The battle against conventionality is, perhaps, always a losing proposition. If you lose, you lose. If you win, on the other hand, you simply become a new orthodoxy… which is perhaps even worse.
As a case in point, consider E.M. Forster’s “A Room With a View.” Published in 1908, the book belabors frozen Victorian pieties with a will. The moral center of the novel, Mr. Emerson, is a working-class atheist who refuses to let his child be baptised — with a pagan enthusiasm he extols the virtues of passion and truth and love, while around him clergymen waffle and bluster and cover over pure emotion with the dead scum of starched collars and gospel cant. Lucy, our heroine, is a typical, uninteresting girl whose great soul is revealed only through the incongruous enthusiasm with which she attacks Beethoven and Schumann at the piano. Art and true passion go together, which is why there are no artists who have fucked up their love lives. In any case, Lucy does not fuck up hers, and against the wishes of her family and friends and the whole of society, she takes the hand of Mr. Emerson’s son, George, and has “a feeling that in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world.” Life, after all, is a struggle between the truth of individual passion and the conservative constriction of tradition — in being true to her heart, Lucy strikes a blow for all hearts everywhere, and brings merit into the world.
And, indeed, Lucy does change everything — or, at least, she’s part of a change in everything. Who now would argue against marriage for love, even to a middle-manager? Certainly not the creators of *The African Queen*, the Bogart/Hepburn vehicle filmed forty years after *A Room With a View.*
*African Queen* is set far, far from England, in German East Africa at the opening of World War I. Still, there are similarities. In *African Queen*, as in Forster, parsons don’t come off so well; Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) is onscreen just long enough to show that he’s a blustering, envious, intellectual nonentity, capable of pathos only because of the utter failure of his life. His mousy sister, Rose (Hepburn) quickly shows she’s worth ten of him — not by playing the piano, but by the improbable enthusiasm with which she guides a boat through the rapids. That boat belongs to Charlie Allnut (Bogart), on whom Rose’s passion quickly alights, in despite (of course) of religious strictures and all hidebound convention.
Such is the eternal triumph of romance over convention. Except…well, if the triumph has reached the point where it’s eternal, isn’t it a convention itself? Our heroine’s unexpected depths — whether it’s the intensity of her Beethoven, or her love of boating, or (as in Pretty Woman) her love of opera or (as in Twilight) her vampiric superpowers — surely, at some point, those unexpected depths cease to be quite so unexpected and become a rather tiresome trope? When does individual passion become a claustrophobic expectation in itself?
In The African Queen, certainly, the romance between Rose and Charlie seems rooted in social expectations. Through the early part of the film, the most notable thing about the relationship between Hepburn and Bogart is the almost preternatural lack of chemistry. Both are certainly likable, but there’s nothing in their body language that suggests intimacy or even interest. And, indeed, why should there be interest? Rose and Charlie are likable, but as romantic partners they both leave a lot to be desired. Charlie is a drunk and a layabout. Rose is almost frighteningly repressed — so much so that she urges Charlie to sail his boat downstream to kill a bunch of Germans basically on the grounds that she’s bored.(Rose doesn’t even know what World War I is about when she concocts her plan.)
Of course, Rose’s love is supposed to redeem Charlie’s seedier side, and the attack on the Germans is meant to be heroic rather than pointlessly bloodthirsty. But the “supposed to” ends up sounding awfully, uncomfortably loud. The scene post-coitus where Rose struggles to figure out how to address Mr. Allnut, whose name she doesn’t even know, is cute, and Hepburn, with a mixture of embarrassment and affection, sells it. Still it ends up being perhaps a bit more revealing than the filmmakers intended. These two people don’t know each other; they don’t have much of anything in common. A relationship between them is probably, from any even vaguely realistic perspective, going to turn to shit as soon as Charlie finds the wherewithal to get his hands on a fairly constant supply of liquor. Given all that, why do they have to get together again?
Of course, they have to get together because they’re the stars and it’s a romance and that’s what happens in a romance. That’s genre and if you don’t like the genre, you probably shouldn’t be in the theater. But at the same time, it’s hard not to see the African Queen and feel like it, and many more like it, have pretty much done for poor Forster. Unsuitability in African Queen is now a feature, not a bug, as far as convention is concerned. The clergy are barely a joke; passion is so thoroughly awesome that it needs to be externalized by blowing up boatloads of Germans. In this context, Lucy isn’t following her heart so much as her genre predestination. If Forster really wanted her to show her unique individuality, he would have had her join a nunnery…or, perhaps even more shockingly, marry the supercilious Cecil and have it turn out he wasn’t such a bad egg after all. As it is, *A Room With a View* ends up feeling like a lengthy sermon preached to the converted…and, for that matter, to the conventional.