“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
This line, as said by Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) to the ship’s Captain Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) is indeed central to the 1951 classic The African Queen. Yes, the film is basically about two strangers who fight the wilderness, but that is not all the nature we are witnessing.
At the start of the film, we meet Rose and the Reverend (also her brother), doing missionary work in Africa in September of 1914. Having been there for years, their only key to what is happening in the outside world is Allnut, a Canadian worker barely scrapping by as he goes up and down the river on his boat, The African Queen. When news of war breaks, the local villiage is raided and burned, the Reverend dies, and Rose has no choice but to travel with Charlie.
In our first meeting with Charlie and Rose (before the Germans burn the village), we get a great sense of how Rose feels towards “Mr. Allnut” (which she calls him for more than half of the film). While she and her brother are reading and drinking tea in the “proper” sense, Charlie is sitting there, unable to overlook the fact that his stomach is growling loud (so loud nothing else in that scene is louder). This makes us realize all the more why Rose is at first hesitant to board the ship with him, despite having no other options.
Not long after leaving, both discover that they need a place to go. Looking at the map, Rose is dead set (almost from the get go) on taking the river down to the lake where the big German ship, the Louisa, is patrolling. Looking at all their supplies, she comes up with the “absurd” idea of making a torpedo and (using their ship), blowing up the Louisa. Of course, Allnut is all against the idea, but Rose is able to talk him into it (more than once).
While rewatching The African Queen for about the 7th time or so, I began to realize that Allnut is one of the few characters that, despite being a scrappy “bum”, is still a gentleman at heart. You never once think that he would try to take advantage of Rose if he wanted to (this could be because the film was in the early 50s). He is even patient with Rose and all her questions (though that patience does run out at times). If this film were ever remade (which I pray never happens), studios may make Allnut more of a jerk.
That the two will fall in love is a forgone conclusion (again, early 1950s), but one of the main reasons this works so wonderfully as a romance is the sheer fact that these are adults. Not teens. Not young adults. Adults. We don’t know much about their past lives (nor do we need to), so we don’t know if they have been in love before. We do, however, find out in a pivotal scene (after confronting some big rapids) that feelings of romance are becoming present, and we see it in their faces.
In the second act of the film, we actually see some bit of faith working. After being stuck in the mud, Charlie is forced to go out and drag the boat (and is rewarded with his least favorite thing, leeches). As he lies down exhausted, it is Rose who prays, and we get that great shot of seeing that they are unaware the lake is just yards away from them. It is a nice reminder that we do have to remember to let God come in and take care of the rest in dire situations.
No small part of this is due to the fact that Bogie and Hepburn are two of the great movie stars the world has known (both, in fact, were once named the best male and female star by the American Film Institute). It was at a time when the older school of acting was starting to fade away and the “method” actors appeared, most notably Marlon Brando. That same year, Brando would give his iconic performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. Oddly enough, it was Bogie who beat Brando at the Oscars that year for Best Actor (the only win for this film). History would disagree on this, but at the time it was mainly because Brando did not seem to care for winning while Bogie campaigned heavily.
In what had to be one of the first movies ever made about survival (LONG before Cast Away, 127 Hours, Life of Pi, and Gravity), so much should have gone wrong with the making of this movie. Pretty much the entire film was filmed on location (only some of the underwater scenes were shot in a tank in London). Filming on location in 1951 was a risk, to say the least (even now I would think it would be risky). Director John Huston (who worked with Bogart before and was a lifelong friend) was apparently dead set on shooting an elephant. The amount of equipment needed was insane. Bogart’s wife, Lauren Bacall, was onset helping out anywhere she could.
Then, of course, there was the living conditions. According to Hepburn, the only two people who did not get sick during the shoot were Bogart and Huston, due to the fact that they drank enough alcohol to reject any disease.
Parents, there is kissing, but that is really it. It is a 1951 movie, so it is all good for kids.
I mentioned how mother nature is not the only nature this film tells us to rise above. There is human nature as well. The nature to drink (which Charlie is prone to). The nature to want to give up. The nature to be insecure about ones feelings.
If you have doubts about seeing a classic old movie like this, then I would say you should rise above that nature as well.