Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sinking of a Different Sort: John Huston’s The African Queen

Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen

Contains spoilers.

Before the much swooned over romance of Jack and Rose in James Cameron's Titanic there was the real thing between Charlie and Rose on another doomed boat, the African Queen. John Huston's 1951 film of The African Queen could have been a hell of a downer. The thought of a missionary and a drunkard on a suicidal quest to sink a German gunboat at the dawn of the First World War just doesn’t jump to me as material meant for a sweet and tender romance. Thankfully, it doesn’t end up being a tragic love story. Instead, what’s offered in the story, acting, and tone propels a genuine onscreen romance rather than drag us down.

From the onset, we see the danger. There’s a sense of dread that casts its shadow over Rose (Katharine Hepburn) and Charlie’s (Humphrey Bogart) adventure. Rose loses her reverend brother (Robert Morley) and her mission, but not her faith. Within moments of burying her brother, Rose convinces the gin-soaked steamboat owner Charlie to attack an enemy ship, the Queen Louisa, patrolling an unnamed lake in German East Africa that is holding the British counteroffensive at bay. Their weapon? The African Queen herself, with a make-shift torpedo they crafted from an oxygen tank and explosives attached to her bow. It’s a doomed mission, but you’ll end up praying they sink that bastard gunship and live to celebrate their small victory. The German soldiers are vile, but it’s not Rose’s revenge we’re praying for. We want to see this journey through.

Hepburn and Bogart’s characters are endearing, with sweetness in their hearts. Though the plot could read like a tepid revenge thriller, or wannabe Rambo sequel, the characters elevate the material. What we have in return is a rousing adventure punctuated by tragedy rather than dwelling on it. The moment Rose loses her brother brings her properly into Charlie’s life. Before that, he had been delivering their mail and supplies, but nothing more. Each new hardship is dealt with as if it were merely a hiccup. After the ship is caught in thick mud off the coast, Charlie jumps into the weeds and painstakingly pulls the boat back on track only to find out he’s been covered head to toe in leeches. Queasiness and fear overpowers Bogart, and this opens a soft moment for Hepburn’s strong character to break through. The concern that floods her eyes as she tends to the leeches on Charlie’s torso illustrates a pure love. The kindness and the care she takes in comforting the sobered Captain are genuine at an almost primal level. Rose must overcome what has made Charlie sick to his stomach if she really cares to save him. Their well-being is threatened with each new obstacle, but in these dark hours they’re most adept at finding safety and salvation in each other. The African Queen becomes a film about treasuring the moment, not about lofty ideals or following political agendas.

Huston shows us the genesis of Rose and Charlie as strangers who learn to become friends and friends who become lovers. Their friendship gives us an anchor. When Rose pours gallons of Charlie’s gin into the river, she is a stranger to him. When Charlie shelters Rose from gunfire as they pass by German soldiers, their friendship is blossoming. As they are caught by German forces and sentenced to execution they stare at each other with glee, head over heels in love. They aren’t just opposites; they bring out the best in each other.

This kind of love is rare. The romance on screen is not one you should easily excuse as opposites attracting. There is tenderness in their glances and passion rooted in their embraces. Before they ever even think to share a kiss you know they would take a bullet for each other. Both Charlie and Rose have fallen on hard times when they embark on this journey together. To find true romance in times of crisis is impressive, but the uncanny ability to constantly make light of terrible situations and keep moving forward is a testament to what we’re all capable of. They’re missing something in their lives, and are cornered by the impending doom of the approaching war, but they don’t just settle for each other as the end closes in. They don’t compromise – and find themselves falling slowly in love. By the end titles, they find what has been missing: each other. They are undoubtedly in love with each other, happily parading towards certain death.

When the African Queen sinks, and Charlie is captured believing Rose has drowned, he can’t go on. The joy in his eyes as he watches her close in on him is expressed beautifully. They didn’t accomplish their mission (or so they think) and they couldn’t be happier. Charlie proposes marriage to Rose as they are about to be hanged, not afraid to put his love forward even when it’s too late. Tying the knot with nooses draped around their necks brings a childlike grin to their faces when it should send shivers down their spines. The look in their eyes as they literally tie the knot isn’t blind love, it’s fearless. Tragedy can still lead us to a happy ending.

– Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

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