FF21 - The African Queen

Intro by John Roderick

Here was the pitch: It's a romantic comedy. It stars 44-year old Katharine Hepburn as a chaste Methodist spinster and 52 year old Humphrey Bogart as a filthy Canadian riverman. They're thrown together in a rattletrap steamboat, drenched in perspiration and arguing constantly in the tropical heat with nothing but the increasingly tattered clothes on their backs.

They hate each other until the moment they fall passionately in love, at which point they elect to pursue an ill-advised suicide mission to destroy a German patrol boat, hundreds of miles down an innavigable river, which no one asked them to do. Oh, and John Houston plans to gorgeously film it in lurid Technicolor using improbably large cameras onsite in Uganda and the Congo, while he and Bogart stay drunk on whiskey the entire time to avoid dysentery. It was, as they say: Sold in the room!

At first Equatorial Africa seems an unusual setting for a World War I film, but competition between European nations in the 19th century to exploit Africa was a major precipitating factor leading up to the war. The action here takes place in Tanzania, which had only just been partially colonized by the Germans in the preceding two decades in direct competition with Britain, Belgium and Portugal.

And while The African Queen is pushing the definition of war film even more than Red Dawn 2, it provides considerable insight into how the Great War qualified as an actual World War, the first of its kind. Our protagonists are not soldiers and they are halfway around the world from the primary theater of war, but they are motivated by a very personal sort of nationalism, the kind where one British missionary could feel like no matter where in the world she stood, there was England.

Hepburn's character Rose is a zealot, steeped in the God & Country rationale the empire was bringing something to Africa rather than just taking from it. At the time this film was made, those convictions had yet to be subjected to widespread scrutiny. Her zealotry is played for laughs, but her noble intentions are the heart of the story. Bogart's Charlie is a realist and a loafer and maybe a coward, but he is swept up by Rose's energy and turns himself over to her as both a lover and a willing accomplice to her scheme to bring the war to the Hun on Lake Victoria.

The African Queen soars on the performances of two of the 20th century's greatest actors at the height of their power, but it is a 1951 movie based on a 1938 book about some fictional events in 1914. Well, by the authority vested in me by Kaiser Wilhelm II, today on friendly fire we review John Houston's 1951 epic The African Queen.

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