I know this is already on my list of films to see (in which I originally misidentified the time period as WWII, and the German characters as Nazis. That has been corrected), but I want to write about it again because I just saw it on the bus coming back to Hanover, and it struck me that I don’t really know why it’s considered such a classic. The characters are largely stereotyped, the story is a mashup of cliches, and while the slight undercurrent of racism is neither surprising nor particularly egregious considering the time period, it doesn’t help the film, either. Sure, the stars are Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, but they’ve both been in movies that were popular at the time and have since slipped under the radar (like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, of which the only trace in popular culture has been “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I DON”T NEED TO SHOW YOU ANY STINKIN’ BADGES!”).
I suppose it’s the seamless combination of big acting talents and a unfamiliar setting with the familiar story and characters that has kept The African Queen afloat all these years (if you’ll pardon the pun). Bogart is Charlie Allnut, a semi-alcoholic, uncouth boat captain who brings mail and various goods to a British missionary and his sister, Rose Sayer (Hepburn) in German East Africa, and brings them news that Europe has become embroiled in what will become the First World War. After the village and church are burned to the ground by Germans, Charlie and Rose attempt a seemingly impossible sabotage mission against the German warship Louisa in order to make German East Africa more accessible to British attack. Along the way, of course, they overcome their personality and cultural differences and fall in love. So yeah, proper British lady meets uncouth man, she makes him less offensive, he makes her cut loose a little, they go through hardships, they fall in love, and they get married at the end. The addition of the Germans as adversaries really makes the characters’ relationships and situational reactions more believable and makes the characters more likeable. Even though Rose is sometimes scared and wussy, she has a reason to be: her brother just died and they’re on a suicide mission. Charlie’s seemingly random regressions to drunkenness and pessimism seem to come from the same source. Interestingly, the mentions of religion in the story decrease as time goes on, even though the amount of luck or divine intervention they would have needed to pull of their adventures increases. For example, a chance rainful, not forseen by either of the experienced jungle-dwellers, pushes the boat out of the muddy river delta into the lake that is their destination while they sleep. Afterwards, despite the amount of time Rose spends reading the Bible, they just sort of get on with their lives.
…There was an analysis in their somewhere. I don’t know where it went.
Bottom line: Entertaining and sincere. It deserves its status as a classic.