Clint Eastwood’s film isn’t an African adventure epic, as those unaware of Peter Viertel’s 1953 book may surmise from the title. It’s an intelligent, affectionate study of an obsessive American film director who, while working on a film in colonial Africa, becomes sidetracked by his compulsion to hunt elephants.
Though the end credits note that this is ‘a work of fiction’ this is clearly a story about John Huston and the preproduction period for The African Queen (called The African Trader here). Eastwood plays the Huston character with obvious appreciation of the man: he wears Huston clothes and hats, assumes Huston mannerisms, smokes Huston cigars and speaks with the characteristic Huston timbre.
The first 20 minutes of the pic unfold in England, where Wilson is living in a splendid old stately home as if he were a country squire. It’s here that Wilson welcomes Pete Verrell (Jeff Fahey), his biographer, and it’s from Verrell’s perspective that the events unfold. Once the film crew moves to Africa, it becomes clear that Wilson’s interest in making the film takes second place to his impractical passion for big-game hunting.