The African Queen ★★★½

It baffles me that I once considered The African Queen one of my favourite films. Well, the law of diminishing return strikes again. It's not that it's a bad film - far from it - but it's hardly as great as its reputation would suggest.

Based on the novel by C. S. Forester, John Huston's film takes place at the start of the First World War. Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) are English sibling missionaries in German East Africa; war breaks out, and they suddenly find themselves enemy aliens. Nonetheless, Samuel decrees that they remain, but it's not long before he's succumbed to fever and died. Alone, Rose has nothing to do but wait for the arrival of rough-hewn Canadian Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and his launch, the African Queen (which delivers mail and supplies), on which to make her journey to Kenya. Aboard the boat, she has to overcome her standoffish attitude to Charlie as they attempt to navigate the treacherous Ulanga river and slip through German lines.

What's good about the film is mostly thanks to Huston. A daring filmmaker of passion and conviction, he liked to explore characters on a quest that they felt compelled to see through to its end regardless of the risks involved. Interestingly, however, this is perhaps the only instance I can think of where the character who is possessed by desire to triumph is a woman. Rose Sayer is determined to do her country proud and smash the German gunboat blocking the African Queen's passage to Kenya; she's assertive and hands-on in a way that feels rare for other adventure films of the age. Huston's direction is never less than effective, managing picturesque landscape imagery along with crisply handled action sequences. A British production, it makes use of some of the best craftsmen in the country's industry at time, especially cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who graces the film with majestic Technicolor visuals) and editor Ralph Kemplen.

However, where the film falls short of greatness is in its use of stars Hepburn and Bogart. Neither comes across as especially convincing here, not least because we can't really buy them as being from where they're supposed to be from (particularly in Hepburn's case). Plus, neither of them really gets to do anything that suggests why they're considered two of the greatest stars of Hollywood's golden age. I suppose I can't hold this against them or the film too much considering this isn't an "actors' film", but even so it's disappointing. The dialogue is merely serviceable, the romance a tad forced, and I doubt you'll find anyone who considers Bogart's Oscar deserved, particularly since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire was nominated that year.

So no, The African Queen isn't quite a stone-cold classic. I think it more or less comes down to a lack of anything truly unforgettable or subversive about it. Not to worry; it's still lovely to look at most of the time, and it's filled with a faith in the merits of classical storytelling that renders the whole thing rather charming.

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