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Review: The African Queen (Forester [book, 1940 edition]; film, 1951).

The African Queen.

The African Queen is one of those rare movies that improves upon the book. It has a much more satisfying denouement than the 1940 edition of C. S. Forester’s novel, even if it does perpetuate the pleasant myth that ship captains have the authority to solemnize marriages. But this is meant to be fictional entertainment, not a historical documentary.

It’s a complex narrative, told through three tightly plaited story lines. First, and most importantly, it’s a war story, set in German East Africa at the start of the First World War. Next, it’s an adventure that keeps you on the edge of your seat, no matter how often you’ve seen it. Lastly, it’s a love story, of the “unlikely romance” genre that’s built on a deeper development of character which implies that this is a meaningful relationship that will last.

The screenplay has such engaging, fast-paced writing that one forgets that without the war story line, there would be no plausible rationale for the adventure or the romance. Furthermore, the war story is built around the declared mission of a woman, Rose Sayer (who, until her brother’s untimely death, served as his missionary companion): to commit an act of war against a vessel of the Imperial German Navy. No such event occurred during the war, but the viewer comes away from the film feeling that it could have happened.

World War I in East Africa, map by Mehmet Berker


The novel delves into a little more character psychology than one would expect for so short a book (I re-read it in about 8 hours), and it presents a lot more back-story than feels necessary: it’s as if the author felt a need to justify why Rose “goes native,” so to speak, in her relationship with Charlie Allnutt.

Given the times and her upbringing, we cannot doubt that after her grand adventure, Rose would happily settle down in a cottage surrounded with hollyhocks, there to bear Charlie’s children and make blancmanges for the rest of her life. But we can also tell that without her, Charlie the drifter would have been happy to keep a low profile and float out the war in the backwaters of Africa. Rose makes a hero out of Charlie, not on the flimsy premise that he “rescued“ her from the hazards of a war-torn African colony, but by inspiring him to buck up and brave the leech-infested waters of the river, to help her achieve her grand design.

The African Queen thus becomes a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of women of Rose’s generation who served and inspired in wartime roles of amazing diversity: from traditional sock-knitting and bandage-rolling, and becoming nurses or voluntary aides, to munition workers, ambulance drivers, and innovative lifesavers, such as Madame Marie Curie with her mobile x-ray units, which she personally outfitted and personally delivered to hospitals and casualty clearing stations near the Western Front, and who trained doctors in their use.

Apparently the book’s first publisher didn’t like the way the story ended, and prevailed upon Forester to permit it to be changed, but he changed it back to the way he’d originally written it in the 1940 edition. Normally I don’t think much of publishers who want to become co-writers, and because I haven’t read the first edition, I don’t know exactly how the end differed (other than by the removal of the last two chapters), but in the case of The African Queen, I agree with the first publisher’s decision: Forester’s choice of ending is lame.

Read the book by C. S. Forester, or not, as you like. But be sure to dial up the movie, or dig out your copy of it, and enjoy it for everything it can mean to you, in your understanding of the wars of history and your approach to the battles you face in your own life. Highly recommended.

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Why I Remember

belligerent flags

Days like Memorial Day and Armistice Day (Veterans Day) are bittersweet occasions for many currently serving, their families, surviving veterans, and even for remote descendants of those who served in wars long past.

While researching my novels, I learned that an estimated 200,000 Irish soldiers served in the British Army during the Great War. The survivors returned to their country only to be treated as pariahs – sometimes persecuted for their service by their peers who stayed home – and subsequently, forgotten by all. During the Second World War (which neutral Ireland would officially recognize only as an “emergency”), 70,000 Irish chose to join the British Army to fight the Nazis – nearly twice as many as those who enlisted in the country’s home defense forces, which spent much of their time digging peat. About 7,000 of the latter decided to drop the broomsticks with which they were drilling, and nearly 5,000 of them crossed the border and joined the British. When WW2 was over, the Irish government passed special legislation to punish defense force deserters – but it was selectively applied: only to those who had gone to serve with the Brits. Just a few years ago, the Irish government decided to extend amnesty to the soldiers who left the safety of service at home to help defeat Hitler – a decision that is still hotly debated in some circles.

USA doughboys received precious little recognition for what they did in the Great War, and many of the tramps and hobos of the interwar period were WW1 veterans, often physically and/or psychologically disabled. When a bonus was finally legislated in 1924 (overriding presidential veto), it was with certificates that weren’t redeemable for 20 years. Veterans who held protests were dealt with severely by the government. It wasn’t until 1936 that new legislation enabled the bonus certificates to be redeemed early, and exceptions were made to Civilian Conservation Corps employment rules, to benefit married and over-CCC-age veterans.

The Pan-Germanic belligerents who were instrumental in beginning both sets of World War hostilities (and their allies) also lost millions of soldiers, but their families and surviving veterans had to come to terms with not being able to publicly mourn their losses. Their peoples bore the burdens of rebuilding and reparations (Germany finally finished paying off the First World War in 2010), and they chose to concentrate on the benefits of their liberation from domination by absolutist and totalitarian regimes, as they restructured their cultures and economies.

American GIs who came back from the Second World War benefited from several employment, education and financial bonuses that have been extended (in evolving formats) to all US veterans since then; nevertheless, Korean War veterans suffered the ignominy of having to fight the first war that was run openly by politicians who objected to winning it. Some Vietnam War veterans also still feel the sting of the abuse that many of them received upon their homecoming from the next war that politicians refused to win.

Those of us who are non-combat veterans are the invisible veterans. I have a service-connected disability, although not as obvious or severe as what many others have lost, so I’ve been at the bottom of the Veterans Administration priority list since 1979. I will likely stay there until I’m buried in the nearest VA cemetery, where I plan to share my grave marker with my dual-service veteran father, whose cremains were buried at sea.

We all served. Some know us, and care, like those who quietly remember us on the official holidays – or like the Native American tribes who honor veterans as warriors at their public pow wows, even though their ancestors often suffered at the hands of the US military. There’s no doubt that war brings out the worst in people, but all veterans can stand together and show how war can bring out the best in people, too.

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