Saturday, April 6, 2013

The African Queen: Review

It seemed absurd that there was nothing two people with a boat full of explosives could do to an enemy in whose midst they found themselves, and yet so it appeared. (pp. 22-3)

 In 1935 C. S. Forester published his World War I adventure story, The African Queen.  It begins with missionaries, Samuel and Rose Sayer (brother & sister), deep in Central Africa (Tanzania).  They have been working diligently with the African people for ten years when WWI begins and the Germans come and conscript the villagers.  Samuel's spirit is broken and he dies--leaving Rose alone.  Charlie Allnut, a Cockney who runs the steam launch The African Queen for a Belgian mining company, arrives to check on the village. After burying Samuel, he and Rose go down-river to hide behind an island and determine their future course.

Rose is full of patriotic fervor and a desire to revenge her brother and decides that she and Charlie must head down river to Lake Wittelsbach where the German gunboat reigns supreme.  Allnutt initially agrees just to humor her--but after a drunken rebellion and a round of the silent treatment, the two set out in earnest.  They face thunderstorms, fire from a German-held outpost on the river, raging rapids, and near-death on the rocks.  They overcome buzzing hordes of flies and mosquitoes, blood-thirsty leeches, a twisted shaft and broken propeller.  They steer and paddle, prod and push....and eventually carry the steam launch down the river to the reedy edge of the lake.  There they prepare oxygen canisters to serve as torpedoes and make ready for a night-time assault on the Königin Luise.

Classic movie buffs should all know the basic story of The African Queen.  Set during WWI, Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart set out down the supposedly impassable Ulanga River on a mission, devised by Hepburn's character Rose, to blow up the Germans' gunboat Königin Luise (aka the Louisa) and allow the British to move into Central Africa. True to Hollywood form, Hepburn and Bogart conquer all odds and even when it looks like they have failed, the heroes come out on top.  It makes for an exciting classic adventure film--and it's one of my all-time favorites.  Hepburn is perfect as the proper British Missionary Rose Sayer thrown into contact with Bogart's pragmatic, down-to-earth mechanic-cum-riverman, Charlie Allnutt.  And both Rosie and Charlie go through transformations on their journey down the river that might seem rushed in the hands of lesser actors.  The book allows for more time and description of the events and interactions that bring about the transformations--the film, of course, has to keep the action moving.

And over all, the film follows the book pretty closely--except for the ending.  There are things to like about both versions ( I like the German Captain's sense of honor in the book)--but if I have to choose, I think Hollywood did it better. The book's ending is fairly anti-climactic.  And after following Rosie and Charlie all the way down the river and joining them in all their brave adventures, it hardly seems fair to the intrepid couple.

I thoroughly enjoyed Forester's adventure novel and appreciated the characters of Rosie and Charlie.  Their interactions and development are spot on and I thought their romance very believable given the circumstances.  It was definitely nice to see Rose blossom once she was out from under the overbearing influence of her brother. Watching the film again was just an added pleasure--I have watched it many times and always enjoy the characters as played by Hepburn and Bogart.  I do like the line in the movie by German Captain when he is asked by Charlie to marry them before he hangs them: "By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution."

Four stars for the book and five stars for the movie.


DoingDewey said...

Wow, I had no idea the ending to the book was so depressing. I think I'll stick to the movie myself :)

Bev Hankins said...

Doing Dewey...


But the book ends (relatively) just like the execution takes place.