Hollywood classics don’t get much more classic or Hollywood than The African Queen, John Huston’s 1951 adventure-romance about a mismatched pair falling in love in German-controlled East Africa in the early days of World War I. Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart play the lovers. She’s a missionary left alone after her brother dies and his flock flees; he’s a ruddy Canadian steamboat captain whose off-putting appearance masks a can-do spirit. (Bogart won his lone Oscar for the role.) Early in the movie, she’s appalled by his rumbly belly and gin-stink, while he’s put off by the way she tries to commandeer his boat. But as they realize that they’re all alone in the middle of nowhere, cut off from contact with home, they begin to work together on a plan to turn his sputtering ship African Queen into an explosive device, and torpedo the German gunboat that’s keeping them from floating to freedom.
The African Queen was co-written by Huston and James Agee, from a novel by Horatio Hornblower creator C.S. Forester. It’s an uncomplicated story, rendered in a screenplay that doesn’t linger over matters of faith, colonialism, patriotism, class, or any of the other themes that some movies might place front and center. But The African Queen is hardly unsophisticated, either. After Bogart and Hepburn are thrown together on the river, they have a few short conversations in which Hepburn proposes her boat-as-bomb plan and Bogart explains the layout of the river, and a few short conversations where they share a little about their backgrounds. Much of the rest of the chatter is in-the-moment, concerned with imminent danger or the beauty of the day, and there’s meaning behind the words: the way the two speak too quickly, or overcompensate in their gestures of kindness, reveals how middle-aged people, stuck in their ways, could fall into each other’s arms.
The African Queen arrived at a crossroads in movie history. The year Bogart won his Oscar, An American In Paris won Best Picture, representing old-school Hollywood spectacle, while Bogart beat out Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire and Montgomery Clift for A Place In The Sun, both representing the new breed of Method actors. (And the Academy’s Board Of Governors voted a special Oscar for Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon, representing the coming New Wave from overseas.) Bogart and Hepburn were very much of the old guard, but for The African Queen, Huston often seemed to pick takes where they interact endearingly but awkwardly, forcing non-Method actors into a Method context. And though Huston has the great Jack Cardiff serving as cinematographer, the shabby blue-screen effects and limitations of shooting on water keep Cardiff’s work primarily flat and functional. The movie’s most expressionistic moments come over the opening credits, which play over a shot of the tree-covered sky from the perspective of a boat drifting down the river. Like everything else about The African Queen—the story and the story behind the story— the shot is all about inexorability.
Key features: The special-edition Blu-ray adds a slick hourlong documentary about the movie, a CD with the 1952 Lux Radio Theater adaptation, and a paperback copy of Hepburn’s brief, charming making-of memoir.