The African Queen [1951)

For people who try to do the right thing, the world is a cruel place.  Ebola virus disease was named after the Ebola River in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Near the start of this film we see a hurried burial of the Methodist minister Samuel Sayer (played by Robert Morley).  That scene was filmed near the village of Biondo (DRC):  about 450 miles from the Ebola River.

In 1951 (and ostensibly 1914) it was the Germans who came to burn huts and round up the villagers of Rev. Sayer (most likely forcing the natives to become soldiers). In 1976 it was a strange virus which came to the region near the Ebola River to inflict terrible and mysterious suffering.

This tangent serves the purpose of relating our subject (an amazing piece of cinema) to the present times.  Our principal players (Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn) gradually made their way about 300 miles northeast to Lake Albert (actually further…to the Ugandan side), but not before many real and fictional travails.

Reality and fiction…  The Ebola River is the headstream of the Mongala River.  Fact.  The Mongala River is a tributary of the Congo River.  Fact.  Scenes of the African Queen (the boat) going over the falls were filmed at Ubundu (formerly Ponthierville) on the Lualaba River in the DRC using a model with tiny Bogart and Hepburn figurines.  Fact.  The Lualaba River is the greatest headstream (by water volume) of the Congo River.  Fact.  Ebola virus disease is a naturally occurring phenomenon.  Definitely maybe.

Everyone needs a little help from their friends.  Hollywood makes no pretense to being anything but a pretense–except when the projector is rolling.  The suspension of disbelief which is at the essence of fictional films requires audience participation.  Rarely have directors taken a different approach to the process, but one notable exception was Roberto Rossellini.  His version of Neorealism created a tributary in reverse (flooded by directors like Godard) which traced cinema’s roots back to the source:  truth.  Twenty-four times per second (historically) a frame was given its moment to shine.  The shift was imperceptible.  Through the phi phenomenon we perceive motion on the screen.

We see Charlie Allnut scratch his steamer beard.  We see Rosie Sayer transform from a teetotaling harmonium pumper into a war strategist for improvised explosives.  We laugh when Bogie monkeys around.  We swoon with the romance and gravity of it all.  We relate to Sisyphus as skipper–mired in mud and pulling his own ship with a rope.  After the Spar torpedoes eventually serve their purpose, we believe that our heroes swim to safety in Kenya.

But what we really learn is to not drink the water.  For director John Huston and Bogie it was whiskey all the way (while filming on location in Africa).  They were the only two not to succumb to dysentery.  Hepburn had to play the pump organ with a bucket nearby (in case she got sick).

Through immense struggle we learn not to drink the Kool-Aid.  I bet Humphrey Bogart wouldn’t have dismissed Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz without giving Emerging Viruses (1996) a fair shake.

-PD