(1951) Directed by: John Huston; Written by James Agee and John Huston; Based on the novel The African Queen by C.S. Forester; Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull and Theodore Bikel
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“He may have no common sense – he may be irresponsible and outrageous. But he is talented. He ain’t where he is for no reason. And you’d better watch him. And learn a few things.” – Katharine Hepburn on working with John Huston (from The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, by Katharine Hepburn).
“I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating.” – Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn)
Due to some last-minute complications, I was unable to participate in last year’s edition, but thankfully host Margaret Perry was gracious enough to extend an invitation for this year’s Great Katharine HepburnBlogathon. As regular followers of this blog and my Twitter account will know, I suffered a recent setback, but I’m determined to come through this time around. I’m excited to discuss one of my favorite Bogie movies, not to mention the inimitable lady of the hour, Ms. Hepburn.
The African Queen is an uncanny adventure, as well as an unconventional love story, set in the heart of Africa. Filmed on location in the Belgian Congo and Uganda,* the exotic locale adds a level of veracity to the story. Naturally, utilizing such a remote, unforgiving location didn’t come without a price. The cast and crew had to contend with numerous annoyances and hardships, including parasites, dysentery, unforgiving Technicolor cameras, and at one point, a sunken boat. Hepburn chronicled the problematic shoot in her book The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. While it’s not quite the tell-all one might expect, given the title, it’s a delightful read nonetheless. According to Hepburn, she wasn’t impressed with the screenplay when director John Huston presented it to her,** but fortunately for moviegoers, she cast aside her misgivings and agreed to do the film.
* Fun fact: Robert Morley never set foot in Africa for his scenes. Instead, a double was used for his character’s location shots in Uganda, while Morley filmed his scenes with Hepburn and Bogart in England.
** Per Ms. Hepburn’s memoir, “It seemed to me utterly dull and I kept falling asleep over it.” (ibid)
Set in 1914, at the beginning of World War I, the story opens in a village where Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her uptight reverend brother (Robert Morley), work as missionaries. When German troops run the villagers out of their huts and set fire to their village, Rose’s brother, a broken man, becomes ill and dies. With nothing left to carry on her church’s mission, she employs riverboat skipper Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) to provide safe passage away from the devastated village. It’s at this point, when the film’s real story begins. The bulk of The African Queen focuses on the two principal characters, Rose and Charlie, as their uneasy chemistry proves opposites attract. Animosity gives way to affection, as they endure the travails of the tumultuous river, including perilous rapids, hippos, crocodiles, and enemy sharp-shooters.
Hepburn’s prim and proper Rose provides a perfect foil for Bogart’s irascible Charlie. She’s not about to take things lying down, hatching a far-fetched scheme to destroy the Louisa, a German gun ship that’s patrolling Lake Victoria. Despite Charlie’s (frankly reasonable) protests that they’re out-numbered and out-gunned, she remains adamant about doing her part for the war effort. Rose is the portrait of an independent woman with unshakable ideals and an indomitable spirit. While she wins Charlie over to her cause, her emotional defenses erode, and “Mr. Allnut” gradually gives way to “Charlie.”
Bogart’s Charlie represents a radical departure from the rough-and-tumble, hard-boiled roles of many of his previous films. He’s lazy, unkempt, and uncultured, with a fondness for gin. He has Rose pegged as a “crazy psalm-singing, skinny old maid,” who values business first, with pleasure a distant second. He’s a man who embraces his baser nature, whereas Rose believes that people are put on Earth to rise above nature. Charlie chooses the path of least resistance, contrasted with Rose, who prefers to go against the grain if it aligns with her ideals. In many respects, however, he’s the Bogie we’ve come to know and love. He’s someone who exists outside of the system, and doesn’t care to get involved with the rest of the world’s disputes. But, much like Rick in Casablanca, or Harry in To Have and Have Not, it only takes a good man (or woman) to push him in the right direction, and convince him otherwise.
The unsung star of The African Queen is the titular river boat,* a rickety, temperamental old vessel, held together with spit, rags and luck. It’s one of the most memorable nautical vehicles in film history (alongside such notable examples as the U-96 in Das Boot, the Orca in Jaws and title craft in Titanic). Allan Gray’s playful score provides a perfect accompaniment to the chug-chug of the African Queen’s engine, evoking images of Rose at the tiller and Charlie coaxing it down the Ulanga River.
* If you feel a sense of déjà vu while on vacation in the Magic Kingdom, you’re not crazy. The boat from this film was the inspiration for the boats in Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise” ride (Source: http://www.hiddenmickeys.org/disneyland/secrets/adventure/Jungle.html).
The African Queen’s (Minor Spoiler Alert!) screenplay took liberties with the book’s downbeat ending, but most viewers probably wouldn’t fault co-writers James Agee and John Huston for choosing not to have the protagonists come to the end of their arduous voyage, only to see their hopes dashed. Just when you think their goose is cooked, fate intervenes to provide an audience-pleasing conclusion. But it’s easy to excuse this deus ex machina plot device when the scene that precedes it includes one of the film’s funniest lines. The African Queen is an adventure for the ages, and a romance – a true classic in every sense of the word.