Along with Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould, which I only put into our Netflix queue to see if my husband really loved me, The African Queen has been languishing in the “saved” category for over a year, waiting until the movie should be released on DVD.
We finally got to see it last week, and it was such a treat – all the more so now that I have 12 years of marriage under my belt, and can see that this is a movie about more than leeches after all (but still: brrrrrrr).
I am a little frustrated by condescending reviewers who sigh that the dramatic shift in the relationship between Miss Rose and Mr. Allnut strains their credulity. Here’s something I would expect movie reviewers to understand: The African Queen is a movie. As such, it tells things in a movieish way– that is, it moves at its own discrete pace and choses scenes selectively, so that the viewer can understand what has happened without anyone actually running a camera over every breath the characters take. It’s not that I can wink at what is obviously a phony but entertaining story; it’s that it’s a true kind of story being told, but at adventure pace.
The precipitousness of their newfound love is really the point of the movie: here are two people who have so far only half-lived their lives. If they fall together quickly, it’s because they’ve been waiting so long. At the opening scenes, we see that Miss Rose has taken herself out of the stream of life, and Mr. Allnut travels up and down the river, but only to deliver other people’s mail. It’s time for both of them to go somewhere, and the river is waiting. What an artful and deceptively simple portrait of a marriage the movie is, from start to finish — and it’s all done in gestures. Every time Katharine Hepburn touches her hair, it means something; and every time Humphry Bogart scratches his chin, you know what he’s thinking, and whether or not he’s relishing that thought.
The characters fall together because, like most well-matched couples, they need each other. First they discover each other’s strengths (she turns out to be brave and passionate; he turns out to be clever and strong); and then, through the other, they discover their own, previously unchallenged weaknesses (she’s selfish, making him sleep in the rain; he’s not a coward, exactly, but his solution is to sit in a backwater and wait out the war).
Then they show their vulnerable points to each other (she panics and is useless when the flies swarm; he, over and over again, is much too ready to give up), and readily forgive each other for them. Then they are angry at each other for those weakness (he thinks she just can’t understand how foolish their plan is; she thinks he is craven and all talk). Then they accept their weakness, their own, and each other’s. He really, really doesn’t want to go back into that leechy water, and she really, really doesn’t want to send him there. But it has to be done.
They relinquish their claim on what they thought they wanted out of the adventure, and of life in general. She prays for God to be mericful to them both, and they lie down to die. Then comes a flood, they almost get hanged, and the boat explodes, and they swim away! Oh man, what a great movie! In the course of a few days, they go from being strangers to courting, to love, to surrender — right down the river they go.
I love this story because, even though there are irresistable symbols to be found, (like the river that looks so different, once you fight past a certain point, that it changes name, but it’s really the same river . . . ) it’s not a metaphor about a relationship — it’s just a great portrait of one. It understands exactly what movies are for: to show us things we already know, but in a new way. With crocodiles!
This post originally ran in Crisis in April of 2009