The African Queen: Romance on the River


africanqueenKatharine Hepburn suffered for the sake of art. There she was, in Uganda and the Congo, shooting John Huston’s new movie together with Humphrey Bogart and his wife Lauren Bacall, whom she had become friends with. The African Queen opens with an amusing scene where her character is accompanying villagers as they struggle through a hymn. Next to the organ, out of sight for the camera, was allegedly a bucket for the star who was sick with dysentery. At another occasion, Hepburn rushed to the outhouse for relief only to find a black mamba there. Shooting this movie was no picnic, but it is one of the great Hepburn performances.

Shortly after the start of World War I, British missionaries Samuel and Rose Sayer (Robert Morley, Hepburn), are in German East Africa. The siblings are not even aware of the war until the Canadian boat captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart) tells them about it. It doesn’t take long for German troops to reach the village and set fire to it. The experience is such a shock to Samuel that it kills him. When Charlie returns to the village, he finds Rose with her dead brother and tells her to quickly gather her belongings before the Germans come back. Charlie has a tramp steamer, ”The African Queen”, and Rose joins him as they make their way along the Ulanga River.

After finding out that the Germans have a gunboat down the river, Rose tells Charlie that she wants him to take her there and turn the cargo of ”The African Queen” into torpedoes…

Follows a predictable pattern
One of the director’s most popular films came on the heels of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), another adventure with Bogart as a roughhewn character. This time he’s far more likable though. His and Hepburn’s relationship follows a predictable pattern. When we first meet them, Rose isn’t particularly fond of Charlie. He remains the same throughout the film, but Rose changes from a prim British, Christian woman who can’t stand her gin-drinking companion’s bad manners to a person who’ll do anything for the man she loves. Because fall in love they do at a certain point, and it’s one of the film’s weakest moments, failing to properly convince us why Rose would suddenly yield to this man’s charms.

Still, that has never really mattered. Watching these two stars together is a treat, culminating in a very memorable, cleverly devised, last chain of events where their love has taken them to what might end up a bitter yet somehow romantic end. Bogart finally won the Oscar, but Hepburn delivers a highly nuanced performance here; we experience the journey through her eyes and emotions. The story has many humorous and tense moments, encounters with the Germans as well as conflicts with nature, and between the two leads.

Much of it was shot on location in glorious color cinematography, by Jack Cardiff, who gets to show off all the wonders of African wildlife. Many scenes were however filmed in a studio in Britain due to the complexity and dangers of them. Even if it shows, they still blend fairly seamlessly with the on-location material because Cardiff and Huston take their time truly establishing the environs.  

Watching this movie again for the first time in many years, I’m struck by how much of a blueprint it provides for many subsequent adventure films, not only because of he Bogart-Hepburn relationship but also what a modern impact the color cinematography has. The most obvious example would be Romancing the Stone (1984), but also Steven Spielberg must have seen this movie a few decades ago and thought ”that’s the kind of spirit I want to emulate for Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

The African Queen 1951-U.S. 105 min. Color. Produced by Sam Spiegel, John Woolf. Directed by John Huston. Screenplay: James Agee, John Huston. Novel: C.S. Forester. Cinematography: Jack Cardiff. Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer), Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut), Robert Morley (Samuel Sauer), Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell.

Trivia: Followed by a TV movie, The African Queen (1977).

Oscar: Best Actor (Bogart).

Quote: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” (Hepburn to Bogart)

Last word: “I had to do this film on location. I wanted these characters to sweat when the script called for it. On a sound stage you fake it, but in Africa you don’t have to imagine that it’s hot, that it’s so hot, that it’s so humid and wet that cigarettes turn green with mold; it really is hot and clothes do mildew overnight-and when people sweat it isn’t with the help of a make-up man. Africa was the only place to get what I was after.” (Huston, TCM)

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