The African Queen

Like many of the films I see for my New Year’s Resolution Old Movie Challenge, The African Queen (1951) with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart is a film I’d never seen. I knew the basics that Hepburn played Rose Sayer, a straight-laced missionary and Bogart, a salty, undomesticated sailor, but I had no idea why they’d be on a journey together.

So it was news to me that Hepburn was a missionary, working in Africa with her brother who dies as a result of an attack by the Germans in WWI. The Germans burn the village down and her missionary brother goes crazy and dies from the effect. Bogart plays Mr. Allnut, who travels in a rusty boat known ironically as the African Queen, bringing mail and supplies to miners and the mission. Mr. Allnut is rough around the edges, but always polite to Rose, whom he always addresses as “Miss.” (It isn’t till halfway through the film that they find out each other’s first names.)

When Allnut sees that Miss is all alone, and vulnerable when the Germans invariably return, he takes her on to his rust bucket, the African Queen. He expects to take her to safety somehow and is shocked by her cockamamie idea that they should go along an impossibly dangerous route till they come to the lake where a German war ship is. Then she figures they can rig up some DIY torpedoes and ram the African Queen into the German ship to fight for her country, Great Britain. They’ll jump overboard at just the right moment and swim to safety.

Allnut has the sense to see the lunacy of her plan, but lacks the rhetorical skills to convince her of the futility. Has any Hepburn character ever been convinced to follow someone else’s plan?

Thus onward they go, and along the way they get drenched, barely survive the rapids and, as you’d expect, fall in love.

The film pulled me in, though at first I thought this particular pair of opposites might not attract. What I liked is that Allnut really respected Rose and that the film wasn’t a mere series of scenes where the opposites bicker. Once they’d overcome the initial obstacles, and saw each others’ strengths, they formed a real team. The main conflict was the arduous journey and finally the Germans. At times luck, rather than pluck got them through, but as Rose was a missionary, the Hand of God ought to be a force in the story.

Note:

  • Hepburn insisted the film be shot in Africa and as a result the crew endured hardship after hardship just like the characters did. See this post.
  • Someone’s bought and restored the African Queen used in the movie and you can arrange a canal or dinner cruise on it.

 

 

The Keys of the Kingdom

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In Keys of the Kingdom, Gregory Peck plays Father Chisolm, a young, humble, authentic priest who is sent to China after a lack of success in his home of Scotland. His mentor, a bishop feels Fr. Chisolm will thrive in China.

The story’s told in flashback. It begins with an old Fr. Chisolm getting reprimanded and told his unorthodox teachings are forcing him to be removed from his hometown parish. The bishop who makes this threat is staying at Chisolm’s rectory. Before he goes to sleep, he picks up Fr. Chisolm’s memoirs and reads of his extraordinary life.

Chisolm’s father and mother were killed in a riot against Catholics. He’s brought up by and aunt and almost marries as a young adult but circumstances lead him to stick with his choice of the priesthood. As a young priest, his parishioners don’t appreciate his questioning and some of his theology. His mentor has a hunch that Fr. Chisolm would be right for a deserted mission in China.

When Fr. Chisolm arrives in rural China, every believer has left as they really only came for the free rice. The church is in ruins. Slowly, Fr. Chisolm rebuilds and stays true to his principles and beliefs even if it means losing the church or being treated like an inferior by a haughty former classmate.

At one point the political climate in China shifts and warlords threaten the mission.

I found the movie compelling and was better than average for avoiding the stereotypes so common in the 1940s. His performance is carries the film and I would never have guessed it was Peck’s second film. It seemed like a biography, but apparently it’s based on a novel, not a real life.

My only complaint is I wish they hadn’t skipped through the years of turmoil and war in China. They show early 20th century violence, but explain and show little of the revolution that erupted. The film jumps from one attack when Fr. Chisolm was probably in his late 30s to Chisolm as an old man. By weaving in Fr. Chisolm’s ecumenical beliefs and his strong friendship with an atheist, the film feels modern.

Inn of the Sixth Happiness

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A couple friends recommended The Inn of the Sixth Happiness with Ingrid Bergman, so I finally made time to see it. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness satisfies in a way old films just do. It’s not perfect and some of the casting is dated (i.e. today, I think if a character was biracial, physically that would be more obvious. You wouldn’t cast a white European and just have him “act” Chinese or constantly tell us he was half-Chinese). Still the movie was made in 1958 so I cut the filmmakers some slack.

The story of Gladys Aylward, a British woman who’s rejected by a missionary society to go to China. Determined that her fate is in China, Gladys saves every penny and goes on her own. She finds her way to a tiny village in the country and works with a seasoned missionary. At first she muddles along making mistake after mistake. However, Gladys does learn and when her mentor dies she summons the grit to carry on. The local magistrate and a biracial military leader, who’s always about and played by an actor who doesn’t look even faintly Asian, urge her to pack up her things and leave. Gladys politely refuses. Soon the magistrate, who must appoint a foot inspector to see that the now illegal foot binding is stopped, gives her this job no one wants. When Gladys succeeds where all others have failed, she wins him over.

Challenge is constant in China and Gladys flourishes in spite of it. She wins the hearts of many and saves the lives of numerous children when the Japanese invade.

Inn of the Sixth Happiness lacks sophistication, but it delivers a satisfying story of bravery, pluck and spirit. Yes, it’s old fashioned, but it’s also a satisfying glimpse into our recent past and a look into the lives of dignified people striving against hardship without complaint. It is a “feel-good” movie, but in a satisfying way that might make us take a different look at our own times and ways.