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Really Rosie

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In a prior post, I speculated that I must have seen the movie, The African Queen, when I was a kid.  The book presents to the world an amazing, embodied female, smart and physically capable, optimistic, strong-willed and sexually alive, and I conjectured that the film must have had a profound influence on me. 

Having recently seen the film, I am now confident that I'd never seen it as a child.  And, in fact, had I seen it when young, it wouldn't have had the influence on me that I'd anticipated in the prior post.

As much as the film adheres closely to the novel's plot right until the end, John Huston's movie isn't as radical on gender issues as is C.S. Forester's book.  Yes, Rosie still steers the boat in the movie, but the film devotes little attention to the skill required of her to navigate The African Queen through the rapids.  The film makes Rosie's and Charlie's triumph over the rapids look like luck, whereas Forester's book attributes their success to the "lightning-calculating machine [that was Rosie's brain,] juggling with currents and eddies."

Similarly, the movie softens the dominance of Rosie's personality.  In the book, Charlie is unreflective and passive, and he responds positively to Rosie's initiative.  Forester refers to Rosie as the "captain."  In the film, on the other hand, Bogart - though very receptive to his first mate - never abdicates the leadership role.

As for the sex, forget it.  Contrast Forester's Rosie, big breasted, bursting with "ripe" femininity and "powerful" arms - an earth mother goddess, in other words - with Katharine Hepburn's near-skeletal severity.  Even if Hollywood mores hadn't limited the sexual possibilities for Charlie and Rosie, Hepburn couldn't have given us a Rosie who (as in the book) "actually enjoyed [sex], as no woman should ever dream of doing."

The movie's cowardice on gender issues is most apparent at its conclusion.  In the book, Charlie is apprehended wearing Rosie's underwear.  When the two are released, Rosie insists that they marry, and Charlie amiably agrees despite mentally registering (unvoiced) anxiety about the fact that he's already married.  In Forester's hands, "[w]hether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided."

I hardly need mention that, in the film, Bogart never dons Hepburn's underclothes.  And in the movie's cartoonish finale, Charlie asks the Germans to marry him and Rosie before they're hanged - a gesture that Rosie compliments for its sweetness.  I can imagine Forester looking confused and wondering where the heroine he wrote went.

The loss of Rosie is unfortunate because, in many other respects, The African Queen is a model of moving a book from page to screen.  Huston and his screen writers, James Agee and Peter Viertel, mostly succeeded in getting out of the way of messing up the story.  They allowed Forester's plot (gentle by film standards) to float (rather than drive) the film, thereby allowing time and space for the development of the wonderful chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn that keeps fans raving about the film.  Nonetheless, their collective imaginations stalled when the writing turned to Rosie's characterization. 

I conclude this blog post, therefore, in the same place I concluded the prior post: remake the film!  Or, better yet, read the book. 

(Image of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen from The New York Times)
A memorable feature of The African Queen - now three weeks after I've finished it - is C.S. Forester's empathy for the Germans.  Early on in the story, Forester highlights one of his heroine's few flaws by emphasizing her lack of compassion for the German military predicament:

     [N]aturally [Rose] could not see the other side of the question.  Von Hanneken, with no more than five hundred white men in a colony people by a million Negroes, of whom not more than a few thousand even knew they were subjects of the German flag, had to face the task of defending German Central Africa against the attacks of the overwhelming forces which would instantly be directed upon him.  It was his duty to fight tot he bitter end, to keep occupied as many of the enemy as possible for as long as possible, and to die in the last ditch, if necessary, while the real decision was being fought out in France. Thanks to the British command of the sea, he could expect no help whatever from outside. . . .
     Rose saw no excuse for him at all.

p. 8-9.  Later, when The African Queen squeaks by the German troops stationed at Shona, on the last stretch of river before the rapids, C.S. Forester endows the German commander with a complex range of reactions:

[The captain of the reserve] stood staring down between the cliffs for a long minute.  Von Hanneken would be furious at the news of the loss of [The African Queen], but what more could he have done?  He could not justly be expected to have foreseen this.  No one in his senses would have taken a steam launch into the cataract, and a reserve officer's training does not teach a man to guard against cases of insanity.
. . . .
As he walked back to Shona, bathed in sweat, he was still undecided whether he should make any mention of this incident in his report to Von Hanneken. . . . It might be better to keep quiet.  The [African Queen] was gone, and the poor devils in it were dead. . . . But he was sorry for the poor devils, all the same. 

p. 85-86.  And in the tale's dramatic conclusion, the Germans "[p]retty decent[ly]" bring Rose and Charlie Allnut over to the British side of Lake Tanganyika - in a move that has "a touch of the formal chivalry of the Napoleonic wars" (p. 233-234) - before the British finally sink the German ship, Königin Luise, in a maneuver that sees the British "not want[ing] to kill the wretched Germans" and the Germans gallantly going down with the ship.  (p. 241-242.)

C.S. Forester's notable and humanizing depiction of Germans prompted a number of questions for me:  First, I wondered if C.S. Forester was taking any political risks by offering so three dimensional a glimpse of his German characters.  WWI - and the use of mustard gas - was still fresh in the minds of the British public, and Hitler was already in power by the time to book was published.  His good-natured approach to the enemy could have cost him readers.

Second, I wondered if, even if he'd perceived the political risk, C.S. Forester would have cared.  In his criticism of Rose's inability to relate to the German military predicament, I perceived that C.S. Forester was gently contrasting her with himself; his characters may be privileged to be narrow minded, but the author can afford no such luxury.  In that case, his discharging of his authorial duty seems tinged with bravery.

Finally, I wondered if his empathy was an expression of a longing for a romantic, chivalrous (imagined) golden age - an idealistic hope that if he could conjure a civilized conflict on the page, readers might be inspired to live it out in the real world.  If so, a rich irony exists in the fact that Rose and Charlie Allnut - the patriotic, intrepid, salt-of-the-earth lovers - planned to destroy the Königin Luise in a suicide bombing.

The plot's the thing . . .

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Thinking over The African Queen, I have to marvel at C.S. Forester's ability to wring a plot out of action largely centered on keeping a rickety steamship afloat.  Page after page finds Allnut "address[ing] himself to the engine," "haul[ing] out a panful of hot ashes and dump[ing] them overboard," "fill[ing] the furnace with fresh wood," "peer[ing] at his gauges," "haul[ing] in the anchor," etc. (p. 15).  A critical sequence - for the plot and for the relationship between Rose and Charlie Allnut - occupying a full twelve pages of text - involves straightening a shaft and fixing a broken propeller (p. 122-134). 

Yet the action never drags, I never got bored, and I was turning pages so fast that I finished the whole book in one sitting (or just about).  I'm amazed and, frankly, not sure how he did it.

One reason that I can discern is the humor that Forester invests in his storytelling.  His vivid descriptions of Charlie's antics keeping the boat afloat evoke images of Chaplin-esque physical comedy in the mind of the reader (or at least this reader).  Charlie's speech about the impossibility of fixing the twisted shaft and the broken propeller (on p. 122) is laugh-out-loud funny.

Another reason is a quality I'll call "storyteller instinct."  I've often listened to people relate interesting events in a way that makes me yearn for more absorbing conversation - something about the tax code maybe?  Similarly, I've often been surprised at the laughter or expressions of fascination expressed by people listening to me recount some appallingly boring experience.  It's not the content, but the way it's presented.  C.S. Forester is apparently the kind of master craftsman of storytelling who can make the mechanics of rickety steamships scintillating reading fare.

C.S. Forester's plotting supports my hunch - or is it a preference? - that the plot's the thing that crowns a storyteller a king (with apologies to Shakespeare, Hamlet and those less silly than I).
Kate_Hepburn&Bogart_in_African_Queen.jpgI think I've seen The African Queen.  If I did, it was something on the order of 20 years ago.  My father would've rented the video.  I have a memory of Katherine Hepburn cutting her hair - a scene that doesn't occur in the book (if, in fact, the movie I'm thinking of is African Queen and not, say, The Snows of Kilimanjaro).  In any event, I think it's time for a remake, not just because it's a terrific story about ingenuity, the awakening of consciousness, and exposure to new geography, but also to remind ourselves that, in our current state of gender relations, we are falling sadly short of reasonable projections based on a 1935 baseline.

C.S. Forester's heroine, as depicted in his excellent book from that year, is strong in body and quick in mind.  She combines "powerful arms" and a "powerful wrist" with "[t]hose big breasts of hers" and "the ripe femininity of her body."  While she's steering the boat through rapids, "her mind [is] a lightning-calculating machine juggling with currents and eddies."  She is "the captain of a raiding cruiser," adventure makes her "really alive for the first time in her life," and she "actually enjoyed [sex], as no woman should ever dream of doing."  She is emboldened by success:

There was a thrill of achievement.  Rose knew that in bringing the African Queen down those rapids she had really accomplished something, something which in her present mood she ranked far above any successful baking of bread, or even (it is to be feared) any winning of infidel souls to righteousness.  For once in her joyless life she could feel pleased with herself, and it was a sensation intoxicating in its novelty.  Her body seethed with life.
(p. 107.)  Her beaux, Charlie Allnut, meanwhile has a "slight body" (or, four pages later, a "slender body") and is "not sufficiently self-analytical to appreciate that most of the troubles in his life resulted from attempts to avoid trouble."  (p. 54.)  Although he's a skilled mechanic, he suffers from extreme anxiety and a lack of confidence - "mercurial spirits [that] could hardly help rising rising under the influence of Rose's persistent optimism. . . . [I]f she had not been with him . . . [he] might . . . not [have] rais[ed] a finger to help himself."  (p. 126.)

This delightful pair bring out the best in each other and - although "[w]hether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided" - they are a lovely (imagined) illustration of the possibilities for human accomplishment and satisfaction that emerge when men aren't intimidated by strong women, and women aren't put off by inadequate hygiene and malarial swamps. 

I must have seen this movie, and it must have had an inordinate influence on me . . . I wish it had been required viewing for my male age mates.

(Picture courtesy of Encyclopaedia Britannica)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the The African Queen category.

Thank You, Jeeves is the previous category.

The Age of Innocence is the next category.



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