The African Queen

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

The River of Life and The African Queen

If you’ve read my writing or have had a conversation with me for longer than ten minutes,  you know I am a big movie guy. My wife and I will go to the movies about once a week, preferably Sunday evenings if our schedules allow for it. My father once teased us that our near-weekly attendance verged on the devotional—“second Church” he once called it.  Cinema is hardly the humbling of God’s true presence in the Eucharist,  but I think I know what he is getting at. For Kathy and me, a married couple with two different faith traditions and practices, the darkened theater is something close to a shared cathedral. Devotional? Probably not. Spiritual? Sure! In our journey through the Catholic imagination we’ve seen how the arts offer us an opportunity to understand our faith’s themes in a new way. Music may be the most immediate form of art that transports us. There’s a reason we listen to music while we go to the gym or when we’re moping. Though there is a special power in cinema.

There’s something primordial about the cinematic experience.  Of course you can watch the latest film on any number of devices, but the simple act of walking into a dark room with strangers, and watching images illuminated by a single light source can be a deeply moving experience. God’s first words in the Bible, his first command is “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). I’ve often thought about those words in connection to movie going; that is, how creation is birthed from darkness into light. Like I said, primordial. I’ve often thought how the flicker of campfire light must have animated our ancestors’ pre-historic cave paintings found in places like ancient France and Romania.

In our contemporary world of sharing data over numerous media platforms we’ve gone from a shared society to a sharing society. We are constantly relaying information back and forth to one another, receiving it in our own time and place, but theaters remain one of the few places that we, as a community, experience something at the same time. There’s that image of the Church again.

It was one of the reasons why I was so fortunate to see one of my favorite films, John Huston’s 1951 classic, The African Queen, in an actual movie theater. Starring Humphrey Bogart (in his only Oscar winning turn) and Katherine Hepburn, the film tells the story of a mismatched pair of expatriates journeying down a river in Africa during World War I. The road signifying life’s journey, or describing a river as “the river of life,” is an old trope almost as old as speech itself. The image is everywhere.  One may wince when hearing a particular earworm, Life Is A Highway by Tom Cochrane. Yet, what makes The African Queen such an enjoyable film is its view of how the couple, and in turn us, experience life’s “that heartache and thousand nature shocks that flesh is heir to” (Shakespeare, Hamlet) through each other.

Bend after river bend proves another hardship to overcome, but the couple’s adventure and eventual love story show us that in our relationships with friends, relatives and spouses, that through life’s perils, we need each other. There are times when one person has to carry the two, when one can’t go on anymore, when they both have courage. The African Queen proves that if a salty old ship captain and a missionary can tackle life’s hardships, maybe a broken family can or warring siblings or a chubby Catholic and a firey Presbyterian can leave the theater thinking that they too may have a shot.

I’ll be seeing you,


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