John Huston’s The African Queen is easier to love than to like. It’s easy to love because it’s a throwback to pre-Forties, pre-hardboiled Hollywood. Compared with previous Huston-Bogart team-ups, however, the movie’s sentimentality, its dearth of cynicism, makes it hard to like.
Early on, in those scenes in which lowbrow riverboat tramp Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) becomes more civilized as highbrow missionary Rose (Katharine Hepburn) becomes less so, The African Queen is downright allegorical — a Pilgrim’s Progress in which the destination is not the Celestial City but Middlebrow!
However, if we regard the movie not as a romantic comedy, but as a propaganda film — the genre on which Huston cut his teeth — of sorts, we might decide that we’re being asked to consider the problem of how to survive not war, but peace, with one’s humanity intact. A hardboiled Bogart-esque carapace will no longer suffice; in fact, after the Forties it will be a burden.
The blocking of scenes like this one suggests that a postwar hero might be an unheroic-appearing “minor man” (to quote Philip K. Dick, who started writing around the time The African Queen appeared), “in all his hasty, sweaty strength.” I do like that idea.