John Huston has swiftly become a fascination of mine. His directing style and visibility in some of cinema’s finest and best-remembered projects has elevated him to a status that kept his direction relevant for the forty years of his career and forty more after he’s passed away. His work on The African Queen sees the Escape to Victory and The Maltese Falcon director tackle a more simplistic romantic piece that stars Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Shamefully my first experience with Hepburn and my second with Bogart, The African Queen displays the strengths that made the two leading stars world-famous.
Set during the breakout of the First World War, The African Queen follows the titular boat and its captain, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), as he sets sail along with Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn). Fleeing the German army, the two team up and head downriver to take on a German warship. But that isn’t really the focus of the film, in fact, the German army and its boat are barely featured, aside from one or two frightfully tense scenes towards the end of the movie. The rest of the picture is dedicated solely to building the relationship between Allnut and Sayer. With two differing backgrounds, they must work together and come to deal with one another’s quirks and the frustrations that follow.
Bogart and Hepburn are,
as you’d expect, superb
It’s your expected romantic film, with the drunkard captain sobering himself up long enough to look at how great life with Sayer could be. Sayer is a missionary from a local church, but when it is raided by the Germans it’s not too long until she’s in the arms of Allnut. Possibly the most important aspect of any romantic film is the chemistry between the leading love interests. Hepburn and Bogart certainly provide consistently predictable chemistry with one another. The expected hatred and uncomfortable living situation push our characters to their brink, and they eventually make peace with one another long enough for romance to strike out of the blue. We learn about these two characters at the same time they’re learning about one another, and it creates a nice platform for the audience to view our leading stars as blank canvases with room to grow and blossom.
It’s rather therapeutic to see this simplistic story unfold, and even more enjoyable to see in a cracking remastering from the team over at Eureka. A crisp new rendition of the film is provided, a greatly handled remastering on the whole with plenty of special features to tide over fans of the film. Although the soundtrack isn’t the most engaging or interesting of its time, the audio and soundtrack is thoroughly amplified, with the mixing quality as good as you’d expect from a remastering.
Bogart and Hepburn are, as you’d expect, superb alongside one another. Bogart for me will forever be that charming lead from Casablanca, and for him to go on to The African Queen is such a shock to the system. He plays more or less the same style you’d expect from Bogart, but it’s nothing alike his other film roles. Allnut is unwashed, a drunkard with nothing really to live for, yet he is content in this and enjoys the frivolous freedoms the river provides him. Throwing Katharine Hepburn’s performance as Rose Sayer into the mix provides him with the wake-up call he needs. Hepburn is certainly a solid cast member, her quarrels with Allnut eat up the first hour until she’s turned on her head by their shared love of the river and its dangerous trail.
If you’re expecting depth from The African Queen, you’d best think again. For while its performances are strong enough to carry us through this voyage, they’re certainly not intricate or thorough, exemplary pieces of Bogart or Hepburn’s abilities as performers. At the time this film released, it felt as if Bogart and Hepburn had already found their footing in the genre, and The African Queen feels like child’s play. If it weren’t for their presence within the film, and some excellent direction from John Huston, there’d be little to recommend here. However, we’re given the strength of two great performers and one superb director with the trio working wonders with a plot and script that feels extremely basic. The African Queen is a light-hearted piece that just so happens to take place during a terrifying moment of history.