Or, The AFI List Project, #63: The African Queen
Cinematic purists were up in arms throughout the recent Oscar campaign because – rightly, as it turned out – The Artist was widely regarded as the movie to beat. In such circles, that movie was regarded as a charming but lightweight entertainment (‘slight’ was the word used by many, including myself) that was only garnering attention because of its silent-era conceit. It wasn’t, in other words, About Something; for all its charms, it didn’t deal with anything real in the way that flawed but ambitious movies like The Descendants or Moneyball or even Midnight in Paris did.
The problem, of course, is that, when we speak conceptually about movies being ‘about something,’ the construction is often used either totemically, to justify biasing one movie over another, or grandiloquently, to emphasize what makes a particular film great. That isn’t to claim that declaring There Will Be Blood to be ‘about America’ is false – but it is to claim that those of us who make such declarations very rarely attempt to explain just what they mean. That opens the door for populist protestations very much like those put forward by apologists of The Artist (‘Why does a movie have to be about something to be good?’) or counter-claims about different films (‘Yes, but you could say the same thing about this other movie’).
There is, in other words, an underlying question that no one has quite got around to answering, which is, simply, What is a movie About when we say that it is About Something?
I can think of no better film to use to examine this question than The African Queen, John Huston’s 1951 film telling the story of a mismatched pair of British subjects floating down the Ulanga in a rickety old steamer at the outset of World War I. Their unlikely goal? To blow up the German warship that guards the mouth of the river. The African Queen is one of those rare great films that is most definitely About Something even though its story, on paper, isn’t that compelling. Essentially, it’s structured as a travelogue illustrating all the dangers of going down an African river in a thirty-foot boat, with various episodes depicting different perilous situations. Alligators in the water! A broken piece of equipment! A German fort! Bad weather! Mosquitoes! Rapids! Reeds! It reads almost like a TV show in miniature, each episode presenting its own little challenge for the characters to overcome before they can move on.
Underlying that, though – and what really makes the movie work – are the characters, Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut, played with characteristic panache by Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, and the relationship between them. To be sure, there is the comedy of their mismatched love story, but much more broadly this film is About class, and class differences, and colonialism – and, perhaps, even About the leveling effect of primitive environments. Crucially, though, it is about those things in a much more profound an interesting way than are most movies that claim to directly deal with the same themes.
I’m going to put that last thought on hold for a moment, because, before we can talk about it, it’s important to understand just how The African Queen stakes out its thematic territory. All of them are introduced in the opening scene of the movie, when Bogart’s Allnut arrives in his steamer to deliver mail to Rose and her brother Samuel, who are British Methodist missionaries trying to bring the Gospel to a tiny village in German East Africa. Being proper middle class Britons, Rose and Samuel invite Allnut to have tea with them, commencing an improbably hilarious bit of potty humor (and who knew that Huston was doing it long before Judd Apatow was even conceived of?). Allnut, a Canadian, is a working-class man, and unsurprisingly Samuel is less interested in what he has to say than in the new he brings that one of Samuel’s old classmates has become a Bishop. Samuel is also astounded at Allnut’s total disinterest in the fact that war has broken out in Europe, considering that, as a Canadian citizen, he too is a subject of British rule.
Shortly thereafter, German troops attack the village, drive away the African natives, and burn down their homes. Samuel dies soon after, apparently due to the trauma, and Rose is picked up by Allnut on next swing through town, leading them no one but each other and no choice but to begin their journey down the Ulanga. Eventually, Rose and Allnut fall in love, but only after the strictures of working on the boat have broken down the social barriers that divide them (one of the film’s most important moments comes when Rose finally asks Allnut what his first name is) and only after the vast cultural differences between them have been hinted at. They change, to be sure, but neither of them becomes something that they were not before, and the thrust of the story is not really the growing love between them but the development of that love in the context of their situation; one wonders how well they’ll do together if they ever make it back to civilization alive.
The African Queen, then, is about class and colonialism because those two ideas are so central to how the protagonists are able to interact, not in the sense that it’s exactly a conflict between them (though there are certainly moments where it motivates conflict, as when Allnut spends a night trying to drink up all the booze on the boat while a horrified Rose looks on) but that it necessitates certain barriers and determines their rapport. Indeed, in a certain sense, it is what sets the entire enterprise in motion. Rose insists that they try to get down the river and sink the German ship, which Allnut has no interest in doing – but she is a securely middle class lady, and he is a Canadian postman, and as such the power dynamic between them necessitates that he do what she wants.
Contrast this with a film that transparently tries to be about class, last year’s In Time, a perfect example of the Hollywood dystopia founded on the idea of a world where time is literally currency. It is transparently concerned, therefore, with the idea of class, as the rich get to live forever and the poor are doomed to short, miserable lives in the ghetto. Yet, because of In Time’s effort to set its narrative to the service of a thematic point – one which amounts, more or less, to the statement that income inequality is harmful and that rich people are evil – that narrative becomes uninteresting, and the argument irrelevant.
Of course, In Time was also a painfully unimpressive film. Let us consider instead, then, two of the central films in this year’s Oscar race, The Help and The Artist. Both those movies are handsomely produced, narratively satisfying efforts, divergent with regards to the topic of this essay in that the first is self-consciously a movie About Race while the second isn’t really about anything, in the sense that we’re discussing. The Help declares with its subject matter – black maids working for white women in 1950s Jackson who find agency when a young white woman decides to write a book about their stories – that its topic is meant to go beyond its narrative and tell us something significant about race in America. Yet what it ends up saying about that topic is far less interesting than its acting and its dialogue, because its argument is made through scenes of such maddening and deliberate sentimental manipulation that you’re forced to choose between crying and rolling your eyes. And, in making so baldfaced an argument, it opens itself up to criticism both from the historical record and from personal interpretation; thematically, it becomes more of a thesis than a story.
The Artist, meanwhile, doesn’t concern itself with any sort of more significant thematic content. In telling, quite charmingly, the light-as-air story of a silent film star who falls from grace with the onset of the sound era, sinks into a self-destructive depression, and is rescued by an up-and-comer who helps him to literally and figuratively find his voice, there’s a flimsy argument to be made that it wants to be about celebrity and perhaps about technology, but if so, it never does more than wink at the ambition. Its characters are motivated by real emotions – which is more than you can say about many films – but the movie skates over any significance beyond their direct impact on the unfolding of George Valentin’s story.
The African Queen, and other movies that are similarly About Something, succeed because they fall somewhere between those two extremes. Where The Help or Intolerance present arguments about certain themes, which can be debated or dismissed, The African Queen offers only two characters from certain backgrounds and with certain points of view defined by them. It isn’t interested in expositing, only in what happens to its characters. Yet, unlike The Artist, what happens to its characters, and how they act in relation to each other and to their environment, occurs in a context that reaches far beyond celluloid. They are products of a real world with real boundaries and limitations, which, even if unseen, are integral to who they are and, therefore, to how their story can unfold. When a film manages that, it doesn’t always mean that it’s good – but it does mean that it’s About Something.