PG and it pretty much should be. There's something that's kind of insidious in the back of this movie that is really the product of its era more than anything in it. While the film might have mild alcoholism and the lowest-key sexuality imaginable in it, the real problem is that this has that 1951 mentality of Africa as a place of "otherness." This tells that old chestnut of the white missionaries bringing civilization to the primitives. There's also some death and the World War I Germans have more in common with Nazis than was probably accurate.
DIRECTOR: John Huston
I'm going to step in it today. I have a feeling that this is the blog that is going to bring it all down around me. I hate criticizing things that are universally loved. Similarly, I hate criticizing things that I don't loathe either. I even liked this movie for a long time. I think there's a part of me that still really likes it. But this watch of my newly acquired copy of The African Queen ended up being a little more tedious than I care to admit. Maybe it was that I just wasn't in the mood. But honestly, I couldn't wait for The African Queen to be over this time. It seems really smarmy of me, but that's the position I'm taking.
For a long time, The African Queen was just that movie that was really hard to get a copy of. Well, a legal copy. For some reason, it took forever to get transferred to DVD. When it finally was released, I watched it immediately. It was a missing hole in my film canon and I just needed it for completion. And because the movie is charming as heck, I really liked it. I can't deny that the movie is still one of the most charming things that is out there. It takes an unbelievably wholesome approach to patriotism and romance imaginable. I mean, that idea that these two people must make a path for the Allied Forces to make their way into Africa is borderline silly. But even beyond that comes the notion that these two characters are criminally mismatched. I don't think I've ever had to be so intellectual about a relationship in a movie before. While I can imagine that Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn could play characters that would fall in love (it makes way more sense than I care to admit), these two characters really get that relationship going fast.
The thing about Charlie and Rose is that they have absolutely nothing in common, which Huston wisely plays up. That's fine. The opposites attract thing is one of those touchstones of storytelling. But Huston gets them together way too early. There's a reason that most action films have the leads admit their romance in the final act. That final act romance forces us not to think of the practicality of the relationships. Speed talked about that quite a bit. There's the bond that comes together with adrenaline and working together for a common good. But the power dynamic between Charlie and Rose is borderline uncomfortable. There are these two alpha characters from two worlds. Rather than both characters really shifting equally, Rose barely moves out of her comfort zone for the sake of the story. Rose starts off her time with Charlie Allnut in a place of no choice. She either leaves with Charlie or she is slaughtered by the invading German army. She is stuck in this passive position where she owes her life to this stranger who leads a drastically different life from Rose. But that's her biggest shift. Perhaps she gets more agency with her experience with the eponymous boat, but her moral code doesn't move at all.
Charlie, on the other hand, goes from good-natured drunk to soldier in Her Majesty Rose's Royal Navy. His alcoholism, which is a character trait that is meant to rankle Rose, simply goes away with her disposal of his booze. There's not much of a transition from Rose the authoritarian to Charlie the dutiful lover. He has one moment of anger which he quickly apologizes for. That alcoholism and self-reliance is part of his internal conflict and it kind of just shuts off. One could write it off as love, but there's nothing kind about Rose up to this point. The only thing that could really support a relationship is the impulsive move to kiss Rose once they survive the fort attack. That's a pretty thin relationship to build off of.
But the intellectual in me wants to support it. My brain really likes the Charlie and Rose dynamic because it makes for interesting storytelling. I can't help but look to the direction of John Huston for the clunkiness of the relationship. Huston is a man's man director. He's borderline toxic, but he makes a solid gruff film. He's not the guy who can sell the romance as well as he can sell the notion of a mission. He knows that he's dealing with a relationship. I get that. But in Huston's mind, the relationship isn't about character. It's about joining under a common flag. It's the idea of patriotism and taking down those darned Nazis. By the way, I write "Nazis" for a reason. Even though the events of The African Queen take place at the start of World War I, Huston really portrays his Germans as Nazis. The movie was made in 1951 and it starred Humphrey Bogart. The emotional tie to anti-Fascism is pretty strong here. With the World War I Germans, while problematic in their own right, they weren't these over-the-top manaical villains like we would see with the Nazis.
But Charlie's emotions for Rose don't come from a sense of balance or character arc. Instead, she elicits a sense of justice and morality, similar to something a drill instructor would do for a soldier. That's such a Huston thing. Even though that neither of them talks about the problems with their relationship, it's understood that they need each other because that kinship is what is going to bring down the German army. It's such a bro-ey idea of what romance is about. They love each other because they're going to explode the Louisa together. It doesn't matter that Charlie views The African Queen as family. Nope. That doesn't really come into play. Even once the relationship is established and Rose has viewed Charlie at his most vulnerable, she maintains her sense of authority over Charlie by barking at him that he will stay behind while she pilots the boat. There's never that moment of vulnerability with Rose, outside of the fact that his seems like her first romantic relationship and she allows herself to be touched by a gruff sailor like Charlie.
Can I talk about how I forgot what the tone of this movie was? I remember The African Queen being a far more serious film than this was. In some ways, this is almost a dramedy that I wasn't prepped for. I intended The African Queen to be a palate cleanser from my Rock Hudson / Doris Day collection. But there are some pretty silly moments throughout this movie. There's a whole sequence where Charlie's rumbling stomach interrupts a dinner. It's so odd that there are these goofy moments peppered into a movie where major characters die and slavery is discussed. It's a good choice because the romance is so important to the movie working. But that being said, I often found myself being emotionally hit by a cinematic tennis racket. I didn't know where I was supposed to be at times in the film.
It really isn't a bad movie. I think if I watched it by itself without the Rock Hudson / Doris Day lead-in, it would have been something to behold again. But I knew that I wasn't in the mood for a clunky John Huston romance. Perhaps I wanted Huston to be even more Huston, ignoring the giddy elements of the Hollywood romance in exchange for a 1951 war film involving two civilians. But instead, I felt like I was watching something that was more watered down than was necessary.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.