Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review of The African Queen

After taking a break for spring and summer because of moving and getting settled into our new lifestyle, the AFI movie project continues unabashed for past sins. Number 65 is The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, directed by John Huston. It was originally a novel by C.S. Forster.

This is another one of those movies that is important because of its production rather than its entertainment value to modern audiences, I suspect. Its history is steeped in the McCarthy era, when suspected commies were being persecuted by the government of the United States. The African Queen got several prominent lefties out of the country to avoid McCarthey, simultaneously producing a patriotic pic they hoped would repair their reputations. At this time, going on location with bulky technicolor cameras was rare. Going to Africa to shoot on location in the Congo was unheard-of. The shoot was long and hard, with cast and crew falling ill and exposed to tropical dangers of all sorts. The film's release was triumphant, with Bogart winning an Oscar for best actor.

But its entertainment value? Sadly, it has not aged that well. The romance between the two main characters has a charming and silly quality which modern cinema lacks outside of comedies. But as for thrills and spills, modern cinema has learned much better ways to make us bite our nails. The special effects, which were cutting-edge in 1951, are outclassed: models and superimposed studio images. In a story more compelling, I could have suspended disbelief enough to enjoy it. But the story is not that compelling.

I did find it very interesting to observe the accents in this film. Back in the day, it was apparently not such a big deal to perform without mastering an accent. Katherine Hepburn's character, Rose, is from Northern England, but she performs it with her standard, clearly-enunciated half-Boston, half-English, half-Hollywood stagey lilting that was popular for starring females at the time. Humourously, Humphrey Bogart's part had to be rewritten because it had him speaking in a thick Cockney and he just couldn't do it. He was rewritten as a Canadian, but he plays it standard Bogey-style: "Nyah, I'm Canadian, see? Maa!" And yet he won an Oscar.

The African Queen is yet another selection from this list that was ground-breaking and important for its time, but sadly dated. One can appreciate it for its historical value, but the story, when the special effects which were mind-blowing in their day are stripped away, left me a little cold.
2 1/2 increasingly treacherous sets of rapids out of 5