Something Else About “The African Queen”

As part of my 20th Century Film Project, I just posted an article about The African Queen.

One other point to observe about this movie: Nowhere does the film see any conflict between Rose Sayer’s (Katharine Hepburn’s) calling as a missionary and her desire to attack a German gunboat during World War I after the Germans invaded and cleared the African village where she and her brother had ministered.

I believe the expectation today would be that a character presented as a missionary ought to be entirely a person of peace, without any thought to attack, even as a counter-offensive. That would be my expectation. If this movie had been made today, it would have required at least a line of dialogue to explain or at least highlight the seeming contradiction between Sayer’s faith and her violent aim.

But no such line of dialog exists in The African Queen. The audience at the time apparently did not need or expect this.

The time of the film’s release was 1951. Even though it was a movie about World War I, it was shown to people just several years past World War II. Presumably, everyone in the theater therefore had squarely confronted war and its various moral choices, in many cases because they held someone dear who had gone to war. And presumably, everyone in the theater also knew or was aware of a religious man or clergy member who had joined the war alongside other citizens.

I realize that this will be an ongoing theme as I continue to watch these movies. Watching the films of the 20th century will consist in no small part of seeing stories that are shaded to various degrees by the long shadow cast by World War II. Just four movies into the project, the shadow of this war can already be seen across two of them.