John Huston’s classic film had the unusual distinction of being the last film from the American Film Institute’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list to appear on DVD in the United States, not bowing on that format until March of 2010, well into the Blu-ray/Netflix streaming era. You could find it overseas, but only if you had a “region-free” player, and those copies were made from prints that were, to be polite, pieces of mule dung. Yeah, you should have heard the less polite version of that sentence.
Having seen Paramount’s new release, on Blu-ray of course, I have to say it was worth waiting for the studio to sort out who had the rights to The African Queen, find a half-way decent copy, and then take the time to restore the film to something quite near its original glory.
I may be a born fool, but you got ten absurd ideas to my one.
It’s 1914 and Samuel and Rose Sayer (Robert Morley and Katherine Hepburn) are British brother and sister missionaries in a small African village. They get their supplies from a small steamboat captained by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a Canadian who’s just the sort of boozy, profane fellow that the missionaries tolerate only because it’s the Christian thing to do. On his latest Charlie supply run, Charlie also brings the unwelcome news that war has broken out between England and Germany. Against his advice, they elect to stay. The Germans arrive, run the villagers off, and beat Samuel fatally when he tries to intercede.
Charlie returns to help Rose bury her brother and evacuate her to safety. When she hears that a German gunboat is blocking the mouth of the river, preventing the British from getting forces to the area, she concocts a plan to use Charlie’s boat, the African Queen, as an improvised torpedo boat to sink the German vessel. Charlie thinks she’s absolutely batty, but can’t persuade her that it’s impossible. He decides to humor her, hoping that the hardships of traveling the river will discourage her. Of course, the moment they cast Kate Hepburn in the role, you knew that wasn’t going to happen.
On the surface, The African Queen is classic escapist high adventure, with a farfetched plot worthy of a Saturday afternoon serial. What raises it to the level of an immortal classic, beyond the talent on both sides of the camera, is the intimately observed story of the two individuals on that boat. The problems of war and the hazards of the river are like a Hitchcockian McGuffin that serves to bring these two people together, when they would ordinarily never have found each other under normal circumstances. This movie would never have worked if the audience didn’t believe that Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut had more in common than it originally appeared, if the two actors didn’t take what was already on the page and make you believe that the prim, button-down missionary saw something redeemable in the crusty, boozy river rat, and that he saw something human under her iron-clad propriety.
Of course, it helps you swallow the story when you realize that the original story has at least some (very little, actually) basis in a real event. The German gunboat was based on a real vessel that was scuttled by her own crew, salvaged by the British, and most incredibly, still handles passenger traffic to this day, nearly 100 years later, like she’s inherited a little of this movie’s immortality.