I spent most of my life aware of this movie, but having absolutely no idea what it was about. Number one, I thought the African Queen must be a person. (It’s a boat.) Number two, I had no idea this was a WW I action adventure flick! (It’s also a rom-com/odd couple buddy road trip flick.)
But first, can we take a moment to marvel at this patently ridiculous movie poster:
A quick synopsis – Rose, played by Katharine Hepburn, runs a Christian mission with her brother in Africa. Charlie, played by Humphrey Bogart, runs a ship (the African Queen) up and down the river to deliver letters and supplies. These two couldn’t be more different. Rose is prim and devout. Charlie is free and easy-going. They are aren’t more than mere acquaintances until fate pushes them into a quick and forced intimacy. When the mission is attacked by German soldiers, and her brother dies of something like a broken hear, Rose really has no choice but to join Charlie aboard the African Queen. Thus an uneasy and complicated partnership is formed. Charlie wants to lay low and wait out the German threat. Rose wants revenge – plain and simple.
To be completely honest, the special effects are hopelessly dated and the musical score clashes oddly with much of the action. But if you can get past that, you’re in for a fantastic ride along with two actors at the absolute top of their game! Bogie and Kate are so riveting we can’t take our freaking eyes off of them, and they are 100% what makes this an enduring ‘must-see’ classic.
Before I go into what I loved, I have to give some attention to a pretty major flaw of the movie. This movie is set in German East Africa, but most of the film is sharply focused on Rose and Charlie and their adventure and almost completely ignores the fact that actual Africans live in Africa. If that sounds like a problem, it is, but it’s not the biggest problem of the film. The real issue is the absolutely cringe-inducing opening scene which is painfully condescending and paternalistic in its treatment of Africans. Just yuck!
The truth is, however, that any scene which doesn’t completely focus on Rose and Charlie is pretty weak. For example, the end, when they finally encounter the Germans, gets a little silly and goes of the rails a bit. Thankfully, the significant middle portion more than makes up for the less than stellar beginning and end.
What I love about this movie…
First, I adored watching the blossoming friendship between Rose and Charlie. Notice I call it a ‘friendship’ not a ‘romance’ – even though they do indeed eventually fall in love. I say this because their relationship, which starts as both of them barely tolerating the other, develops into a true kinship built on shared experience, common goals and, above all, genuine respect. The loner Charlie grows to truly rely on and trust Rose. Rose knows Charlie’s capable of so much more than just steering a boat up and down a river, and she makes him want to be a better person and do big things. Charlie allows Rose to loosen up and be more of the person she was probably meant to be minus all the religious and social repression.
Second, could this be the first action movie where a woman gets to be just as active and kick-ass as a man? Rose begins the film as a fussy, buttoned-up, bible thumping spinster. She ends the film repairing a broken propeller, dragging the boat through a papyrus marsh, and (almost) executing a brilliant offensive maneuver against the Germans.
Third, I haven’t gotten to talk about film fashion much lately, and it would seem, based on the fact that the two main characters almost never change clothing, that there would be nothing to see or discuss here. However, the costuming in this film is pretty critical to the development of the characters. Charlie pretty much wears the same thing through out, and I was struck over and over again by what a small frame Bogie had! I feel pretty certain his pants wouldn’t fit me – length or width.
Rose’s costuming is an external manifestation of all the changes her character has undergone.
Finally, I love the naughty 1950s sexual innuendo. Rose says, after her first brush with river rapids (which Charlie had hoped would knock some sense into her), “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could could be so stimulating!” Oh, Rose, you have no idea. She even asks Charlie if he approves of how she handled his boat…Ahem.