Kerri Battles the AFI’s Top 100 — #65: The African Queen

Going into this week’s viewing, I honestly couldn’t remember if I’d ever seen The African Queen before or not.  I felt like I had seen it, but I couldn’t be sure of anything about it other than the fact that it starred Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, and a boat. Beyond that, I couldn’t be sure. I even had a sneaking suspicion that anything else I thought I remembered about the movie was actually from an episode of Muppet Babies that may or may not have been a figment of my imagination itself. That suspicion turned out to be true once I took to the interwebs to confirm its existence (jump to about 6 minutes in). I’m now clear on what was Bogie and Hepburn and what was Scooter and Piggy, but that’s still about all I know for sure.

Maybe I am and MAYBE I AM.

The African Queen takes place in German-occupied East Africa in September of 1914. Katherine Hepburn plays Rose Sayer, a spinster who traveled to East Africa with her brother, a Baptist Missionary. Humphrey Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, an employee of the local mine who travels to the village regularly on his homemade 30-foot steamboat to deliver what supplies and mail he can. At the end of one of these visits, Mr. Allnut informs Miss Sayer and her brother that he may not be able to come again for some time, thanks to the war in Europe between Germany and … everyone else. If the Sayers are shocked by this news, they’re downright aghast when, almost whole minutes later, the German Army storms the village, forcibly conscripts the locals, and burns their huts to the ground. Missionary Sayer, a man not exactly stout of heart, finds this all too much to bear and, in what appears to be a matter of days, has a nervous breakdown and dies. Later that morning, Allnut returns to check on them and finds Miss Rose alone and fighting her own hysteria. He buries her brother, then offers to take her with him for her own safety. His plan is to travel down river to some remote spot and, with the cache of supplies he was able to snag from the mine, hide out from the Germans until this whole little world-wide-war blows over. Rose takes stock of Charlie’s supplies and suggests another idea. From what she’s heard so far from Mr.Allnut, the Germans have just one large, intimidating boat protecting the only lake the British Navy could use to safely enter Africa and defeat the Germans. The intrepid Rose figures they could use the canisters of oxygen and blasting gel Charlie snagged from the mine to build torpedos and use the diminutive Queen to accomplish what the entire British Navy apparently can’t. Charlie tells Rose her plan will never work because she’s a crazy old maid. Rose tells Charlie he’s a drunken coward. Charlie stops arguing and starts down the river, though it’s clear this is more in an effort to shut Rose’s mouth than it is to single handedly take on the German armada. As crocodiles and rapids make their trek increasingly daunting, Charlie becomes increasingly drunk. Finally, as he spends an afternoon sleeping one off, Rose pours each bottle from his cases of Gordon’s Extra Dry overboard. Charlie awakens hung over and irritable. Rose steadfastly administers the silent treatment until Charlie can’t take it anymore and openly agrees to her plan. They head again down the river, besting snipers, swarms of flies, more rapids, and even a broken drive shaft and propeller. The two suddenly and inevitably fall in love before reaching their destination with barely any breath left in their bodies. They hide the African Queen in the reeds along the river and build their DIY ordnance, but a squall hits the lake before they can carry out their plans. The African Queen is lost and Charlie and Rose are captured. With their necks in nooses, Charlie asks the German Captain to fulfill a last request to legally marry them before they die. The Captain reluctantly agrees and, just as the newlyweds kiss, the German boat inadvertently runs into the overturned African Queen, setting off the torpedoes. Both boats explode, but Charlie and Rose escape serious harm to live happily every after.

Ain’t life grand?

The African Queen is a straightforward story told in an easy-to-watch 105 minutes without wasting a single second on filler, fluff, or unnecessary plot twists. The performances are captivating and, though the characters are outlandish at best, they never appear overacted or forced. Sure, there’s that one scene where Rose spends full minutes pontificating on the importance of duty to Queen and Country and stubbornly deciding how easy it will be for two people in a tiny, decrepit boat to take on a German warship, only to be immediately undone with wide-eyed fear by the sight of a few bottles of gin. Otherwise, Charlie and Rose, thanks to Bogie and Hepburn, are believable in their circumstances.  Most importantly, though, the film stands the test of time and remains completely watchable and entertaining even 60+ years after it was released. Yet, in spite of all this, I walked away from The African Queen confused as hell. I liked the movie well enough. I’d even watch it again if the opportunity presented itself. But, in every other Battle to date, the AFI’s reasons for including a given film on the list seemed obvious, whether I agreed with them or not. For this one, though, there is no obvious grandiose scale, though the film was mostly shot on location in Africa. There is no apparent groundbreaking technique, though it was Hepburn’s first color film. There’s no permeation of the Pop Culture Hive Mind, since the first, last, and only reference I’ve ever heard or seen anyone make was that one episode of a Saturday Morning Cartoon from 25 years ago. Even the IMDb Trivia failed to offer me any insight; it’s mostly repetitive facts about Bogie and director John Huston alone avoiding dysentery by imbibing copious and obscene amounts of scotch. To quote Tom Hanks’ character, Josh Baskin, in a far more memorable and important film, Big, “I don’t get it.”

I’m sorry, Ms. Hepburn. I mean no disrespect. I consider you a personal hero. Maybe we can meet at a Ouija board sometime and you can explain it to me?

There’s nothing wrong with The African Queen. In fact, if you have the chance, definitely give it a watch. It’s not a bad movie. In fact, it’s a good movie. A solidly good movie. Great? One of the greatest of all time? Number 65 out of the 100 Greatest Movies of the Last 100 Years? No. Definitely not. If you want to talk about one of the greatest movies of all time, let’s talk about Jurassic Park. Let’s talk about the movie that taught us that Velociraptors are clever, terrifying girls and that a T. Rex will totally save adorable vegetarian children from their evil, sadistic talons to an emotionally uplifting John Williams score. Oh, you didn’t know it was nominated for both iterations of this list and included on neither? Well it was. But somehow The African Queen managed to make the cut twice. Christ, the two times we could have actually used Kanye’s powers for good …. — KSmith