Above is a screenshot of the Basenji(-type) dog shown briefly in the opening scene of The African Queen. This movie tells of a “crazy, psalm-singing skinny old maid” missionary, Rosie (Katherine Hepburn), and a shaggy, drunken rapscallion boat captain, Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) as they journey down the Ulanga River in a modest steamboat called The African Queen. After German soldiers kill Rosie’s brother (this is set during World War I), she slakes her English thirst for revenge by convincing Charlie (“Why, he’s Canadian — this concerns him too!”), to torpedo and sink one of the largest German military ships anchored downriver. Along the way, Rosie manages to sober up Charlie and reinvigorate her zest for life in the great outdoors. As the current brings them closer to their target, the two gradually fall in love.
It being 1951 when the film was made, I don’t think I’m surprising anyone by revealing that the Brit (and her subject) are victorious over their German enemies, and the film ends with an unambiguously happy ever after.
At any rate, I don’t mind spoiling the movie because I don’t recommend it. I was not very impressed.
Granted, it was an African safari/adventure story that managed not to totally mischaracterize the native population, despite the colonial cloud which looms so pensively over the entire film (but most directly over Bogart’s character, which was actually rather ironic). But it’s easy not to offend the locals when they’re hardly even shown at all. Rather, the geography of Africa was represented by nature, wildlife, iconic animals like crocodiles, giraffes, hippos… Too bad the domestic Basenji got barely a second of screen time, as its presence would surely involve real African people (OMG!) and diminish the sense of danger and the exotic that the film tried so hard to convey.
It surprises me that this ranks in the top 250 on the IMDB charts. It surprises me that this film has endured, mainly because I feel the nationalistic fervor that drives the entire mission is so poorly represented, as well as dated. But I recognize that it was quite a popular film in its time, given its star power and visual thrill factor. What really makes this film stand out, in my opinion, is its gorgeous scenery (though much was also obviously done in a studio).
It made me wonder if a film like this would have endured had the filmmakers taken a story like Fula, Basenji from the Jungle as the source inspiration. Granted, Veronica Tudor-Williams’ adventure takes place quite a bit later than this film, and their adventure is largely overland and satisfies a more niche market… but I bet a clever screenwriter could have made it work (not that James Agee was any chump!). Who doesn’t love a well-narrated dog story? At any rate, Fula’s story would’ve provided the alibi for a film that would satisfy the same kinds of visual pleasures, and more — it would’ve brought to the big screen a representation of Central Africa that might have traversed more backroads and given voice to more people, not to mention their dogs.
The very idea would have seemed absurd to mainstream film producers then, as in now.