Friday, November 11, 2016

World War I Movie Churches -- The African Queen (1951)

Sure, everyone remembers the boat. It's in the title, for crying out loud. But 1951’s The African Queen, the film that won Humphrey Bogart his Oscar and consistently ranks in AFI's top films of all time, has a church as well as a boat.

Well, it has a church for the first few minutes of the film -- until it is burned down, and the pastor goes mad and dies. But let's talk about those first few minutes, since we’re here to review the churches and clergy in the film, not the film itself. 

The First Methodist Church of Kungdu is located in German East Africa in the village of that name (Kungdu, not First Methodist). The year is 1914, in the late summer or early fall, at the beginning of World War I. The village consists of a group of huts with thatched roofs and two larger buildings with thatched roofs: the church and the parsonage. 

Once the opening credits are done, we are treated to one of the worst renderings of a hymn in any motion picture. Robert Morley as the Reverend Samuel Sayer tries to lead the congregation in singing "Bread of Heaven" accompanied by Katherine Hepburn (as the good Reverend's sister Rose) on the foot pumped organ. 

The problem is that the congregation consists entirely of Africans who don’t speak (let alone sing) English. Most of the congregation is just making some kind of noise rather than singing. Babies are crying, and my favorite guy is shouting "Bread of heaven, bread of heaven" time and again. Really, why does the Reverend Samuel think his congregation will get anything out of this song? He should have gone with "Kumbaya," although I doubt that’s in the local language either. 

In the midst of the horrible, horrible vocalizing, Captain Charlie Allnut docks his boat, The African Queen at the Kungdu dock. When he tosses his cigar butt aside, some villagers fight over it; when "Bread of Heaven" is finished, most of the congregation rushes out to watch that fight. There is much more joy on the faces of the congregants watching the fight than there was in church. 

Charlie speaks to the natives in their native tongue, but there is no indication that the Sayer brother or sister have learned a word of the local language. Charlie doesn’t have much love for the area, though, referring to it as, “this God-forsaken place.” 

Rose replies, "God has not forsaken this place, as my brother's presence bears witness." 

The arrogance of missionaries who come to a place and expect the locals to listen to the gospel in the missionaries’ native language is rather appalling. But when the Rev. Sayer becomes ill and tells his story in his delirium, we learn a little more about these particular missionaries. 

In his fever, Rev. Sayer believes he’s a student back in England saying, "I have no facility for Hebrew or Greek, but it I don't pass the examinations, I'll volunteer as a missionary...If I don't pass, it just means God has other work for me. Lord, help me distinguish myself and give me a call here in England. Lord, I've tried so hard." It's rather an indictment of the Methodist hierarchy in England at the time that they would keep the best and brightest in the homeland and send the less talented overseas, when serving overseas require all the skills any pastor can muster. 

Because Sayer failed at Hebrew and Greek, showing his lack of proficiency in languages, he is sent to a place that doesn't speak his language? The missionary has some other problems, too. He is jealous of a younger man who was promoted to Bishop, sniping that the man "married well." He also treats Charlie Allnut with snobbery and condescension, but one thing keeps me from giving Sayer our lowest steeple rating for Movie Churches. 

When Rev. Sayer is told that war has broken out, Allnut asks if he is going to leave the village. Sayers says he can't leave his sheep to the wolves. When German soldiers come into the village and set huts ablaze, looking to take residents of the community into their service, Sayer confronts them. He's beaten by a soldier and then succumbs to sickness and death. 

Though Sayer really doesn't have much to offer the people of Kungdu, he gives all he has, so he and his mission church get two steeples.

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