Kate and Bogey

Now that I’ve had a taste of it I don’t wonder why you love boating.

Great things are great for all sorts of reasons. Some great things in life do something new, and forever change what will follow. Some do something best, and forever become the bar by which followers are measured. But some great things are great because they deliver far too much “goodness” to merely be described as “goodness”. There are so many really good things about them, that you soon run out of numbers to hang on the scoreboard.

Because of this, you find yourself filled with warm feelings and fond memories, and what at first seems only good, is in fact something that is great in its own way…and that is just as valid a reason as any.

At the risk of stating the obvious, THE AFRICAN QUEEN stars two titans in Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. Hepburn plays a missionary named Rose in German East Africa. The village she and her brother are doing The Lord’s work in happens to be on the delivery route of The African Queen; a small river steamer captained by the gruff Charlie (Bogart). Charlie brings them their mail and supplies, however one day he warns them that he might well be in the midst of his last visit as The Great War has just broken out across Europe. Charlie suggests they find cover, but the siblings stand their ground

Before they get much time to dig in, The Great War comes knocking on their door, with The Germans wanting the territory the village sits on. The Germans burn the village to the ground and shoo the natives into the nearby jungle. When Rose’s brother protests, he is badly beaten. Adding insult to injury, he next catches a terrible fever and dies as a result. When Charlie returns, he pays his respects and offers Rose a ride out of Dodge.

However, with very little wake behind them, Rose gets another idea. She wants to use what supplies there are on the boat to fashion together explosives and attack the German boat housing the unit that burned the village and killed her brother.

Most missionaries would have little chance of convincing a seaman of such a plan…but when the missionary is as headstrong as Katherine Hepburn, a plan is afoot.

Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen

The notoriety of THE AFRICAN QUEEN is now less about what it did than it is about who did it. This is not a film that broke a mold or blazed a trail. It’s not a film that feels especially unique considering what came before it, and what followed. Know what though? That’s fine. It’s more than fine – it’s a bonus. This isn’t a film that wanted to be about its time and place or become a touchstone. It just wanted to bring together two monstrous talents and send them up the river together. Put two titans in a boat and get the to kibbutz as they follow the tide.

All of this goodwill pays off as act two segues into act three. During the long stretch where Charlie and Rose have to coax The African Queen through the reeds evokes a huge amount of pathos from us. Seeing these two misfits push, pull, wish, will, and prod their vessel through little more than an increasingly dry bog is akin to watching Romeo and Juliet push Sisyphus’ boulder up the hill. We shake our head, we pray for rain, we feel every weary muscle on the bodies of two souls who truly shouldn’t be in the situation they are.

This sequence would work well in a film where both leads were unknowns…after all, the very notion of hauling a steamer through chest-deep swamps is enough to make you hurt in places you didn’t even know you had. However, seeing these two icons get so grimy, so weary, so desperate – especially after the pseudo-screwball antics they were getting into in the early going feels…sad. Hepburn and Bogart tugging a boat? That’s like seeing Audrey Hepburn and Carey Grant load a moving truck.

When you put it all together, what you get is something that may not be anything special, but certainly plays as something very special.

The African Queen (1951) Directed by John HustonShown from left: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn

You know that feeling you get when you see early imagery of a band you like? A band who might have already been in their late twenties or early thirties when you discovered them? Things feel a little off when you watch that old footage, don’t they? The faces seem too gawky, the voices the wrong timbre. They are less the persona you identify with and more knees and elbows. Watching them that way feels both amusing and “off” at the same time.

In a way, that was part of my experience with THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and much of it hangs on Bogey. Bogart seemed to start his film career at an older age than most leading men, so I’m used to him looking a bit weathered. However, this is one of the latest roles of his I’ve watched to date, so I’ve never seen him this weathered. The lines on his face seem as though they’d play a tune if you ran a needle over them, and his shadow is less five o’clock than it is nine-thirty. All of which is heightened by the fact that this is the first time I’ve watched Bogey in colour.

There are certain stars I only see in black and white. Jimmy Cagney. Claudette Colbert. Gary Cooper. Ingrid Bergman. Charlie Chaplin. Joan Crawford. Most of they did appear in colour from time to time, but when I close my eyes I see them…at the height of their fame…in greyscale.  Humphrey Bogart is one of those. Seeing him in monochrome seemed to play up the scoundrel in him, harden every line in his physique, and cloak it all in duplicity. That’s not to say that seeing him in colour was bad…or even weird. Just to say that it took a while to get comfortable with it, like the first time I tried to watch a subtitled film.

AQ4

The funny thing about coming to THE AFRICAN QUEEN as late as I have, is that my expectations around it have changed.

The first time I heard about it was back in 1997 on the first AFI Top 100. Back then, the collection of critics, film lovers, and scholars called this movie one of the twenty greatest films ever made (specifically, #17). It’s not. It’s not even close. By no possible metric does this film merit that lofty a perch – it’s arguably not even the best film of its year. This seemed to hit the AFI collective in the ten years that followed their inaugural list, since the mulligan they cobbled together in 2007 found the film tumbling all the way down to the sixty-fifth slot.

Now as if that little change-of-heart wasn’t enough, as I told a few people this viewing was coming up, I was met more than once with a bob of the head and a shrug of the shoulders. “It’s okay” they all seemed to say, not knocking it, but not stoking the fires of anticipation either. Oddly enough, the combination of my friends’ pseudo-apathy, and the AFI about-face actually set the stage for me to enjoy the holy heck out of this movie.

THE AFRICAN QUEEN is wonderful in an old-fashioned sort of way. It’s the type of story they don’t tell much anymore turned into the type of movie they don’t make much anymore. It’s two of the biggest movie stars in film history playing completely within type and riffing off one-another. It’s fun, it’s lush, it’s sweaty and it’s splendid.

For a while there, it might have seemed that time had been unkind to THE AFRICAN QUEEN…but now with the space between, time has turned around on the film, and treated it with unexpected kindness – and that kindness comes through in every frame.

Blind Spots

I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

Here’s the round-up for August so far…

Beatrice watched PULP FICTION

Courtney Small watched THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

Josh watched MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO

Bob “I posted early for the first time in two years” Turnbull watched both RIDE THE HIGH COUNTY and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID

Ruth watched THE PHILADELPHIA STORY

Fisti watched THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE

Andrew Robinson watched THE GREAT DICTATOR

Andina watched PERSONA

John Hitchcock watched ALL IS LOST

Jay Cluitt watched JULES ET JIM

Chris watched CASTLE IN THE SKY

Dan Heaton watched THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

Brittani Burnham watched 12 ANGRY MEN

Sean Kelly watched SE7EN

Will Kouf watched REEFER MADNESS

Phil Bender watched WILD STRAWBERRIES

Rich Watson watched JAWS

Steven watched SATANTANGO