Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty

#20 — The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
There are gateway films for everyone, those features that unlock something inside that inspires a previously absent appreciation for, say, foreign cinema or art house fare. I can’t actually pinpoint what opened most of those doors for me, but I’m fairly certain I know the first film that made me open my eyes to the vast wonders to be found in classic cinema. Like a lot of young people, I suspect, I found any movie that had a copyright date too much before my birth year to be a little musty and dull. Then one day I watched The African Queen, I think on a PBS station, and it all changed. I don’t know what my age was, but it was fairly young. And it’s not that the film plays out as especially modern, or even did then. In fact, I’d argue it feels more like stereotypical “classic cinema” than a lot of John Huston’s other features from around that time, which are often steeped in an urban toughness that translates across time, wrenching them out of the past. The trademark muscularity of Huston’s filmmaking is certainly there, though. That could be what I responded to. Then again, maybe it was nothing more than the abiding quality of the film that gave me the equivalent of a thud to the head to jar me from my judgmental stupor. Regardless, for delivering to me a way to connect with the sort of fare that makes up the programming schedule of Turner Classic Movies, I owe it a solid debt.

Based on a 1935 novel by C.S. Forester, The African Queen is largely set on the boat of the same name. Skippered by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), the vessel is used to transport missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) from her station in West Africa after her brother (Robert Morley) dies after an attack by German soldiers after World War I breaks out. The plot isn’t especially complicated from there: the journey is beset by travails that both travelers endure with prickly determination and mounting affection for one another. It’s not just the accumulated descendants of this film that make the story’s path utterly familiar. At the time of its release, The African Queen was surely more satisfying in its familiarity than stunning in its unexpected turns, even if the location shooting in the wilds of the Congo was indeed fairly unique for the era. As much panache as Huston brings to the framing and pacing of sequences, the sturdiness of the storytelling is what truly endures.

The African Queen also provides enduring evidence of the value in inspired movie star casting. Bogart nabbed his Best Actor Oscar for his performance here, and it was justly awarded. He is thoroughly enjoyable as he levels his brash temper and easygoing charm in equal measure, wonderfully finding nuance in a resolute avoidance of that very quality. So much of the appeal comes from putting him up against Hepburn in full-on chin-forward certainty mode. It is a complete reversal of these two stars most famous and successful screen pairings — Bogart with the seductive cool of Bacall and Hepburn duetting to Spencer Tracy’s slightly stammering soft shoe approach — and the need to constantly prove themselves to someone just as formidable, just as headstrong brings out a sharpness that plays especially well in the crushing authority of nature. It is fully believable that their bonding in a battle against the world, quite literally, would lead to deeper affection. No wonder The African Queen made me actively want to discover more films just like it.