Charlie and Rose row their boat upon a ungentle stream, merrily discovering their blossoming love amid the nightmare of war, an adventure that races full speed ahead while damning the torpedoes! Director John Huston transforms C.S. Forrester’s ruggedly individualistic adventure into a Christian parable where the forces of good and evil are absolutely defined, and suffering invites heavenly absolution.
The film begins with British Missionaries Rose and her brother Samuel singing hymns to the African natives, whose chanting and easily distracted demeanor echoes the vast communication breakdown between two cultures. Charlie arrives in his patched together boat to bring supplies, a fallen man among the heathens, and warns of war. Soon, the despicable Germans are torching the village and murdering indiscriminately: the devil has come to the jungle. Samuel meets his maker while Rose and Charlie, two disparate individuals as different from one another as Christian hymns and African rhythms, escape to the river and the safety of The African Queen.
The river becomes a symbol for the serpentine path their lives have taken, the jungle like the garden of Eden after the exodus, ripe with strange fruit. Rose is possessed by god and country and convinces Charlie to fight the Germans and sink the Louisa which stalks the lake at journey’s end: but reaching the lake in the patchwork boat will be no easy task. They survive both stinging insects and deadly gunfire, thrashing rapids and a crushing waterfall, but come to the end of days in leach infested marshes.
They begin to know and trust one another during their crisis and herein lies the power of the story. Humphrey Bogart achieves his only Academy Award as the tactless Charlie, a rough little man of grime and sweat, Captain of his own destiny. Kathryn Hepburn imbues the virginal heroine Rose with grace and tact, but also an endearing compassion that enables Charlie to reach his potential. In lesser hands these characters would have descended into bickering buffoons, attempting contrived humor in a battle of sexes. Fortunately, Huston’s directorial intervention allows the characters room to grow together while still retaining their unique attributes, while throwing in a zinger such as, “I now pronounce you man and wife. Prepare the execution.”
The narrative relies on Deus Ex Machina dramatics with a fortuitous flood and coincidence that betrays probability. Facing execution, Rose and Charlie swear their commitment until death do they part. Final Grade: (B)