Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The African Queen -- dependence and inter-dependence

Director: John Huston, 1951.

The African Queen is widely regarded as an American classic. Certainly it will be remembered as the movie for which Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar. Personally, I thought he was better as Rick in Casablanca, for which he got a nomination. Perhaps the Academy realized their mistake and made recompense here. He stars against Katherine Hepburn, who herself was nominated for her role in this film but did not win.

The film is essentially a road trip movie set on an African river. It combines adventure in the beautiful African wilderness, with character development, romance and love between two characters of polar extremes. For most of the movie, we see only Bogart and Hepburn. Robert Morley shows up at the start as Rev. Samuel Sayer, and a few other characters appear at the climax. But this is a vehicle for Bogey and Hepburn, and they work well together.

As the movie begins, it is September 1914 and World War I has just begun. But the news of this has not reached Rev. Sayer, a missionary in German East Africa with his sister Rose (Hepburn). While their church service is underway, Canadian Charlie Allnut (Bogart) shows up in his small, slow steamboat, The African Queen, bringing supplies and mail, and news of this new war. Invited to stay for tea and refreshments, the initial scene paints the contrast between Charlie and Rose. He is easy-going, a loose libertine, while she is prim and proper, devoutly religious. They are chalk and cheese, diametrical opposites.

For a Hollywood film, there is an unexpected emphasis on church and faith throughout. At the start, with the probability of the Germans coming to the village, Charlie comments, "I don't know why the Germans would want this God-forsaken place." Rose responds, "God has not forsaken this place, Mr. Allnut, as my brother's presence here bears witness." Rose speaks biblical truth. There is nowhere on earth that God is not present. Theologically, this is called God's omnipresence. To speak of a place being God-forsaken is to misunderstand God. King David said it more poetically in one of the songs, or psalms, he composed (Psa. 139:7-12):
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

After Charlie leaves, the Germans come and burn down the entire village. This act of wanton violence leaves Rev. Sayer mentally crushed and dying, and the village emptied of his parishioners. When Charlie returns on his way down river, the reverend is dead and the Germans are likely to return. Charlie convinces Rose to come along with him on his steamboat to escape the enemy.

At first their goals are as different as their personalities. Pragmatic Charlie simply wants to find a cosy cove to hide his steamboat and wait out the war; he has supplies aplenty, especially of gin. Rose, however, is a principled woman who wants to fight back against the Germans. She wants to blow up the warship Louisa that patrols the lake the British must enter to fight in this region. And she wears Charlie down until he agrees to her adventure, never mind the risks and dangers inherent in this enterprise.

As their mission marches onward, they face German foes in a fort guarding the river, white-water rapids that could make matchwood of their boat, and wild animals all around. Adversity becomes their constant companion. Yet, adversity causes each to change, and they move toward one another. With Rose's assistance Charlie cleans up. With Charlie's help Rose loosens up. Indeed, after one frightening and near-death rapid-run, Rose says, "I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!" Where others might find this to be nerve-wracking, she found it exhilarating. She is coming alive to life.

Also, there is a character growth in their relative areas of dependence. Gin-swilling Charlie gives up his dependence on alcohol, with some unexpected help from Rose. He must face life and the river without his beloved gin. And Charlie the loner must become Charlie in community, even if a community of two. There is a lesson in inter-dependence. Together, Charlie and Rose can accomplish more than they could alone or apart. Rose, on the other hand, grows in her dependence on God, her own beloved.

Toward the end, their mission faces impossible odds and losing heart, Rose prays to God. And God hears! More than this, God answers. Her prayers proved powerful. While the two sleep in an exhausted sleep with all hope gone, God delivers them, as he has done time and time again for his children. In this one scene, answered prayer is illustrated clearly. Throughout the Bible there are numerous examples of God's people praying in times of need and God answering. The nation of Israel prayed while in captivity in Egypt and God provided a redeemer, Moses (Exod. 2:23). The church prayed for Peter when he was thrown in jail, and angels came and rescued him (Acts 11:1-18). Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane and God heard and answered (Matt. 26:42), though not via an act of deliverance for Jesus but via the cross which was the act of deliverance for us!

Rose's prayer is interesting in its theological insight: "Dear Lord, We've come to the end of our journey, and in a little while we'll stand before you. I pray for you to be merciful. Judge us not for our weaknesses, but for our love and open the doors of heaven for Charlie and me." She knows all people will stand before God who will judge everyone (Heb. 9:27; Rev. 20:12). She also knows God as a merciful God. He is merciful (Deut. 4:31), and this is a characteristic of God that we can appeal to. She also realizes that we all have our weaknesses. But rather than focus on them, she focuses on God and his love and mercy. His love has provided the way for us to stand before him and find the doors to heaven thrown open: Jesus Christ. At the cross, Jesus paid the price for our weaknesses and sins. His righteousness becomes ours when we whole-heartedly choose to follow him. Let us pray, like Rose, that at the end of our journey we might find the doors of heaven open to us. And then follow Jesus and ensure those doors will be open!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs


  1. Where the African Queen was built

    According to recent on-the-ground research (see www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/news/New-Stroud-canal-boat-follows-wake-Bogey-s-African-Queen/article-686448-detail/article.html) the legendary riverboat ‘Queen Of Africa’ which gave a star performance in the 1951 John Huston movie The African Queen was built at the Abdela & Mitchell Brimscombe works in Gloucestershire between 1908 and 1911.

    The Abdela river-boats were highly-regarded for their elegance (see www.rammworldculturesonline.org.uk/Projects/Beauty-%E2%80%93-in-the-Eye-of-the-Beholder/For-Profit-and-Pleasure), shallow draft - often less than 40cm - and flexibility, viz the ‘Adis Ababa’ for Lt-Col John Harrington’s White Nile/Ethiopia expedition of 1903 – ‘boiler arranged to burn oil, coal or wood’.

    Marine architect grandfather Isaac J Abdela was the proprietor of the Abdela & Mitchell shipyards when the ‘Queen Of Africa’ was built at Brimscombe. The Shipyards announced themselves as ‘Contractors To The Admiralty, War Office, India Office And Allied Governments’.

    These yards also built luxurious river-boats with gold bath-taps for Amazon rubber barons.

    Many of the river-boats went to the Nile, the Niger and other African rivers, and especially to the Peruvian Amazon and other Amazonian tributaries.

    The other stars of The African Queen were Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut and Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer. Much of the movie was shot near Stanleyville. The location in Africa proved tricky, see Katharine Hepburn’s account in ‘How I Went to Africa with Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind’. Famous quotes from the movie below.

    During World War One there really was a German gunboat steaming (and controlling) the lake, the Graf Goetzen. The ship, almost 70 meters long, was built in Germany and assembled on-site. The ‘Louisa’ in The African Queen was inspired by this ship. The historical Graf Goetzen was sunk in June 1916 by its own crew to avoid capture.

  2. References in other media to SL Livingstone 1912 have led to mistaken claims for where the African Queen was built. These claims have demonstrated both that the skills of movie-makers for illusion can mislead effectively, and that such skills are not fully appreciated. The movie DVD shows internal combustion engine exhaust emanating from the stern of the vessel, port side, 20 cm above the waterline. This evidence supports marine expert L G Dennis description of the movie-making where he writes that the African Queen was a Uganda Railway Marine motorboat, fitted with a mock-up boiler etc.(The Lake Steamers of East Africa (Runnymede) 1996 pp 152-153) and a report of explanations by former US owner James Hendricks Snr that 'It was a vintage African boat'. 'She originally had a diesel engine'(Tony Gabriele: Daily Press, Norfolk, Va June 06 1997). It is likely that the Uganda Railway Marine workshops were capable of building a 28ft motorboat by 1930, so the African Queen could easily be a vintage African boat. It was of iron. Abdela's Brimscombe yard built in steel.