Thursday, September 1, 2011

The African Queen (1951)

An Overpraised Huston Epic

- Often touted as one of the great John Huston's finest films (if not his very best movie), The African Queen (1951) charmed but ultimately disappointed me. The first of what I like to call "Huston's two-people relationship amidst war & adventure film" (like Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975)), The African Queen tells the story of two westerners in WWI Africa – the Canadian Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and English Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) - who fall in love on the beat-up, rusty African Queen as they sail down river to attack a German warship.

Overall, the film is a fun and charming ride down the Ulanga River with some humorous scenes and some good stylistic choices on the part of director John Huston. It must have been a grueling shoot indeed, the jungle settings are eye catching and some of the things that Huston is able to pull off in the film are incredible. While the film has many good points, there was enough bad points to leave me a bit disappointed by the end.

One thing that disappointed me was the film's love story, which felt contrived, forced, and formulaic. Not one moment of the film convinced me that any real feelings of love existed between the two characters, I felt as if the film was banking on me blindly believing in it. A film that depends so much on the success of the romance between its two lead characters, like The African Queen, needs to make sure that its romance feels genuine – and I feel like it did not work out here.

Another negative point in the film comes from the cast, to my surprise, which is actually comprised of two of my all-time favorite actors. Katherine Hepburn is unsurprisingly perfect in her role as Rose - no problems here - but I was not enthralled by what Humphrey Bogart did in this film as Charlie. Overall, I would give Bogart a passing grade because of the presence he brings to the character but he did not really impress me the way that I am used to being impressed by his performances – I certainly would not have given him an Oscar for it. The film held the potential for Bogart to shine in a role that stood outside his comfort zone but he does not quite nail the part. First of all, if Bogie was ever to pass for a Canadian in a film he should have thought about trying to do something with that pesky New York accent! Secondly, Bogart was simply way too much in this movie way too often. Bogart is zany and unrestricted in this film – but the whole thing ends up sending out a huge Bugs Bunny vibe. Bogie squatting on top of "The African Queen" making monkey noises is not exactly his finest hour.

John Huston is one of the best directors in film history and Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn are two of the finest actors in film history – but that does not mean that The African Queen is a masterpiece. By and large, I would say that The African Queen is a well put together and enjoyable movie but its merits take it nowhere near the masterwork mantle.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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