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Needing a break from my sometimes distressing immersion in WWI memoirs and history [here, here and here] I thought I’d see what the world of historical fiction might offer. What should turn up but The African Queen, by C.S. Forester, from which the famous Bogart/Hepburn movie came.  I’d read many of Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels as a youngster, derring-do at sea during the Books African QueenNapoleonic wars, but I had no idea that he was the source of John Huston’s 1951 film.  Indeed, he worked on the script itself, along with another famous writer, James Agee.  Nor did I really remember that WW I figured large in it; leeches, rapids, filthy grizzled Bogart, frazzled imperious Hepurn, yes, but not WW I.  But in fact, the entire purpose of the trip down the river is to destroy a German ship on the lake, to clear the way for British troops to take-on the German forces controlling Central Africa and extend the British Empire.   More than Hepburn’s character, Forester’s Rose Saylor exhibits high, idealistic, motivational patriotism –likened to her love for Allnut at one point– that had fueled English volunteers the summer of 1914 but which had long since disappeared by the 1935 publication date of the book.

The African Queen followed some 22 previous books Forester had written in 23 years, and before his famous Hornblower series. Much of the early work had been biographies, especially of Napoleon and French royals, and historical novels.  By the time of The Queen, he knew his craft well.  Not only was the adventure story exotic (in Central Africa), and exciting, and titillating (see the cover, above)  but the characters of the two main protagonists was developed over the course of their trials, and the book. They were not simply sketches to allow a good yarn to unfold.
Movies Bogart and Hepburn

The central section of The African Queen concerns the harrowing trip through several days of ‘un-navigable’ rapids. Though Forester had never been in Africa he knew his rivers well, as any reader who has done white-water trips will appreciate: reading the rapids to make out the run, standing waves, back-eddies, sheer cliffs, silted, reed choked water in which there is nothing to do but get out and curse while cutting.  Besides the obstacles shared with modern day rubber rafts, the Queen, with a protruding shaft and propeller had additional worries, sunken limbs, unseen rocks and a jungle of mangrove roots and branches to get through. Not to mention the need for burnable fuel, not found mid-river.

Movies African Queen Poster

One of the happy surprises when reading the book is that Rose Saylor, embarking on a war mission in 1914, is written as a competent, fearless, take-charge, outdoor woman, characteristics at odds with the prevailing notion then of women as domestic, docile, supportive creatures incapable, for instance, of understanding political issues and voting. English women (above the age of 30 with certain property qualifications) did not vote in national elections until the December, 1918 general election, six weeks after the Armistice was signed.  Not until 1928 did all women vote.  Even readers in 2015 will be reminded by Rose of the still persistent feeling that women don’t rise in business and the military because they lack such characteristics.  Not only does she have courage and leadership, equally bold is the idea that she matures and becomes more complex through sexual awakening.

That Forester writes of Rose “wearing no underclothing under her shift,” of Rose and Charlie bathing naked in the river, of her “giving herself completely” was perhaps not remarkable at its writing in the 1930s, after the war had changed everything, but for a writer of his generation, it was.  During his all attentive adolescent years, the Edwardian era was at its zenith when, as Vera Brittain says in her moving memoir, Testament to Youth, “…the Victorian tradition … up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage pitchforked her into an incompletely visualised and highly disconcerting intimacy.”  The war pushed women into comparative freedom and liberty (sexual and otherwise) as they left home and family supervision to take up the work of the young working men going off to the front. The end of the war opened into the Roaring Twenties and a rambunctious sexual freedom not seen again until the 1960s. So perhaps, reading of such a woman in 1935 was not so risque; since she was a woman in 1914 it certainly is.

[By the early 1950s when the movie was made, normalcy was returning after WW II contrary to the post WW I years. Sexual conventions were being reimposed.  To get The African Queen past the censors Huston had to have Rose and Nutall married before the final scenes.  And so he did.  In the book marriage was only an intention.  Nuttal, it is revealed is already married.  The book closes with  “as to whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided.”

Forester’s sense of adventure and derring do also lifted The African Queen out of the wave of post WW I novels and memoirs, cresting in 1929 [All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms among them] which, on the whole, condemned the war, the command incompetence, the injury to men and nations.  It is an adventure novel, much like pre and early war John Buchan thrillers, in my growing up somewhat like “The Hardy Boys” or “Nancy Drew:” problems to be overcome, lessons given in persistence in ingenuity and keeping calm. The heroes can be counted on to survive, the bad guys their comeuppance.  Much of Rose Saylor’s temperment and Nuttal’s ingenuity would be put to repeated good use in Forester’s Hornblower series that followed.

Not only is running the rapids exciting, the details of how Allnut fashions two ramming torpedoes out of oxygen cannisters, cleverly improvising detonators with nails, bullets and wooden plugs — all very dangerous of course–  grip our imaginations.

The one actual image of mayhem in the book is when, in an ending different than that of the film, an exploding boiler “boils men alive.”

I admit it, The African Queen is a good read.  It was and it still is, as is film,  great fun for young and old alike. Adventure, trials borne, people becoming better by difficulties over come.

It is also a great lesson in how an exciting narrative masks the end towards which the action is undertaken,  how the power of war stories makes possible the enthusiasm to enter into war.  A good war story, like good slight of hand, distracts from what is actually happening.  Rose and Nuttal intend to be suicide bombers, ramming their explosive rigged boat into an unsuspecting German ship.

Only once is it mentioned that men will die in this attack, planned and insisted on by the missionary’s sister.  On seeing a pistol Nuttall has retrieved in order to use its bullets in the detonator, she is aghast, thinking that “to shoot a thief in time of peace seems a much more unpleasant thing than to blow up a whole ship in time of war.”  Before the final action begins she spends emotional minutes on her knees, praying, “her cheeks wet with tears,” not for the men she intends to kill, but because she has forgotten to think about God during the journey.

Why wrestle with the greatest of all questions, the taking of another’s life, when there is an adventure to be had, perhaps “the greatest adventure of our generation,” one which must not be missed?  Muddy discomfort, leeches, mosquitoes, camping in the rain, at worst a flesh wound are the anticipated cost, not the life long memory of seeing men writhing in pain.  And away from the constraints of society, adventure-wars promise lots of sex. What’s not to like?

The plan to ram the Germans, in 1914, is uncannily like the October, 2000 Al Qaeda attack against the USS Cole.  17 US sailors dead, 39 injured, 2 Al Qaeda suicides.  An exciting story might be written about the trials and tribulations of these two and their handlers, a John LeCarre thriller filled with second thoughts, threats, cowardice, courage, all the stuff of war fiction.  We wouldn’t read it with the same eyes, however. Not because the story isn’t exciting but because, in the imagined novel, enemy and ally have flipped, and consequences are clear.

Death is dismissible, the story exciting, only if the story invites projections into the culture’s [every culture’s] dominant narrative of who is good and who is evil.

It is interesting to understand.

Forester tells a story not about the mechanized slaughter of WWI but of individual courage in difficult, but human scale, conflicts, the core of war stories since Gilgamesh and Beowulf.  Rose is compared to both Napoleon and Nelson, paragons of leadership and hand-to-hand combat.  An individual against the Greater Power. It’s an old old story, still told incessantly. Check your current TV listings, or movie offerings.  We are still mesmerized by the daring and the glory, uninterested in what the real results are, the murder of unsuspecting men — until the victim is one of our own.  Then the story is a different one.

Next time the U.S.Navy Blue Angels or the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds come to thrill, remember what all that training is for: to be able to maim and kill anyone running, anyone sleeping, any infant nursing, anyone at prayer.  If we can hold that thought for just a moment we might modify the thrill. Next time old Army trucks and jeeps roll by in 4th of July parades, old geezers waving, remember what actually happened in those wars. Hold for just a moment the thought that beneath the waving and the celebration monstrous actions lie. Perhaps the old equipment should be draped in mourning and we watch in solemn vigil.


By the way, the original Walt Disney’s Jungleland was based in good part on the jungle scenes of Huston’s The African Queen.

And also, by the way, I listened to the Audible version of The African Queen, excellently read by Michael Kitchen who has his narrator’s voice, his cockney accent and a lighter tone for Rose, all properly in order.