Saturday, August 31, 2019

Stubs - The African Queen

The African Queen (1951) Starring Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel. Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by Peter Viertel, John Collier. Adapted for the screen by James Agee, John Huston. Based on the novel The African Queen by C. S. Forester (London, 1935). Produced by Sam Spiegel. Run time: 106 minutes. United States/United Kingdom Color. Romance, Drama, War, Adventure

There has been a long history of directors working with particular actors. Arguably, one of the best well-known is the teaming of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Their first film together, The Maltese Falcon (1941), can be seen as setting the tone for Film Noir, finally cementing Bogart as a star and showing Hollywood that John was something more than just the son of actor Walter Huston.  They would go on to make four films together, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Beat the Devil (1953), and The African Queen, which finally won Bogart the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Their friendship is fairly storied and the two enjoyed working together and playing practical jokes on each other on the set. However, it is reported that it was his co-star Katharine Hepburn who recommended Bogart for the lead role. Producer Sam Spiegel sent her the book and she felt Bogart "was the only man who could have played that part.” The chance to work with Huston again and the chance to work with Hepburn was more than enough to interest Bogart in the project. But prior to him, the film was considered as a vehicle for Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton. David Niven and Paul Henreid were also looked at for the lead.

Though the book was written in 1935, Warner Bros. didn’t buy the rights to it until 1946. John Collier wrote the first screenplay adaptation in 1949, which supposedly adhered closely to the book. With plans to produce it himself, Collier than bought the rights to the book and the screenplay from Warner Bros. But instead of making the film, he sold the rights to Horizon Enterprises, which was co-owned by Huston and Spiegel.

The production itself would be legendary. Hepburn would write her own account in The Making of “The African Queen,” or How I Went to Africa with Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. In 1953, writer Paul Viertel published the book White Hunter, Black Heart, a thinly fictionalized account of his experience writing the script for The African Queen with Huston. The book follows the exploits of a tyrannical director who stalls the production of his African-set film by obsessively hunting an elephant. The book would be made into a film in 1990 by Clint Eastwood and starred Eastwood and Jeff Fahey.

The film was made partly on location in Africa, which was quite a feat at the time, especially considering they were using rather bulky Technicolor cameras. Production got underway in late May and continued until mid-August 1951 at the Isleworth Studios, London. The film would open in Los Angeles on December 26, 1951, so it could qualify for the Academy Awards, and open nationwide on March 21, 1952.

Katharine Hepburn plays Rose Sayer, the sister of a British Methodist missionary (Robert Morley) in German Africa.

The film is set in September 1914 in German East Africa at the beginning of World War I. The action opens in the village of Kungdu, where British Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his spinster sister Rose (Katharine Hepburn) lead prayers at the makeshift First Methodist Church.  While the natives struggle to follow the English-language psalm, they race outside when they hear Canadian Charlie Allnut's (Humphrey Bogart) ancient launch the African Queen chug into the village laden with mail and goods.

Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) is warmly greeted by the natives in the village of Kungdu.

Though conscious of his lower social standing than the Sayers, Charlie lunches with them. They have to delicately ignore his loud rumbling stomach. Before leaving, he informs them about the encroaching war in Europe, and although the Sayers are frightened by the news, they refuse to desert the village.

Though they are of different social tiers, the Sayers invite Charlie to have lunch with them.

However, hours later, German troops invade Kungdu, imprison the natives and burn down the huts. By the time the smoke clears, Samuel has begun to lose his mind from shock and grief. He soon collapses, unintentionally wounding Rose by raving that their attraction to missionary work grew out of a lack of more attractive social options.

Charlie returns the next day and he finds Samuel dead and helps Rose bury him. She then accepts Charlie's offer to hide from the Germans on his boat. Once they are on the river, Charlie explains to her that the Germans have positioned a heavily armed steamer, the Louisa, at the mouth of Lake Tanganyika to block British troops. He tells her that the Germans even had to dismantle the boat and carry it overland to the Lake.

Rose almost immediately forms a plan to attack the Louisa by crafting torpedoes out of explosives and oxygen tanks, strapping them to the African Queen and ramming into the steamer. Charlie tries desperately to dissuade her, describing the German fort and impassable rapids they will have to face along the way, but Rose's determination eventually shames him into agreeing to the plan.

After they set sail, Charlie teaches Rose how to read the river, and they negotiate how to bathe in private. That night, a pouring rain forces Charlie to seek shelter under Rose's tarpaulin, and after at first banishing him, Rose softens and allows him to sleep near her.

The African Queen nears a set of rapids.

The next day, they reach the first set of rapids and Charlie hopes that the death-defying experience will frighten Rose. But his hopes are dashed when she proclaims it the most stimulating physical experience she has ever had.

Charlie drinks gin while Rose drinks tea.

That night, a frustrated Charlie taps into his gin reserves. Drunk, he rants that he will not sail any farther, calling Rose a "skinny old maid." He awakes the next morning to find Rose pouring his gin bottles into the river. Hours later, he begs her to speak to him and she finally reveals that it is his refusal to sail which has infuriated her.

Rose dumps out all of Charlie's gin while he helplessly looks on.

Charlie quickly backs down, agreeing to accompany her while still doubting their chances for success. Their first obstacle is the German fort he spoke about that overlooks the river. The soldiers open fire on the African Queen, hitting the engine. Charlie, however, manages to repair it and they sail on and get out of the line of fire.

Their joy at surviving the rapids turns romantic.

Almost immediately, however, they reach another set of rapids. Rose struggles to steer while Charlie races to keep the engine stoked, and although they are badly pummeled, they miraculously reach calm waters. Thrilled, Charlie and Rose fall into an embrace which quickly becomes romantic. When they declare their love, they finally learn each other's first name.

They then sail peacefully past exotic flora and fauna until they hit a waterfall, which damages the rudder. Although Charlie despairs, Rose devises a plan to weld a new rudder. For every problem Charlie can think they might have with the repair, Rose thinks of a solution. She even gets into the water to help Charlie get the old rudder off. A few days later, the boat is fixed and on its way.

Together, Rose and Charlie fashion a new rudder for the African Queen.

Just miles down the river, they are attacked by a horde of mosquitoes, which terrifies Rose and forces them to stay in open water. Within days, they become lost in the stagnant shallows as thick reeds bog down the boat. Charlie has to get into the water and pull the African Queen through the reeds.

When he finally gets back on board, he finds leeches covering his body, and even though he is shaking with revulsion, he instructs Rose to use salt on them rather than pull them out. Still reeling, he must return to the water to keep the boat moving. Hours later, they’re stuck on land. Charlie is feverish and tells Rose they may not make it, but that he loves her. They both collapse into sleep.

Feverish, Charlie confesses to Rose that they might not reach their goal.

During the night, a fresh rain upstream raises the water level and sweeps the launch downstream onto Lake Tanganyika. When they awaken, they find the Louisa only miles away, and are forced to retreat into the reeds to hide. By the next day, they have discerned the ship's sailing pattern and they make the African Queen ready. Not only do Charlie and Rose make the torpedoes, but they scrub and polish the boat for its last mission.

Charlie figures out the fuse for the torpedoes.

They set out that night on their attack, but a sudden storm capsizes the launch and Rose and Charlie are separated in the dark.

The next day, Charlie is imprisoned by the Germans and, not wanting to live without Rose, accepts his sentence of hanging. Just then, however, Rose is brought in, and when she hears that Charlie is to be killed, proudly admits their whole scheme to the soldiers.

Before they're to be hanged, Charlie and Rose are married by the German ship's captain (Peter Bull).

Before they are hanged, though, Charlie requests that the captain (Peter Bull) marry them, and just as the service ends, the African Queen surfaces, hits the Louisa and explodes. The German boat goes down and Charlie and Rose manage to escape. Floating together in the water, the newlyweds see the boat's nameplate floating by and realize that their plan has succeeded after all. Happily, and singing, they swim together towards the shore.

After the African Queen sinks the Louisa, Charlie and Rose swim away to safety.

During the filming, Hepburn and Humphrey develop a great rapport and that shows on the screen. Even though Bogart couldn’t manage an English-accent, forcing them to change Charlie’s nationality, he does a really good job as Allnut. This allows him to show a range. No longer the gangster or a true romantic lead, Bogart shows himself to be a fine actor and not just a movie star. The role would earn Bogart his only Academy Award of his long and esteemed career.

The film is essentially a two-person show and Hepburn gives a fine performance herself as Rose.  Bogart is only as good as he is because he has an equal acting partner in Hepburn. The trip down the river in the African Queen is as much a journey of discovery for Rose as she goes from the virginal sister of the missionary into a woman discovering both her emotional and, yes, sexual self. She would also receive a nomination for her performance.

Robert Morely makes a brief appearance as Rose's brother and Methodist minister. His part was all shot in the studio and he did not make the trip to Africa. His role is small though important, however, he doesn't really bring anything more than name recognition to the role.

The film would also receive nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay for both James Agee and John Huston as well as one for Huston as Best Director. The film also did well at the box-office, making over $10.75 million on a budget of $1 million. The film has had legs and often lands in the top 100 films of all time in many polls.

This is definitely one of those classic films that everyone should watch. The film is unusual given the star power of the leads and the strong performances they give despite the hardships of filming. Much of this is done on location, which would be difficult at best but both give top-notch performances. The action is good as the couple grow closer and have to fight the dangers of the jungle to achieve their goal. I can’t say enough good things about the film and would highly recommend it.

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