The African Queen (1951)

Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart on a sweaty romantic river cruise in The African Queen

Director: John Huston

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut), Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer), Robert Morley (Reverend Samuel Sayer), Peter Bull (Captain of the Königin Luise), Theodore Bikel (First Officer of the Königin Luise), Walter Gotell (Second Officer of the Königin Luise), Peter Swanwick (First Officer of Fore Shona)

John Huston’s The African Queen is a beloved classic – so much so its odd-couple romance in tropical climes has been endlessly ripped off and riffed on practically ever since it was made. It’s a gentle, enjoyable travelogue of a movie where (truthfully) not much happens, other than we sit back and watch two masters of cinema acting go through the paces with consummate skill.

In 1914 in German East Africa, missionary brother and sister Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) plough their lonely furrow bringing God’s word to the disinterested natives, their only contact with the outside world being drunken Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), captain of the steam ship The African Queen, who delivers their supplies. Their world is turned upside down when Charlie brings news of World War One. The Sayers plan to stay, until German soldiers burn down the mission and assault Samuel who swiftly dies of fever. Charlie agrees to take Rose out of danger on his steam boat – but on the dangerous journey Rose develops a plan to use The African Queen to sink a German gun boat preventing British access to Africa, and Charlie and Rose find themselves – much to their surprise – falling in love.

Truth be told, nothing happens in The African Queen that you will find remotely surprising if you’ve ever seen a film before. Not even in 1951 could anything in this film be said to be pushing the envelope or offering something different to hundreds of studio epics past. Two people who seem to have nothing in common come together only to find, by heck and by jiminy, they actually are perfect for each other. Obstacles are put in place for them to struggle against but eventually love (and our heroes) triumph over all. Hip hip hoorah! You can see why the picture is so widely loved – it’s in many ways totally unchallenging and familiar.

John Huston seems to know this and just sits back and allows the film to almost tell itself with a professional, unfussy precision. The African Queen is an extremely well made film, sumptuous to look at, and never overstaying its welcome. It’s been boiled down to its barest necessities, and as such it works extremely well. There’s nothing extraneous in there – heck the film only really has three characters and one of them dies in Act One. Huston’s demands to film the entire thing (more or less) on location in the Congo is totally validated by the immersive filth, sweat and heat that reeks off the picture and seems to have soaked into the skin of the actors. 

Huston also understood that the real gold here was the acting – and the chemistry – of his two beloved stars. Tales of the making of the film are legendary – Bogie brought along Bacall, who helped out on catering, Hepburn refused to join the Bogart/Huston drinking sessions and became the only one to get ill from drinking the water, all four became lifelong friends. The script originally demanded Allnut to be a chippy cockney and Rose to be a prim schoolmistress type. The parts were re-written, Allnut into a “Canadian” (yeah right) while Hepburn reimagined Rose as, by her own admission, a sort of Eleanor Roosevelt in the jungle.

But it works a treat because both stars are on fire in this vehicle. Bogart perfectly mixes drunken awkwardness and defensiveness with a roguish charm, and what grows into a sprightly delight at being taken seriously for the first time in his life. Allnut is besotted with Rose from early on – even if he can’t admit it – and his whole personality seems to flourish and grow from her attentions, while never losing that slight “little boy lost” air. Mind you, Rose is as clearly attracted to Allnut early on as he is to her – but with her ideas of standards she would never allow herself to explore those feelings except in extreme circumstances.

Hepburn is such a gifted actor that you always know Rose is a far more intelligent, interesting and dynamic character than the one we are introduced to playing piano at one of her brother’s interminable sermons. Shaking off – with Allnut’s help – her shock at his death, she swiftly displays a head-girlish determination and pluck,that extends from rolling up her sleeves to steer the boat to laying out a plan to torpedo a German gun boat. Far from domineering Allnut, she flourishes and grows just as he does from her attention, and Hepburn suggests worlds of feeling and engagement opening up in Rose that she has never considered possible before.

The chemistry between them is scintillating and extremely warm, while the burgeoning romance is very sweet. I love the gentle way they switch form formal address to “Rosie” and “Dear”, the first few times each with that gentle hesitation that half expects rejection and anger. The film is also surprisingly daring about its depiction of sex (it’s pretty clear Rose and Charlie get jiggy in the boat at least twice while cruising down the river). The film mixes this touching stuff with some generally winning comedy – Rose pouring away Charlie’s huge whisky reserve after a particularly drunken display early on is a highlight – that really plays off the odd-couple combination of the two of them. It also helps play into the sweetness of the romance: Charlie impersonating a hippo to a delightedly bemused Rose is also very sweet.

It’s obvious stuff really – and Huston intersperses a few too many shots of crocodiles and hippos, as if he was keen to hammer home that they actually went on location – and there isn’t much in the film to surprise you or that you might not expect. It’s really all about the success of the two stars working together – and their natural chemistry and warmth spills out of the screen. Really it’s Bogart and Hepburn just doing their thing – but when their thing is as good as is this, you can certainly sit and watch it for ages.

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