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The African Queen (1951)


You know how you think you’ve seen a film, then Wild Willy slaps it on the box one Sunday and you spend the next two hours trying to remember what microwaves are for, just in case you’ve had a major brain incident and everyone else in the room’s being polite? Such was old Jack’s experience of The African Queen.

I’ve seen it before, I’m sure. But…

Bloody hell. Was it always this weird? I mean, terrific, don’t get me wrong. But, poke me sideways with Bogie’s molars, it’s an odd film. World War One has started, or something, and the Germans are hacking their way viciously through other nations’ African colonies. Katharine Hepburn and pompously godly brother Robert Morley are banging out hymns with tribesfolk, uncomfortably characterised as songsters-only in straw skirts, and nary an equal to equal chat amongst them, when up pop the enemy to burn the village to the ground. Poor Morley faints away into the arms of the Almighty, itching to be comic but held in his flummery by director John Huston. Then up turns Humphrey Bogart, unexpectedly in humble-whilst-in-colour mode as a tradesman with a boat.

And you’ll know the next bit. He rescues Hepburn’s Rose Sayer and they head off down the mighty rivers of the Congo and Isleworth, the latter being a studio tank where the ageing Bogie could get safely entangled with the bottom of the boat. They agree a bizarre mission, to get to the lake at the end of the river and blow up the German warship. It has somekind of strategic position down there which Bogie’s Charlie Allnutt accepts should be wrecked with the basis of his entire life: the African Queen. Hmmm.

I’d forgotten all this plotting. The funny business between the two is as much fun as you’d expect: she’s an uptight Christian lady who demands privacy and high moral standards. He’s a down-at-heel grump, inconvenienced and low on the couth. The two crumblies edge around each other with style and talent, despite the haste forced on their relationship, which soon has them uncringing in the face of fresh love and all the “darlings” and “sweethearts” they have to make believable.

They skid rapids, they slink past evil bastards getting shot at in open waters, they have a nasty moment with what is essentially a waterfall and a tin boat…all tons of fun. But, really, I’d forgotten all of it. Even the final scenes, when there’s nearly a hanging and a touch of actual tension as the African Queen turns out to have links to the deus ex machina, were strange to old Jack. Or perhaps I just mean weird.

Go on, give The African Queen another go. You’re old, you love the stars, and you have – trust me – forgotten all of the plot, the oddities of the stars, what their charisma has to overcome in terms of likely plotting and the ending. This is a film full of adventure and surprise. And some dodgy studio work. But, best of all, Bogie and Hepburn earning themselves righteous praise.

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