As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.
The fact that I hadn't seen The African Queen was pure coincidence. I love John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, as every good American should, and was excited to see this film and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which I will write about later. The African Queen is the story of an unlikely couple, Charlie and Rose, brought together by circumstance, forging a bond to seek revenge on the Germans who killed Rose’s brother. When I think of adaptation I usually think of John Huston and Stanley Kubrick (and I guess Charlie Kauffman). Of the two Kubrick is the more famous much of which can be attributed to Kubrick being alive more recently and creating works that garnered responses from Andrei Tarkovsky. Kubrick was a perfectionist, shooting rolls and rolls of film, take after take and even buying up all the copies of his first film so no one could see it. Huston made films in the moment, shooting economically and working constantly, making over twice as many films as Kubrick. Both are masters, but I prefer Huston, a guy who knew what he wanted but not exactly how he was going to get it until he was in it.
Most of The African Queen’s action takes place on a boat. Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn play Charlie and Rose who eventually is called Rosie once the love blossoms between them. The audience watches expectantly as the tension between the prudish Rose and the rough-around-the-edges Charlie gives way to love all the while simultaneously watching the two fated lovers navigate a choppy, dangerous river. Eventually we are left with the new couple battling against the elements in the fight for their life. Bogart is great as usual, but this time more respectful, less sinister, less smooth than he usually is. He has a few brief shadowy moments when the river seems insurmountable, but he is made placid by drink and then cared altogether of his moodiness when Rosie disposes of all liquor aboard the vessel the African Queen. Hepburn goes from icy teetotaler to a warm companion as her admiration for the Charlie, The African Queen and adventure grow. The chemistry between the two actors is amazing and all done on the backdrop of a beautifully captured river.
As a bonus this film was written in part by the great writer and film critic James Agee. I had been meaning to watch this film ever since reading Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which is another thing that every American should read, a wonderful journalistic feat about sharecroppers in the American South that was meant to be a magazine article but blossomed into meditative book about life and pain and existence. The African Queen doesn't approach the dark and hurt of Agee’s literary or journalistic work; in fact the ending is almost too perfect to be believed, but the transformation of the leading characters’ relationship and the river itself controlled by the brushstrokes of the artist John Huston make it a worthy inclusion on any list.