By Kim Hollis
February 25, 2010
There are people who say that Bogart shouldn't have won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The African Queen, mainly because these folks believe that Marlon Brando was more deserving for his portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Brando would beat Bogart a couple of years later, winning for the superior On the Waterfront as opposed to Bogart's villainous Lt. Commander Queeg in The Caine Mutiny). But to watch Bogie play Charlie Allnutt is to realize that he's got a lot more in his repertoire than just the gangsters and private detectives he's iconic for playing. Charlie isn't always a likeable character, as he's crass, dirty and a drinker. He lives hard and serves only his own best interests. But as he and Rose grow closer, he becomes more heroic. She helps him to find that best piece of him, something that he'd never had need of in the past. Bogie displays all of these facets of Charlie, and it's a marvel to watch. Honestly, it's almost a little surprising that this isn't the type of character Bogie always played, what with his pseudo-lisp and his decidedly non-classic look. (It's worth noting, though, that the role had to be rewritten for Bogart, since the character was originally planned to have a thick Cockney accent, one that Bogie couldn't perform believably.)
On top of the fine performances, Huston's direction of the film is simply superb. The movie was filmed on location in central Africa, lending an air of realism to what we see onscreen. The locations, the animals and the set pieces are all true to life, with only the scenes where Bogart and Hepburn were in the water having been filmed in a studio. There's a feeling of being right on top of the action, which gives the movie a quick pace and makes some of the scenes - the rapids come quickly to mind - all the more exciting. It's tough to walk the line between romance and action-adventure, but Huston is more than up to the challenge.
Like so many of the films I've discussed for the AFInity project, The African Queen still feels fresh, exhilarating and relevant today. As a film set during World War I but released in 1951, it was already a period piece, but it also builds to a pretty thrilling climax as Charlie and Rose get closer and closer to their goal of destroying the German gunboat. They encounter a variety of obstacles and treacherous conditions, and all the way up to the film's final moments, you're never quite sure if they're going to succeed (and the movie works whether they do or not). Their unconventional romance is like really tasty sprinkles on top of an awesome donut - it was already good, but now it's just that much better.
Surprisingly, The African Queen has never been available on an authorized Region 1 DVD. It's a movie that you can catch on Turner Classic Movies from time to time, but in recent years, the Bogie/Hepburn flick hasn't been something that's easy to acquire. I have good news for cinema fans, though, because a digitally restored edition of The African Queen will be issued on DVD and Blu-ray on March 23rd. Thus, there's no excuse to miss this classic tale of two singular people brought together in extraordinary circumstances - even if you don't love Bogie the way I do.