Before Hollywood embraced the box office appeal of pairing unlikely performer combinations for comic effect, Sam Spiegel managed to convince Katherine Hepburn to be Humphrey Bogart’s leading lady. Adapting the C.S Forrester novel about a Christian woman joining forces with a roustabout to survive the nascent Nazis allowed Huston to visit the continent and its dubious pleasures and pursuits (hunting and fishing). Today, it is difficult to fathom how disappointing this premise was for prospective studios, as they grappled with the unappealing concept of an aging and (gasp!) unshaven Bogie and a mature Hepburn heading into the colourful second half of her career.
As a freelancer, Spiegel found it difficult to convince any of the majors to take a chance on this more mature combo, and the plot of C.S Forrester’s novel does not lend itself to adventure, as the bulk of the story takes place on the titular African Queen. Huston knew that in order for the picture to succeed, the chemistry and timing between his leads would have to eclipse the somewhat pedestrian concept of going from A to B to do a thing.
As the tale unfolds, the pair develop respect, affection and eventually love, as polite respect takes a detour into drunken honesty before driving headlong into a bout of Hollywood derring-do. The completion of certain nautical tasks and solving of aquatic quandaries provide the second act with some much-needed business on the boat, and Bogie’s portrayal of an uncultured captain perfectly captures the class conflict that such a circumstance would have created. The clipped austerity of Hepburn in her ridiculously impractical ankle-length gowns clashes wonderfully with Bogart looking like Popeye’s less well-known cousin.
Jack Cardiff’s photography is frequently lauded, although the man himself is keen to highlight that given the remote location and size of the Technicolor camera, there was little complexity to the composition of the images. The decision to shoot with Technicolor has ensured that the re-mastering process has preserved the near 70-year-old imagery, which is still vibrant and natural, making this AFI classic more visually memorable than others of the golden age.
The sudden tangent into the love story is the only weak point in this light yet frothy tale of rebellion in the (then) Belgian Congo during the First World War. Shortly after they successfully sneak past a German fort, the pair are wrapped in each other’s arms and it is obvious that had someone other than Huston been at the helm, writers James Agee or Peter Viertel could have manufactured a less awkward romantic circumstance. It is no surprise that The African Queen is considered Huston’s only love story.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 18 Nov 2019