1951 / Best Director

Film #621: The African Queen (1951)

I’ve talked a lot about Oscar records in relation to the directors on this list and next up we come to the man who still is recognised as the oldest man ever to be nominated for Best Director. That man is John Huston who also has the distinction of directing both his father Walter and his daughter Anjelica to acting Oscars in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Prizzi’s Honor respectively. Another man Huston directed to surprisingly his only acting Oscar was Humphrey Bogart for playing sarcastic boat captain Charlie Allnut in 1951’s The African Queen.

The African Queen of the title is the tramp steamer ship that Charlie uses to deliver mail and supplies to the small village in German East Africa which is home to Katharine Hepburn’s missionary Rose Sayer and her brother Samuel played by Robert Morley. With his latest mail shipment, Charlie also delivers news of the impending First World War which will affect his visits and soon enough the characters experience the conflict first hand. German soldiers invade the village, burning down the church and assault Samuel which soon leads to his death from fever. After helping Rose bury her brother, Charlie takes her back along the river in The African Queen however she soon has a bold revenge plot against the Germans. Her plan involves turning The African Queen into a torpedo boat; using Charlie’s supply of explosives to do so however he’s less sure due to the unpredictability of the river as well as the constant presence of the German officers. Eventually he relents and so begins the duo’s perilous trip along the river which is punctuated by a burgeoning relationship between Charlie and Rosie as they celebrate their various successes along the way. Huston perfectly builds the tension by increasing the hazards that the couple encounter, from rapids to crocodiles before eventually coming face to face with the German army. Apparently, Huston was convinced by the producer Sam Spiegel to change the ending from Forster’s original novel so that Charlie and Rose survived instead of dying. I can see why audiences at the time would’ve enjoyed seeing Bogart and Hepburn swim to safety after their plan is executed successfully, however watching in 2017 I would’ve like to have seen the ending that Huston originally envisioned.

Looking at it on paper, The African Queen shouldn’t work as it’s combines a slight story with a rather weak romantic subplot and German antagonists who are thinly drawn. Thankfully, the execution of the piece was excellent due to several people all of whom received Oscar nominations for their contribution to the movie. I feel that Huston’s nomination was primarily due to his decision to film a large portion of the movie on location in both Uganda and the Congo, which was a rare occurrence in the 1950s. Huston perfectly captures the mood of the film, focusing on the perils that Charles and Rose suffer during their journey and particularly capturing the danger of the action scenes. Additionally, I appreciated the way that Huston turned The African Queen into a character in her own right as the boat’s malfunctions and claustrophobic nature became elements of the plot in their own right. As well being an accomplished director, Huston was also known for writing the screenplay for each one of his pictures, here doing so alongside James Agee. Huston and Agee’s script was perfectly paced; focusing on the characters of Rose and Charlie and allowing the audience to gain sympathy for both as the film progressed. Although I don’t believe we would’ve grown to love Rose and Charlie if it hadn’t been for the fantastic performances given by Hepburn and Bogart. The pair’s chemistry is something I particularly wanted to applaud as the film would’ve worked at all if I wasn’t able to believe the growing feelings between the two protagonists. Thankfully Hepburn and Bogart’s interplay and body language was believable, so by the time Charlie and Rose embraced for the first time I completely brought into it.

Bogart’s Best Actor win was particularly deserved as, from his first appearance on screen, he fully inhabited the character of Charlie; turning him into a likeable everyman albeit one with rough edges. He combines perfect comic timing with an emotional tinge to his performance, particularly in the final scenes in which Charlie believes that Rose has drowned. I would contend that Bogart probably deserved to win more than one Best Actor in his career, especially for his fantastic central turn in Casablanca, however his performance here is a perfect example of why Bogie was one of the best film actors of all time. Unlike her co-star, Hepburn didn’t triumph at that year’s awards however I feel that she should’ve been rewarded for all that she went through during filming from contracting illness in Africa to almost being crushed by the boat’s heavy boiler. Hepburn just had the bad luck of being nominated the same year as Vivien Leigh’s note-perfect turn in A Streetcar Named Desire which meant she had no chance of winning. In my opinion, the film also deserved a Best Picture nomination; replacing either of that year’s more forgettable nominees Quo Vadis or Decision Before Dawn. I’m more torn over whether that year’s other Best Director nominee, Detective Story, deserved a Best Picture nod however I do feel it’s contemporary tone puts it ahead of the pair of aforementioned nominees. Overall, The African Queen proves just how accomplished a director that John Huston was and I can’t wait to watch more of his films in the near future.

Luckily, I won’t have to wait long as next up is the film that Huston made a year before setting off to make The African Queen.

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