AFI Top 100 Discussion: The African Queen

Today on AFI Top 100 Discussion, Jon and I are discussing John Huston’s 1951 adventure film, The African Queen. Telling the story of an upright English missionary (Rose, played by Katharine Hepburn) and a shiftless engineer (Charlie, played by Humphrey Bogart) and their attempts to destroy a German ship in Africa shortly after the outbreak of WWI, The African Queen is a staple of classic Hollywood filmmaking. It might not be the most innovative film out there, but it did win Bogart his only Oscar and crafts a pretty enjoyable adventure story. AFI gave it the 65th spot on its list, so join us as we discuss the film and see whether or not The African Queen deserves it. For those following along at home, the film is currently available to stream on Netflix.

Hunter: I have seen The African Queen a few times before, but not in a long while. I was a little bit afraid to revisit the film, thinking it wouldn’t hold up to my fond memories. I actually ended up enjoying the rewatch in spite of myself. I realize the film is not perfect, some of the effects are a bit off and it can be a little slow to start, but I got drawn into the character’s attempts to fight the Germans in their limited capacity as well as their unlikely romance. How did you feel about the film, generally, in your first time watching it?  

Jon: I hate to do this but I have some problems with The African Queen. Oddly enough I thought the beginning started off great. I quickly became invested in the motives and mannerisms of the characters, and the looming danger of the German’s arrival. However afterwards when they made it on the boat the film started to fall extremely flat for me. A perfect example of how it felt to me would be a ride from disneyland in like the 1960s. They started off in calm waters, then reach small rapids, to gun fire from the Germans which they escaped unscathed, but oh no out of nowhere they hit giant rapids and survive. Thus leading to another slow cruise watching the elephants relaxing up against the water. I wanted to love it, but I had problems staying invested in anything going on screen.

Hunter: I see what you are saying. It’s not like a very complicated story, it really is just them confronting whatever problems the setting can throw at them. I’m sure if it wasn’t these two classic actors I would not even like this film at all, but I feel like it’s fun to watch them here. I really liked seeing them learn to trust each other over the course of the film, especially with how reluctant Bogart is to go along with Hepburn’s plan at the beginning. They’re very mismatched at first, but Bogart plays it sort of like he has to choice but to follow her crazy plan, and then it actually ends up working to everyone’s surprise! I just feel like it’s kind fun to see Bogie get dragged along and then the two of them form a really great team. To me, the film’s charm is less the specific events of the plot and more the development of the central relationship.

Jon: That’s definitely the biggest pull being that it’s Bogart and Hepburn. There were some great interactions between them, such as that scene when it was pouring rain and Charlie was stuck out in the rain and Rose was reluctant at first to allow him into the covered area she was staying dry in. Another great scene was when he had to pull the boat through the narrow and shallow waters, ha ha another moment that doesn’t make sense to me, but when he came out of the water and panicked from all the leeches. Rose was the one to calm him down and escape that roadblock. I may be mistaken but I think after that moment or a little before is when the shift of power on the boat came. Although, I am wondering Hunter, did it not bother you that the whole objective of their mission were for two unlikely people in a small boat to go up against a German Naval Fleet?

Hunter: To the extent that the film is classic Hollywood, no, it really did not bother me that much. Sure, it’s unlikely, but that’s why we watch movies right? Especially this type of Hollywood escapist film. It’s nice to see the good guys win against all odds. Also, I think it was basically just that one ship, which (spoiler alert?) they basically defeated by accident in the end. The point being here, the script makes it clear that they were against overwhelming odds and it was kind of a fluke that they succeeded at all.

I’m glad you liked the performances anyway! I really think their personas combine well in this film. What do you think of this being Bogie’s Oscar winning performance? I know he has many more performances more iconic and potentially better, but I really like how he plays almost more of a character than a leading man role in this movie. He’s being a little bit less of Bogie in both his appearance and his voice, as well as how he carries himself. He seems a bit more pathetic here and a bit less tragic than he can in some of his other roles. Though I firmly believe that Marlon Brando gave the better performance that year in A Streetcar Named Desire, in the context of Bogie’s career I’m really glad he won for this role where he’s doing something a bit different and unexpected.  

Jon: You’re right, perhaps I was just expecting too much from it consider who the actors were that it’s a “war” film. I think if watched from the lens of escapism then it no doubt gives you such.

I think the very fact that he was doing something different and unexpected won him the role. Marlon Brando is expected to give a performance of that caliber, and while that doesn’t mean it lessens his performance. It just feels like Bogart went to greater lengths to achieve this performance. To be honest I’ve only seen him in Casablanca, which he is iconic in, but this performance is the polar opposite. Haha within the first ten minutes of this film, I found myself questioning if it truly was Bogart I was watching. He truly sold me on the “jack of all trades, master of none” bit his character had going on for him. The fact that I’m calling him Bogart and not Bogie, shows how unfamiliar I am with him haha but I was going to ask you if this was one of his only roles where he performed like this?

Hunter: I feel like most of the Bogart roles I’ve seen are noirs, and this is definitely not a noir. That might be mostly what I’m reacting to. The noir archetype is so strong, that when Bogie does something as different as this it’s very noticeable. I’ve never seen him sink into a character as far removed from his normal persona as this role, that I can remember. But you gotta see some more of Bogie’s films! (He gave a really great performance a year earlier than this in Nicholas Ray’s noir In A Lonely Place which might be his best in my view, but I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent into that film ha ha.)

Though it does take place during wartime, I definitely wouldn’t think of this as a war film. It definitely feels more like an adventure/romance film to me, more about their relationship and the relationship with the setting rather than saying too much about WWI or war in general. This took take place during any number of time periods, swapping the Germans out for any villain and it would work just as well I think. In fact, I sometimes forget it doesn’t take place during WWII!

I do want to touch upon the African setting though. A lot of the film was shot on location in Africa, in Uganda and the Congo according to Wikipedia. It was apparently a pretty tough shoot, with most of the cast and crew succumbing to illness and the bulky Technicolor cameras proving pretty unwieldy. I think it makes a big difference though, and besides the two stars the most memorable thing about the movie is the setting and the Technicolor photography. I feel like Huston and cinematographer Jack Cardiff mostly shoot it in a very classical style, so it’s not as if there are tons of trick shots that stand out to you. The vibrant quality of the color does stay with you though, at least it did with me.    

Jon: Noted, I will definitely follow up on In A Lonely Place. That’s true about it being an adventure/romance, and in that respect it makes the story timeless.

This film looked beautiful through those vibrant colors. There were a few shots as well that had a shallow depth of field with tree leaves in the background becoming blurred out with that creamy bokeh look. I found moments like that to be such great visuals. Although I am surprised to hear that it was actually shot in Africa! When they said that in the credits, I thought it just meant the shots of the animals, but to shoot a lot of this there makes me appreciate their efforts a little more. Huston & Cardiff definitely created a beautifully shot film on somewhat real locations, I wish there were behind the scenes footage of their sets.

Hunter: I’m totally guessing here, but to me it seemed like a lot of the stuff was definitely on location, and then it seemed like they maybe did some inserts in a studio somewhere (England, as it says in the credits!). Like some of the stuff on the river was definitely rear projection and it looked pretty bad ha ha… Another example (again, I didn’t research this I’m just sort of guessing) would be when they are underwater trying to fix the prop or whatever, I feel like that would be difficult to impossible to get on location. I feel like it would be very interesting to see or read the “making of” for this movie for sure, and it seems like the type of movie that should be in Cinemascope or some other widescreen but it’s not. Regardless, it continues the trend of some great Technicolor films by Jack Cardiff (like The Red Shoes).  

I do really like the film, and was almost surprised at how much I ended up enjoying it after not seeing it for a couple years. It seems to me like the type of movie that old Hollywood does really well, and on that basis alone I can see why it would end up on the AFI’s list. It ended up at #65, between Network and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I think it’s very interesting it beat out Raiders, as The African Queen seems like the type of film that Raiders is trying to emulate (but we’ll talk more about that later…). As an example of a classic Hollywood adventure film with two really great stars, on location, solid direction… you can’t beat The African Queen. As a film in general? I’m sure there could several other American films that AFI could have included in its place, and I have a feeling you feel that last part even more strongly than I do!   

Jon: Now that you mention it, it’s awfully strange it wasn’t in CinemaScope. Ah! I really want to watch The Red Shoes.

Well interestingly enough, our next film will be Raiders of the Lost Ark. Although i’ve never seen it before, I know there’s plenty of people who consider that their favorite film of all time. Haha it shall be interesting seeing the contrast & similarities of the two films. I wonder if The African Queen would remain on the list if AFI ever does another rendition of their Top 100. I hope I can feel the same about this film as you when I revisit it in a couple years.

“Can you make a torpedo? Well do so Mr. Allnut.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

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