Welcome to the inaugural Throwback Thursday review! With our Movie of the Week, Jungle Cruise, sailing to the top of the box office I thought it would be fitting to dedicate our first Throwback Thursday post to one of the films that directly inspired it. Our initial throwback review is none other than the 1951 classic The African Queen.
Prolific director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre among many many others) set out to the Congo with his frequent collaborator Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca) to film a gritty character study/ romance on location. Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, a curmudgeonly river boater delivering mail to the remote settlers of West Africa. It’s there that he meets Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) and her brother the good Reverend Samuel (Robert Morley), delivering sermon to the native people whose land they inhabit.
World War One is setting in and the British Sayer siblings are no longer welcome in German controlled West Africa. Sam is foolish enough to press back against the German soldiers and ultimately pays for it with his life. Suddenly it is up to Charlie to get Rosie out of dodge by navigating the cross-crossing rivers of Africa. Along the way the pair devise a plan to strike back against the brutal German army and spark up an unlikely romance.
What’s striking about The African Queen — named for the titular riverboat, mercifully not a nickname for Katherine Hepburn’s character — is just how docile it is. Most of the film revolves around these two characters, a religious British socialite and a drunkard Canadian sailer, finding common ground along their mostly serene cruise. The travails they face between the bookending encounters with German soldiers range from a swarm of mosquitos to an inconvenient engine failure. For an action-adventure film, most of the tension is wrought from it’s character dynamics.
It’s those characters that carry the freight. Hepburn’s Rosie is certainly beholden to some of the gendered stereotypes of the era but her performance subverts much of that, placing Rosie’s intelligence and courage front and center. Bogart, who earned his one and only Academy Award for his portrayal as Charlie, is who really steals the show. His Charlie is rough, rattled and more than a little sorrowful. I find it hard to imaging a movie star today of Bogart’s caliber so willing to commit to a character so flawed. The closest recent comparable might be Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…, but even Cliff Booth had a tortured coolness to him.
Bogart and Hepburn give it their absolute all to sell a romance that at times feels contrived. Even so, just watching the two titans of their craft attempt it has some merit. Too often the film doesn’t live up to its actors efforts and for that reason it fails to land with the same effect as Bogart’s more renowned works like Casablanca or Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The African Queen also struggles to hold up to the modern eye in a few ways. While you can’t totally blame a film for the visual effects of the era, a lot of the very green-screened rapids shots feel dated. And of course we are talking about a movie made 60 years ago that takes place entirely in Africa. Impressively, the film avoids overt racial stereotyping, although a lot of that boils down to a nearly total dearth of non-white characters.
Ultimately the value in The African Queen lies in its showcasing of two of Golden Age Hollywood’s singular talents. Still, Hepburn and Bogart had long, illustrious careers and thus plenty of other films to better highlight their incomparable screen presence. 6/10
The African Queen is currently streaming on Amazon Prime
Throwback Thursday is a weekly column offering a chance to explore some of the most notable films of bygone eras. There are no rules other than a release date before 1990. If you agree or disagree with this week’s review leave a comment below. If you have any requests for future editions send them to firstname.lastname@example.org!