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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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Review: All Quiet on the Western Front (film, 1979)


all quiet 1979










All Quiet on the Western Front.

This remake follows the 1930 adaptation fairly closely, although it substitutes some details, deletes and adds a couple of scenes, and it ends differently to both the book and the prior film. The casting is better, and so is the acting: you can’t go wrong with Ernest Borgnine as Katczinsky, Donald Pleasance is a familiar face who does a decent job in the limited role of the schoolmaster, Patricia Neal ably updates the role of Frau Bäumer, and the actors who portray the young soldiers both look and act their parts believably. It was my only experience with seeing Richard Thomas act (I had never watched the television series he had been in), but like the casting of Daniel Radcliff in My Boy Jack, I suspect that Thomas’s casting as Paul Bäumer served to help his fans to separate him from a role he had played for several years.

We’ve all been disappointed by films that re-write the books they’re “based on.” As in the 1930 version, this film begins with the epigraph that appears at the start of the Wheen translation, which presumes to pontificate in a way that the text in the original German does not. In translations, interpretation is one thing, but interpolation of material that doesn’t exist in the original is another, and I don’t like it when a translator decides to become a co-author. The Murdoch translation does not commit that transgression in the epigraph.

Readers who have seen the bibliography and library page at the blog for my first novel are familiar with what a stickler I am for details, so it will come as no surprise that I have bones to pick with the wardrobe and props. For the most part, everything is authentic-looking enough, although the choice to opt for tunics in the style that didn’t have visible brass buttons or insignia made the costuming a little too feldgrau drab, for my taste.

In addition, the Kaiser’s getup was a trifle lackluster, compared with the photos in which he appears in full-dress bling. The casting of an actor who had two normal-sized arms could have been better managed, had he been cloaked in one of those dashing capes that Willie liked to wear, to disguise his shrunken arm.

Lastly, in the final scene, the cigarette Paul Bäumer smokes seems to exhibit anachronistic performance, because it burns continuously and produces a long, stable ash column. These are characteristics of modern tobacco and tubes that are manufactured with additives which encourage steady burning, and a paper structure that prevents the ash from falling apart. Earlier cigarettes, filled with plain tobacco and before advanced tube engineering, tended to extinguish when not subjected to continuous dragging, and the ash column would have been more delicate.

Because the 1930 rendition was filmed in black and white, it could get away with being photographed on sets with backdrops. The 1979 version was filmed in color, so it needed even more careful attention to detail, and it was filmed on location in Czechoslovakia. Its being in color may dilute its impact among viewers who are accustomed to a lifetime of lifelike cinematography, and although the street scenes, pyrotechnics, and gory battle footage are perfectly well done, the earlier film benefits from the “you are there” impression that its monochrome photography provides, simply by virtue of its resemblance to the period photos and documentary films we’re used to seeing.

That said, I believe the first film is overrated by those who regard it as a “masterpiece,” and that despite my personal pickiness, the second film is the better of the two. Have you seen them both? What do you think?

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Review: All Quiet on the Western Front (film, 1930)

all quiet 1930

All Quiet on the Western Front.

Considering the immediate post-war punitive mood that was voiced in the Treaty of Versailles, at first I was surprised that as early as 1930 anyone was ready to make a film in English that was as frankly sympathetic towards Germans as this adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel (book review to follow). But upon reflection, it’s understandable, given the spread of isolationist and pacifist feeling among those who hoped that another war on such a scale could be avoided.

Of course, the film was not completely faithful to the story. Most of the major plot incidents were recognizable, but the end was completely changed, and the writing in between was poor, with stilted dialogue that many of the actors had a hard time bringing to life. The bit-part players seemed comfortable in their background roles, and the ones who portrayed Tjaden and Katczinsky worked with the ease of experienced character actors, but Lew Ayres and the others who were cast in Bäumer’s class of youthful conscripts looked a bit old for their parts, their interpretations were histrionic, and their efforts to speak in boyishly pitched voices were unconvincing.

The film’s strength lies in its visual imagery. Sets and crowd scenes employ culturally appropriate landscapes and period interiors and costumes, including reasonably accurate militaria (the Stahlhelm replaces the Pickelhaube at the right time) and props (the closeup of the poilu’s paperwork bears a family resemblance to my great-grandfather’s French Army identity papers); and the battle footage boasts believable pyrotechnics and features some historically faithful gruesome scenes.

The film that was digitized is a clean copy restored by the Library of Congress, and is packaged with a theatrical trailer and brief introductory commentary. As an old movie, a war film, and a historical drama, the 1930 rendition of All Quiet on the Western Front can profitably occupy a couple of hours for a connoisseur of those cinematic genres. A fair-to-decent cult classic.

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