Wednesday, August 21, 2013

But what about the screwdriver? (The African Queen)

1001 Movies Blog Club time! This week the group turns its attention on John Huston’s famed and beloved classic, The African Queen. This was an easy sell for me, as I do enjoy Humphrey Bogart’s trademark world-weary, above-it-all (or really off-to-the-side-of-it-all) cool. The man died before I was born, when my parents were just little kids, and yet I knew who Bogey was before I ever saw any of his movies, thanks to the omnipresence of old Bugs Bunny cartoons in my childhood and Warner Brothers’ propensity for using the actor’s likeness in the Looney Tunes universe.

(I somehow doubt that the mid-90’s Animaniacs-driven attempts to do the same with then-current celebrity cameos will end up having the same staying power.

But I digress.)

So, for factoids of historical note associated with The African Queen, we have: Humphrey Bogart’s one and only Oscar-winning performance, some ground-breaking work in on-location shooting in exotic locales, the luminary presence of Katherine Hepburn, and the backdrop of the Great War. Sounds like a sure bet, as the perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and the inclusion on multiple AFI lists would seem to indicate.

And the movie itself, is … okay, I guess? In some ways it’s quite good, and in some ways it’s fine. I think the movie hits what it’s aiming for, but it doesn’t aim terribly high. I feel suitably churlish for putting it that way, but ah well. There’s simply nothing transcendent about the film that elevates into the upper echelons of legendary movies, in my opinion.

On a certain level, The African Queen is practically an open instruction manual for a crowd-pleasing adventure story. Start with a noble tragic figure, a charming rogue, and a brave maiden. Samuel Sayer the missionary, Charlie Allnut (which I readily grant is a fanTAStic name) the boat captain, and Rose Sayer. Kill off the first character, setting the third character on a quest for vengeance with the reluctant assistance of the second - check. If possible, have the death come at the hands of unquestionably evil villains the audience will have no trouble rooting against; German soldiers loyal to the Kaiser are second only to Hitler-loving Nazis in that department. Have the rogue enumerate the obstacles he and the maiden will likely face, to prime the audience tension, and then move the characters through each of those trials one after the other, with only enough downtime for a little character development and the opportunity for the rogue and the maiden to fall in love - check! Bring the characters to a moment of desperation where it seems all hope is lost, say mooring their boat in reeds and mud impossible to escape from, and then provide the requisite escape at the last possible moment, in this case a swelling of the river after the rains which lifts the boat. Then have the characters obtain the goal of their quest and live happily ever after, cut and print.

I can’t fault The African Queen for sticking to that formula and executing it precisely. All of the major action setpieces are handled well, and they cover a broad range of challenges for the protagonists: shooting the rapids (multiple, escalating times) and maneuvering past a German-held fort under heavy fire are thrilling and intense; repairing the boat after the third set of rapids bend the shaft and snap the propeller is satisfyingly filled with secret knowledge; poling the boat, and towing it by wading ahead of it, through the river delta is agonizingly slow and monotonous, evoking the hopelessness of the situation. And when the river is not actively trying to kill Charlie and Rose, the quieter moments do their work almost as well. I never for a moment felt a hint of spark between Bogart and Hepburn, since their interactions felt as staged as the safari B-roll footage interspersed throughout, but I took the perfunctory romance in stride as part of the narrative expectations.

But the narrative never really rises above its own plot. It’s highly entertaining, but what does it all mean? There are some interesting ideas about patriotism in a time of war and doing whatever it takes to strike at the enemy in the most direct manner possible, and about the grieving process and how to handle it, and even about finding love later in life (Charlie drunkenly calls Rose an “old maid” to her face, and he’s no spring chicken himself) but those ideas are simply inherent to the events in the story and never really developed as themes, which I think is a shame.

There were a couple of surprises for me, however, both wrapped up in the ending of the movie. Rose’s goal, which slowly but surely becomes Charlie’s common cause, is to attack, blow up and sink the Queen Louisa in the lake at the end of the river. Every obstacle the pair faces is resolved straightforwardly throughout: the rapids are fast and rough, but they hang on and get through them. The German fort notices them and soldiers shoot at them, but Rose and Charlie hide against the hull and take only superficial damage, and ultimately the sun blinds the soldiers through their rifle scopes as Rose predicted it would. Then the rapids are faster and rougher, but they get through them again. Then the rapids are fastest and roughest, and the boat is damaged, but fixable. Then they enter the delta and do in fact lose the channel, but the rains save them. You see where this is going: time to build the homebrew torpedos and ram the German gunship! The torpedos sure enough get built, but then a sudden storm sinks The African Queen in the middle of the lake. The quest ends in failure.

When I was in college, taking the one and only film course in my career, my professor pointed out that (almost) all classic stories are either comedies or tragedies, and the tragedies (almost) always end with a death, while comedies (almost) always end with a marriage. In the case of films, particularly in Hollywood, sometimes this is a symbolic marriage in the form of a kiss. The African Queen is more comedy than tragedy, so my initial expectation was that Rose and Charlie would set the little boat on its suicide run, encounter some last-minute complication to solve, jump off the boat together at the latest possible moment, watch the two ships blow up, and then kiss each other, the end. So once the African Queen sank with her improvised torpedos intact, I wasn’t sure what the final run time would bring. I found it fascinating that they managed to work in the wedding - not even a symbolic one, but actually officiated by the German commander of the Queen Louisa! - and then the triumph of the enemy ship accidentally running into and detonating the torpedos on the barely-floating wreck of the African Queen. It’s a neat little subversion/inversion.

The other surprise for me was something that never happened during the climax of the movie. Early on, Charlie explains to Rose that the African Queen’s boiler has a screwdriver rattling around inside it somewhere, and one of these days he’s going to take the whole thing apart and get the screwdriver out. Until then, he needs to occasionally kick the boiler to make it behave. He hasn’t repaired it as of yet, he elaborates, because he kind of likes kicking it. On the one hand, this is a deft piece of character development, but on the other hand it practically screams Chekhov's Screwdriver, doesn’t it? And yet it is never mentioned again. The boiler doesn’t fail at a critical moment; the boat sinks because the storm swamps it as water gets in through the loose torpedo holes. The screwdriver doesn’t get shot out of an overheated pipe just in time to sever the hangman’s rope which is supposed to execute Charlie. Nothing! Clearly I am overly obsessed with what was intended to be a throwaway detail, but there it is.

The thing is, as I’ve said before, I have an abiding fondness for vehicles which have a personality of their own, especially if said personality involves being an odds-defying, past-its-prime, borderline-derelict eccentric that always comes through in the end. So I probably paid more attention to the titular boat itself than to any other aspect of The African Queen, for better or worse. (I think for the better.)

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