Saturday, October 27, 2007

Movies that Changed Cinema: The African Queen - Fiction Meets Reality

The African Queen - fiction meets reality

Some people say hunting elephants was the real type of activity director John Huston had in mind when he decided to do The African Queen. Anyway, right from the start, he insisted this is not going to be just another cardboard decorated studio feature. Ranked by the American Film Institute in 2007 as the 65 greatest movie of all time, The African Queen had to be made on location, where real crocodiles and leaches eat real people. Looking for the most perfect place to follow C. S. Forester's fascination, Huston had to fly 25,000 miles across the African continent until finding the right spot, on the Ruiki river in what then used to be Belgian Congo.

The magic chemistry between Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer) and Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut) seen in this early color movie is of the most famous in motion picture history, as "other plot elements were secondary comparing to the quintessential love-hate relationship that went on between Rose and Charlie." Yet, the thing mostly remembered about this movie is that the making of The African Queen was an adventure, and not a very easy one for unexperienced explorers as the people who made it.

On-location shooting was nowhere near as common as today

The African Queen - fiction meets reality

A book by Peter Viertel and the 1990 film White Hunter Black Heart directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, both sketched Peter Viertel's experiences working with Huston during the on-location filming on a time when, especially for American films outside of the USA, were very very rare. A 2000 article by Catherine Henry, describes the kind of experiences Hepburn, Bogart and the rest of Huston's crew had to cope with in a few short and very effective words:
"At a time (1951) when on-location shooting was nowhere near as common as today, traveling 1,100 miles up the Congo to make what is essentially a filmed dialogue must have seemed fanatical. And subsequent encounters with blood flukes, crocodiles, soldier ants, wild boars, stampeding elephants, malaria, and dysentery were hardly reassuring."
The African Queen - fiction meets reality

Just to make things clear, make no mistake: Huston was not the first director to shoot a large portion of his movie on location. Even in those early days some film makers, including himself, had already shot a few on location scenes "for realistic flavoring". Westerns being made on location, for example, were not very unusual back then and one of them - The Treasure of Sierra Madre - was even made in 1948 by Huston himself. Yet, as described by Robert Moore on this review of African Queen: Limited Commemorative Edition (1952) DVD, this was a very different case:
"in the 1940s and 1950s [...] films might go to a famous locale and shoot a couple of scenes for realistic flavoring, as with a couple of scenes in On The Town or An American In Paris. Many Westerns had been shot on location, but that was no great challenge given the close proximity of Hollywood to Western locales. John Huston had previously filmed The Treasure of Sierra Madre in Mexico, but going to the Congo and Uganda for extensive filming had rarely been attempted (sorry, all those Tarzan movies were filmed in California). It was a spectacular undertaking (which Katherine Hepburn recorded in a book she wrote about making The African Queen)."
Inadvertently led her into the middle of a herd of wild animals

And indeed, the "spectacular undertaking" experience had triggered many books and articles, some of them written by Hepburn herself. In her 1987 book The Making of The African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, cited on IMDB, Hepburn describes the first African Queen shooting day, which required five cars and trucks to take the cast, crew and equipment three and a half miles from Biondo to the Ruiki river.

They then loaded everything onto boats and sailed another two and a half miles to the shooting location. Hepburn describes Huston's obsession with hunting and how one day she was convinced to join Huston on one of his hunting journeys when he "inadvertently led her into the middle of a herd of wild animals" from which they were "lucky to escape alive."

The African Queen - fiction meets reality

Also, according to IMDB, dysentery, malaria, bacteria-filled drinking water and several close brushes with wild animals and poisonous snakes is just a partial list of the close encounters participants of this movie had to deal with. In addition, most of both cast and crew "were sick for much of the filming." Yet, other sources claimed almost everyone in the cast and crew got sick. Everyone except for Huston and Bogy, who attributed it to the fact that they basically lived on imported Scotch as later described by Bogart whom this role won him the only Oscar of his career: "All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead."

Here is the original movie trailer on Youtube as seen on 1951. As you can see, the fact it was taken on location and included authentic African sights was emphasized by the distribution company that realized how new and exciting they would be for studio-used audience. Enjoy.



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