn the huts down and leave Rose and her brother to fend for them selves. Her brother catches the fever, and dies. It is then that Charlie comes back. He helps Rose bury her brother, and then asks her along to wait out the war in the jungle. Soon after, they find a place to hide, when Rose begins to look at a map.

She asks Charlie why they can't go up the river, and he tells her that there are rapids, a German fort, waterfalls, and at the end, a big German steamer, patrolling the lake so the British can't move down. Noticing Charlie has a lot of explosives, that he was carrying for the mine, Rose asks if they can't  ride to the lake, and then blow up the German steamer. Charlie says no, but Rose persists, and you can see where this is going.

I know it sounds dark, but it is really anything but.

There is one thing that can impede you from enjoying The African Queen: cyniscm. You cannot look at this film from a cynical point of view. You'll hate it. That said, you can going into it being cynical, but you have to drop it after five minutes. Okay, got it? Good, we can move on. Three films have been called Huston's best: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre and The African Queen. At least, from what I've heard.

I did not like The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, and as I have not reviewed The Maltese Falcon, I'll hold judgement until then. So what is Huston's best film? The African Queen, from what I've seen. Many people have tried to describe the essence of this film. Is it Bogart, Hepburn or Huston? Is it the shooting on location? Or maybe the story? I cannot pinpoint the film's greatness. It is like a cozy den, that once you've entered, you never want to leave.

The only other film I've had such a reaction to is Casablanca. It is a great film, but why? The performances by Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn are certainly part of that magic.You only have to see them on screen for a second, and you are instantly with them. Bogart plays the kind of character only Bogart could play, and likewise with Hepburn. They inhabit their characters with an energy that cannot be defined. You do not think of them as Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, but as Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut.

The characters are that memorable. It is the kind of love story that feels alive and fresh, despite how in a different film it would seem cliched. Here it embraces the cliche, and is better because of it. The development feels like a natural extension of the plot. Speaking of plot, the screenplay by James Agee and John Huston achieves that perfect balance of giving you a plot that keeps you interested, and two leads you cannot help but love.

Agee had a heart attack before he could finish the screenplay, so Huston brought it down to Africa to finish it. He brought Peter Viertel to work on it with him, and sometimes they would write the next scene the day before it was shot. Shooting on an actual river in Africa must have presented a massive challenge for the cinematographer, but he succeeded admirably. The film is neither a walking travel ad, but it doesn't forget about it's landscape either.

Perhaps the only weak link is the score, but even that can not impede the film from greatness. This brings me to Huston's direction. He has often been accused of his films looking staged, with no amazing cinematic tricks employed. I cannot defend him, but I can say this. Huston is a director. He is not an actor's director, a cinematographer's director, or a screenwriters director. He is truly a director, he oversees all aspects of production with the same wise gaze. He is not an auteur. 

He trusts the people he works with to do a good job, and just oversees them doing it. This kind of film making is the only kind that would work for The African Queen. And it does, Huston delivers yet another beautiful adventure film. If you are feeling low, this is the kind of film that can make you feel better. When I gave The Dead ten stars, it took me a while to make the decision. Here it took me a second. The African Queen is an indisputable masterpiece, for now and for always.

The African Queen,
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and Robert Morely,
Directed by John Huston,
10/10 (A+)

1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle
6. The Misfits
7. Beat the Devil
8. Wise Blood
9. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
10. The Unforgiven
11. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
12. Prizzi's Honor
13. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror

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