It’s not very often that a movie’s filming location is all that heavily featured. It’s generally tucked in between the ASPCA disclaimer and the songwriting credits for whatever Smashmouth song was hastily thrown over the credits in to be included on the tie-in soundtrack. And for good reason: it’s not that interesting. Most of what you actually end up seeing are sets built on soundstages with some pickup shots of a notable landmark of whatever city they’re pretending to be in, so that’s not really worth advertising (The Departed). And if it is a location shoot, they’ll remind you with every single wide-angle, sweeping shot, so mentioning it is redundant (The Town).
But The African Queen is one movie that wastes no opportunity to remind you how good its hand is, and it doesn’t bother bluffing. There, in huge letters right below “The End,” is “Filmed in Africa.” It’s already a romantic war/adventure in an exotic locale starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn directed by John Huston, so why not double down? (In case you can’t tell, I don’t play poker, so let’s put this metaphor to rest.)
This all begs the question of why – why shoot a movie with two screen legends on location that could have easily been made at Universal with a few newsreel inserts of hippos and crocs? The answer is simple: it wouldn’t have been as much fun.
I loved it. I really did. It was exciting, even when I could tell there weren’t any people on the raft. It was passionate, even with all the awkwardly censored lovemaking.
The African Queen tells the story of an unlikely pair – a Canadian riverboat captain and an Anglican missionary – that, through circumstances beyond their control, set sail together through Africa to sink a German ship during WWI. On this adventure, they’re faced with all sorts of challenges: the inhospitable river itself, human nature, attraction, and the conflict between self-preservation and doing your moral duty. Charlie is a decent guy with vices to overcome, and Rose is an upstanding lady who won’t let a mission’s improbability of success stop her from carrying it out.
The African Queen is one of four of the final 17 (!!) remaining films in this review series that I’d never seen before, and there were a few things going in that made me skeptical. First was how often people said things like “That’s my dad/grandpa’s favorite movie.” That’s usually a red flag that something has been over-hyped over the years. Yeah, that’s nice and all, but I’m 29. I know lots of dads, and their ability to reproduce has nothing to do with their taste in movies. On top of that, I’d also heard the same things about From Here to Eternity and A Place in the Sun, which really, really, really stank, except to the generation that were teenagers when they came out. Of course a generation is going to look back rosily at its crappy films (Empire Records, anyone?).
Moral: If someone says The African Queen is their dad’s favorite movie, date that person to get to their dad.
Another thing that made me wary of trusting The African Queen was the frequency of how often Huston/Bogart collaborations appear on the list. This isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned that some directors were over-represented (most notably George Stevens and Charlie Chaplin). This seems to indicate that rather than picking single greatest individual film achievements, the AFI prioritized certain filmmakers over others, like they thought, “We definitely need some John Huston on here. Here’s a list of his work, which ones can we justify?
So far, we’ve already seen The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and now The African Queen from the Huston/Bogart team. What makes this body of work stand out from Chaplin’s, say, was that his films were Chaplin films: silent romantic slapstick comedies. Stevens films were Stevens films: big (in my opinion, bloated), melodramatic, “lush” (ugh, I hate when critics use that word). But Huston/Bogart don’t work that way. With The Maltese Falcon, we have probably the most definitive, influential film noir of all time. With Treasure, we have a semi-anticapitalist treatise on greed, sanity, wealth, and man’s natural state. Now with The African Queen, it’s a life-or-death adventure, and love is in the air. It’s definitely Huston’s direction, and Bogie is Bogie no matter what he does, and that’s just what makes it so great. These two were the real deal, which is why a film crew followed them into Africa to make this movie. I’d have done the same.
Moral: Some actor-director partnerships really are infallible. Not all are Burton/Depp.
There isn’t a great deal of depth to the story here. It really is just about blowing up a boat in Africa and two people falling in love while doing it. But that’s not the point of an adventure movie. The point is that we’re on this journey with Bogart and Hepburn, and we really do feel their immersion in Africa and the weight of the journey they’re on. We knew they would fall in love, and they did. We knew they would succeed in their mission, and they did.
Modern viewers may not find anything new in The African Queen, but it set the standard for what an adventure film could and should be. It invented dozens of what would become cliches, but it’ll charm you so much you won’t even notice.
Comments: Inspired, exciting, funny, charming, and influenced all action/adventure films that followed it, helping the genre move away from superheroes and more on flawed individuals who rise to the task.
Deserves to be in Top 100: Yes, but lower. Treasure was more interesting.
Inspired: Any movie with a scene about going over a waterfall is stealing from The African Queen. The character of Indiana Jones was originally supposed to be an alcoholic like Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but there are a few direct parallels here (not the least of which is that they’re fighting Germans).
Next Week: #16 All About Eve
Last Week: #18 Psycho
AFI 100 IS BROUGHT TO YOU IN PART BY THE FINE FINE PEOPLE AT MOVIEWORKS BOSTON WHO HAVE A SHITTON OF MOVIES. IT’S WHERE I GET MY MOVIES FOR THIS PROJECT AND YOU SHOULD TOO.
BUY THE MOVIE HERE.
GO TO THE AFI 100 LANDING PAGE TO SEE MORE.
FOLLOW THE EXPLOITS ON TWITTER @DAILYFANBOY.