Tag Archives: war films

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, 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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Review: My Boy Jack (film)

boy jack

My Boy Jack.

Rudyard Kipling and his son stand at the crossroads where modern family dynamics intersect with 19th-century traditions, and poetic martial hyperbole intersects with the gut-wrenching reality of war.

Kipling is the first author I can remember knowing by name, at about the age of 5 or 6. That was when my mother began reading aloud to me The Jungle Book (in the original – this was many years before the advent of the infantile Disney pastiche). Kipling’s writing so completely captured my imagination, I decided then that I wanted to write books when I grew up.

“Growing up” also might have been a personal motive of the juvenile lead, whom I discovered happens to have been the child star of the Harry Potter movies (I’ve neither read the books nor seen the films). The actor’s portrayal of Kipling’s son was his first “grown-up” role, and the visual emphasis given to his cigarette smoking feels as if it was meant to stress his maturity.

Some artistic license also was taken with the depiction of Jack Kipling’s demise. Great War historians likely would know how he was said to have died, but that scenario was softened for the screen, perhaps to give the actor’s fans a less traumatic way to bid a final farewell to Harry Potter.

Mothers may find it difficult to accept that Mrs. Kipling would ever reconcile with her husband, but that she could is psychologically sound, because of how bereaved people progress through the four tasks of mourning (see J. William Worden’s Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy; any edition will do; sample here). Nearsighted people may feel conflicted about the denial of Jack’s vision issues, but the convenience of modern contact lenses has removed much of the disability, and most of the stigma associated with poor vision, which also made “short-sighted” a pejorative term. Pragmatic viewers (especially veterans) may wonder what would have been wrong with his enlisting in an administrative or other support role, instead of insisting on getting a combat billet, but the concept of what constitutes “honorable” service has evolved over the past hundred years.

As a costume drama, the film flips the right switches: historic setting; famous characters, including royalty; English and Irish accents; the proper cap badge and pattern of uniform buttons; rainy, grey, muddy Western Front trenches. Even the actor who plays Rudyard Kipling bears an uncanny resemblance to the man.

This edition of the DVD includes the documentary lecture Pity of War, presented by Niall Ferguson, which examines the First World War from the futility perspective. In this respect, the moral of the movie could be expressed by the sayings, “pride goeth before a fall,” and “be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it.” But this cinematic retelling of macro- and micro-tragedy is worth the time to view, and should benefit the historical novelist.

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