There are certain films that hold a unique place in history… and
Hollywood had better keep their grubby, remaking mitts off of them!
While the trend to “re-imagine” or “re-envision” everything around them
has been going on for some time, these films have so far managed to
escape the fate of some of their less fortunate compatriots. I speak of
course of…

SACRED COWS
The 25 Movies They’d Better Never Remake.

DAY TWENTY-TWO
THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)



DIRECTED BY: John Huston
WRITTEN BY: James Agee
STARRING:  Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn

THE SACRED RUNDOWN

Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Hepburn) are a prim pair of siblings running an English Methodist missionary in the village of Kungdu.   Its geography is unfortunate, as it’s smack in the middle of German East Africa. The Sayers don’t realize the trouble they’re in until The African Queen and its disreputable captain, Charlie Allnut (Bogart), pull in with supplies.  After getting under their skin in the usual way with his grime and coarse talk, he delivers the news that war has broken out all over Europe, and advises them to evacuate.

But missionaries never leave their post. In very short order, the Germans arrive and burn the place down in a vague attack on England.  The attack leaves Samuel in a state of shock, and he dies of a fever.   Charlie and his boat pull in just in time to help Rose bury him, and they set off to return Rose to civilization. 


All screencaps are from the new blu-ray, courtesy of DVD Beaver!


But Rose has a different idea, one sparked by Charlie’s “There just happens to be a German gunboat called the Louisa down river” remark.   Rose proposes to turn The African Queen into a torpedo boat to blow up the Louisa.

All this fool talk about The Louisa. Goin’ down the river…
What do you mean?
I mean we ain’t goin’ to do nothin’ of the sort.
Why, of course we’re going! What an absurd idea!
What an absurd idea! What an absurd idea! Lady, I may be a born fool, but you got ten absurd ideas to my one, an’ don’t you forget it!

For some improbable reason (I imagine it was booze mixed with a sudden burst of patriotism), Charlie agrees, though he suspects Rose will back down once she experiences the terror of the Congo.  But the indomitable lady never balks as the rust trap Queen goes over rapids, past a German fort, and dodges bullets. Rose survives Charlie’s drunken insults, and sustains her modesty even when sleeping or stripping down for a bath. Her chin wobbles only once in anguish and stress after he calls her a “crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!”, and even that is overcome once she dumps all his gin overboard in a fit of pre-Prohibition fervor. 

The awkward pair clash, bicker, bond, and eventually kiss.  And you know what? That sweaty, desperate, and eager embrace is sexier than if they actually did it right there on the dock. Though I imagine they did that, too.



As lousy luck would have it, The African Queen just can’t take the stress of the journey.  As they prepare to fire on the Louisa, they hit a storm, and sink.  Charlie is retrieved by the German crew, who accuse him of spying.   Believing his Rose is dead, he miserably confesses his intentions. They sentence him to hang … and then Rose is fished from the lake!  She eagerly confesses in order to die with him, and they are married as the nooses are put around their necks.

But the Queen isn’t going to let the lovers down.  What’s left of her steel carcass pops up, torpedoes aimed just right, and blows the Louisa out of the water.  Rose and Charlie swim to each other, exultant, and then swim away to safety.  Hooray!

THE REASON IT’S SACRED

There are three reasons: Bogart, Hepburn, and Huston.   Each one is a legend in their own right. Put them together?  Well, I don’t know what is beyond legend, but this trio is it, and they made A Great Movie.  

But as great movies go, it’s really a bit silly. The plot consists of a boat traveling down a river, encountering rapids, and breaking down like clockwork.  The characters of Charlie and Rose are adorable, but they aren’t particularly complicated. She’s a prim missionary, and he’s a drunk boat captain, and they clash because loutishness and virginity don’t mix … until they do, and how.   But neither of them suffer existential angst, or allow the cruelty of nature to prey on them. There’s no dark night of the soul, and no mental breakdowns.  This isn’t Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now, though it could have been either. Think of how Rose’s repression could have clashed against the verdant jungle, causing her to slowly unravel, and see Charlie as nothing but a predator.  Instead, it gets no more suggestive than this:

Charlie: How’d you like it?
Rose: Like it?
Charlie: White water rapids!
Rose:  I never dreamed…
Charlie:  I don’t blame you for being scared – not one bit. Nobody with good sense ain’t scared of white water…
Rose: I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!

Oh ho ho!  What a 1970s director would have done with that! But this is the 1950s, and The African Queen is merely a jolly adventure.  It has that old-fashioned exoticism to it.  This is the age of David Livingstone and Howard Carter, where vast regions of the globe were still untouched and unexplored. People traveled in improbable and clunky ways, and had tea in the middle of the jungle. It’s the kind of Tarzan adventure you dreamed of as a kid, before your perceptions were colored by imperialism and war.  Not that these things should be ignored — especially in a story reliant on colonialism and missionaries! But I love the aesthetic and idea of that “golden age” of exploration and travel even as I abhor how and why we went to those places. This film captures the former for me, without loading it up with things I have to condemn and rant against.

But that doesn’t make it sacred. What does? I’ve heard people say it’s an important work because it’s about common people overcoming adversity, finding inspiration, and doing something extraordinary.   And it certainly is pretty remarkable to blow up a bigger boat with a cruddy one, but it’s not like it wins WWI or anything.



I think it’s simplicity and innocence — the fact that it isn’t really about those overblown things — is what makes the film so wonderful.  The African Queen really is just a story about a boat (a boat that’s as much a character as the humans) chugging down the Congo with an outlandish goal — and the chemistry that arises out of it.   It may not have had the kind of artistic influence that Aguirre or Apocalypse Now has had, but it’s had a charming cultural impact. Han and Leia bickering in The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones getting his ass kicked by nature, women, and Nazis, Elizabeth Swann and Jack Sparrow brushing lips in Pirates of the Caribbean,  they all take a bit of inspiration from The African Queen. And that’s ok.


Plus, the film is just beautiful to look at. It’s got Huston’s painterly eye in every shot. While some of the soundstaginess is more evident today then it was back then, Huston did a remarkable job of blending location photography (a rarity at the time) with a stage set.  It all looks grimy, dank, and humid.  The ship rarely looks like it’s not drifting towards danger.  Hepburn and Bogart always look on the verge of death. It’s just flawless. It’s tangible.   And Huston makes it look easy.



ICONIC MOMENTS

  • “How do you know? You’ve never tried it!”  “Well, yeah, but I never tried shooting myself in the head neither!”
  • Rose’s adorable “so stimulating!” line. Just wait, Rose. Just wait.
  • The aforementioned “crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid” which doesn’t lose its sting no matter how many times you see it. Your heart breaks for her wobbling chin, and the lifelong loneliness it represents.
  • Rose swigging a cup of tea with the enthusiasm of a sailor.
  • Charlie’s miserable expression when he has to sleep outside of the canopy in the rain.
  • The African Queen “losing the channel” and becoming mired in weeds and mud. Sick with fever, Charlie keeps trying to drag it on foot, and eventually lays down to die.
  • “Oh stop it, Charlie, we’ve been through all that. I’m certainly not going to outlive you and that’s all there is to it!”


WHY A REMAKE WOULD MAKE ME RUN OFF SCREAMING

Technically (and I do mean that in the most literal sense of the word), you could improve on The African Queen. You could film it entirely on location, and there would be no visible transition at all. The thrills would be enhanced accordingly, as your actors would visibly be in more danger.  With CGI, you could really up the ante, and you could give it much more conflict and intensity. You could load it up with politics and backstory for the hero and heroine.

But why? So what? The mosquitoes, leeches, and rapids are what makes the movie fun, but Rose and Charlie remain the soul of the film. There is no one — no one — who could play Rose but Hepburn.   Hepburn gave Rose the right blend of steel and fussiness. This is not a feminist character in any real or modern sense of the word. She’s a Victorian missionary who is happy to serve her brother, her God,  her country, and eventually Charlie.

Rose: Then you think we can do it?
Charlie: Do it? Of course we can do it! Nothin’ a man can’t do if he believes in himself. Never say die, that’s my motto.
Rose: I’ve had misgivings. I was beginning to think that the whole thing was a mistake…I had a moment of weakness.
Charlie: Oh, if you’re feeling weak, a day or two more here won’t make any difference.
Rose: Oh no. We’ll go on. Thank heaven for your strength, Charlie.



But that doesn’t mean she lacks ideas, an independence of spirit, a mouth, or toughness.  Hepburn was brilliant because she could make her characters feisty, but keep them reigned in to the spirit of their times. She doesn’t infuse this character with her pants-wearing swagger, she plays it authentic for 1917.  Hepburn knows who Rose is — someone who always did her duty, was proud to do so, and never questioned her place or her purpose.  She simply believes in doing good things, and this is ultimately what informs her decision to blow up the Louisa. Sure, she loses some of her inhibitions, but never to the point that she’s no longer an Edwardian lady. She doesn’t start drinking, swearing, or wearing pants.  Most modern actresses would never find this balance.  Rose would become either a simpering fool, or a full-fledged 21st century suffragette. Her hunt for the Louisa would be motivated by revenge. Oh, and all those annoying traits — Hepburn’s nasal “Mr. Allnut! Mr. Allnut!” — would be scrubbed out.  Hepburn made you love characters despite their tics.  No one today could bear to give their characters one.



Then there’s Bogart, who was simply one of a kind.  He wasn’t a pretty boy. He wasn’t even particularly handsome. But damn, did he have charisma;  the rumpled kind of masculinity that lent itself perfectly to every rascal that he played. Bogart made you love his characters despite their innate lousiness. Like Hepburn, he wasn’t afraid to be brusque and unlikeable, because he knew it was right for the character. There is nothing particularly cool about Charlie. He’s dirty, he’s drunk, and his only claim to fame is being able to drive his steam boat.  Even that’s in doubt, as he doesn’t seem to turn profit enough to supply himself in anything but booze.  There’s no poetic spin to this, no “I can go where the river takes me, there are no rules!” moment. He’s just a loser.  But you grow to love him, just as Rose does, not because he’s the only guy around but because he’s loveable, and there’s a spark in him that allows him to blow up his boat for the hell of it. 

You could simply never recapture what makes this film special, mainly because it was never intended to be all that remarkable.  It was just a movie. It’s loftiest goal was to underline just how American and patriotic Huston, Hepburn, and Bogart were. They were all under investigation by McCarthy and HUAC, and apparently fighting German imperialists (as an Englishwoman and a Canadian, oddly enough) was a great way to say “Better dead than red.”   Frankly, it’s amazing that it’s watchable considering Huston was off hunting elephants whenever he could.  (White Hunter, Black Heart anyone?)



A modern production would undoubtedly have the preproduction insanity, but it wouldn’t have the resultant charm. It would simply be too glossy, too pretty, too much.  Rose would be too young and beautiful; Charlie would be too handsome and badass, and the whole thing would be loaded up with high octane adventure. They would run into wild animals and bloodthirsty tribes. They would shoot Germans. It would be Indiana Jones by way of The Mummy and The River Wild, not The African Queen.  Someone might try to actually give it a touch of Aguirre anguish and rewrite it to be about people who truly do bond out of real tragedy and despair.  That would just be silly navel gazing.  The African Queen is old-fashioned, and needs to be left in its happy and natural state.





WHAT WOULD PLATINUM DUNES DO (WWPDD)?

Michael Bay’s been producing remakes all over town, using his Platinum
Dunes company as a front. So naturally he’d be the logical choice to
spearhead any attempt at remaking this classic. How would it pan out,
you ask?
  • Adventure has a name, and it’s Stephen Sommers, who proudly takes the director’s chair and pens the screenplay. 
  • Sommers keeps it in the Edwardian era, but in name and costume only. The sets and costumes are steampunk by way of classic Hollywood.
  • Carla Gugino would play Rose, who is no longer a missionary, but a sexy nurse working at a refugee camp run by her brother, who is played by  Brendan Fraser.  Her corset manages to reveal more than it squishes down. She wears pants, knee high stilettos, and carries a revolver.  The camp is attacked by Germans, her brother is killed, and she vows revenge as she weeps over Fraser’s grave.
  • Confused about the time period, and still seething over being called a racist, Bay casts Tyrese Gibson as Charlie.   The press releases feature a quote in bold about how this is the only production of The African Queen to feature An Actual African (American)!
  • The African Queen is loaded up with enough gadgets and guns to make James Bond say “That’s unrealistic.”
  • Using the boat’s grenade launcher, Charlie blows up the entire German fort. 
  • It’s Rose who swims to reattach the propeller, because only her hands are small enough to fit it properly.   Clothes cling to her wet and supple body as she climbs back up on deck with a witty retort. Charlie is appreciative. 
  • Sex scene on the deck! Sex scene on the deck!
  • Charming marriage scene? Pffft. Rose rescues Charlie. In the ensuing battle, she’s pulling knives out of all her curves, and flinging them with deadly accuracy. Charlie gets in a MMA fight with the German Captain.  Just as their backs are up against the wall, Rose smiles. “God Save the King, assholes!” Why, she’s rigged the Queen to blow just when they’ll need to escape! Down they jump, and boom goes the ship!
  • When the Louisa (the key to the entire German fleet) blows, it takes half the lake and jungle with it.
  • A dirigible flown by Kevin J. O’Connor (no, I don’t know what this character is doing here either!) rescues them from the burning wreckage of the lake. As they’re being pulled up out of the water, Charlie is pulled off by a crocodile. He saves himself by shoving his last grenade in its mouth, thus giving him fresh flames as his backdrop as they pull him to safety.

REBUTTAL: There doesn’t appear to be one, but it’s also TSA-Thanksgiving, so we must let it slide. You readers get to come up with one instead!



Week One:
The Man Who Would Be KingRaiders of the Lost Ark

The Third ManSerpicoBlazing Saddles


Week Two:
The ConversationAuditionGone with the Wind
JawsBlade Runner

Week Three:
RockyNorth by NorthwestThe Outlaw Josey Wales
GreaseApocalypse Now

Week Four:
PhantasmChinatownThe Princess Bride
2001: A Space odysseyIt’s A Wonderful Life

Week Five:
It Happened One NightThe African Queen