Published on January 23rd, 2018 | by Clint Davis
The African Queen 
Summary: Hollywood powerhouses Huston, Hepburn and Bogart unite for a charming romantic adventure set in the early days of World War I. It's dated by a severe lack of diversity and cheesy special effects, but this is cinematic history.
PG | 105 min.
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel, John Collier (based on C.S. Forester’s novel)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn
Distribution: United Artists
Oscar Wins (1952): Best Actor – Humphrey Bogart
“Would you hang us together, please?”
In the total of Hollywood history, there may be no comparison to the total combined star power — both in front of the camera and behind it — aboard The African Queen.
Dramatic crime epics like Heat, which united director Michael Mann with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and The Departed, which teamed Martin Scorsese with Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio, come to mind but in the world of romantic cinema, it’s hard to think of another film that brought two enormous veteran stars and an iconic director together.
When they teamed up to make The African Queen in 1951, director John Huston had already won two Oscars and been nominated for five others, Katharine Hepburn had won an Oscar and been nominated for three more and her co-star Humphrey Bogart was a box office icon. All three had already reached living-legend status when they decided to spend months in the African wilderness shooting an unlikely romantic adventure between two middle-aged shipmates.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie when I finally sat down with it. After years of watching TCM and the myriad AFI countdowns that it’s appeared on, I was well aware of the reputation of The African Queen as a Hollywood landmark. I certainly didn’t expect it to be so damned charming.
The plot follows a Canadian loner named Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) who captains a small steam-engine boat called “The African Queen” in 1914. Every so often, he delivers mail and other items to a British missionary named Rose (Katharine Hepburn) who lives in a village with her pastor brother in German-controlled East Africa. When World War I breaks out, German soldiers trash the village and Rose’s brother is killed as a result, forcing her to take refuge in Charlie’s boat as the pair tries to travel downriver to escape the escalating foreign threat.
That’s basically the entire story of The African Queen. Unlike some of Huston and Bogart’s previous classics, such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon, the plot of The African Queen is very straightforward with few twists and turns. Instead, this movie relies completely on the dynamic between its two lead characters and the performances of Hepburn and Bogart. They are the only actors in much of the movie’s 105 minutes of run time. That’s a tall task for any performers — especially when dealing with a brutal on-location shoot and a domineering director like Huston — but these two stars are so good they actually make the whole thing look fun.
Rose and Charlie have virtually nothing in common aside from the color of their skin. In author C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel, Charlie was also English but Huston and his three co-writers changed the movie version to a Canuck because Bogart couldn’t pull off a cockney accent. As expected, their relationship starts off thorny when the boat first launches, leading to some entertaining exchanges between Hepburn and Bogart, such as when Charlie refers to Rose as a “crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid.”
Hepburn’s Rose is as prim as they come when we first meet her. In the early scenes, she’s never spotted without a full dress and a hat that would fit in at the Kentucky Derby, even when she’s merely riding a rusty box of bolts down an African river. She always refers to Charlie as “Mr. Allnut” and she says things like, “God has not forsaken this place,” after her shipmate complains about their harsh setting.
Conversely, Bogart’s Charlie is a lighthearted, functioning alcoholic whose middle name could very well be “Casual.” Charlie’s got all the cool of a typical Bogart character but absolutely none of the style. He’s constantly got a three-day beard, wears ragged clothing and kicks his engine with both feet when it’s not running properly. This is the most slipshod role I’ve ever seen Bogart inhabit and I think that’s a large reason why it led to the actor finally winning his first — and only — Oscar. He clearly stepped out of his comfort zone to play this part and it’s a tremendous showcase for his range.
I appreciate that the script of The African Queen treats each of its lead characters with respect and doesn’t reduce either of them to stereotypes. Rose starts out a bit uptight but proves to be much more than the strict Bible-thumping schoolmarm you might expect from the early scenes. She’s shown to be a kind and patient person from the jump, when we see her sharing tea with her brother and Charlie, and later she shows herself to be quite empathetic, especially in a sweet scene where she helps Charlie avoid being rained on at night. And Charlie is shown to be more than the half-assing roughneck you might expect from his introduction where he chomps a cigar while watching a church service.
The African Queen allows Hepburn to show her range as well, giving her some light physical comedy and action, as well as the constant body language cues she displays in the early going. One of the film’s highlights comes when Rose and Charlie decide they need to bathe after the rough day on the river.
After washing up in the water on opposite sides of the boat, Rose emerges from the water and tries desperately to climb back aboard with no luck. Seeing Hepburn’s thin, naked legs reaching out of the water and up the side of the boat to no avail is a great visual. And the scene only gets funnier when Charlie helps her aboard and sees her in a set of underwear that’s about as revealing as a full-size dress. “Close your eyes, Mr. Allnut!” she shrieks, incensed, as Bogart slinks away.
But for a movie that deals with perilous adventure in the African wilderness and one that is set during wartime, The African Queen is a surprisingly soft film. Even when bullets are whizzing over Rose and Charlie’s heads during one intense sequence as the boat passes by a German encampment, the danger doesn’t feel imminent. With the exception of the leach scene … that was just disgusting! But something about the film’s action just feels more fun than intense.
Even serious character defects, like the fact that Charlie is obviously an alcoholic, are handled with a light touch. We see Charlie getting bombed one night on the boat and he proves to be a harmless drunk, then the next scene he’s waking up with a hangover to see Rose pouring dozens of bottles of gin overboard. Does he get angry? Not really! He makes a tiny fuss and then it’s all handled with a laugh. Forget the fact that she’s destroying liquor that he paid for with his meager earnings or that she’s nullifying goods that could be sold for profit should they need cash — watching her casually toss glass bottles into a river is an environmentalist’s nightmare and makes her look like the villain in this situation. But, I have to admit, Huston’s shot of the empty bottles bobbing as they float down the river is one of the movie’s most memorable images.
On the subject of the film’s imagery, the scenes in which the boat travels down dangerous rapids date it terribly. Anyone who has seen a movie in the post-Star Wars world has seen how green-screen effects (aka chroma key) can completely make or break a blockbuster. Obviously in 1951 this technology was still in its infancy but that doesn’t make it any less distracting when you can obviously see green outlines surrounding Hepburn and Bogart’s heads when we get a closeup of them inside the boat as it’s being rocked.
The cheesiness of the green-screen effects are matched by those used during a scene in which our heroes are swarmed by mosquitos. I give Huston and his crew credit for pushing the limits of special effects but would it have killed them to give the characters some bite marks or red blotches on their skin after the swarm leaves? After getting mobbed by thousands of mosquitos for about 5 straight minutes I’d think they’d show some kind of aftereffects!
But for as lame as those rapids scenes look today, they do have an important role in the film, providing Rose with some character development. The first rapids scene is the closest thing to a sex scene that we get in this romantic picture. Seriously. When they go through the choppy river, getting tossed about the boat and soaked with water, Huston frames it like a sexual awakening for this tightly wound woman.
As soon as they are out of danger, Charlie is beyond relieved while Rose says she can’t wait to hit the next rapids because the only time she’d ever felt a “physical sensation” like that was when “the spirit” really hit her during church sermons. She’s visibly exhausted and excited, looking like Betty Draper when she discovered the true magic of her washing machine. This scene was a brilliant stroke (pun intended) by Huston and makes us like Rose even more.
When the pair finally kiss, well into the action, it actually looks awkward and clumsy rather than the glamorous, romantic shot you might expect from two giant stars locking lips. The kiss also loses some power because of composer Allan Gray’s overblown score. Gray’s music hurts The African Queen more than it helps. It’s just too busy and all over the place. In some scenes, it’s silly and fanciful like a Merry Melodies cartoon and in others, like when Charlie takes a swig of gin as Rose looks on, aghast, it’s completely overdramatic. This score came toward the end of Gray’s long career, which included several collaborations with British film icons Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
After the kiss, Huston peppers the movie with a fair bit of sexual tension in every scene. For a low-class guy who’s stuck onboard a tiny boat with an attractive woman in a life-and-death situation, Charlie handles it all like a perfect gentleman. Bogart plays him as a harmless, sensitive guy who is just a big rough around the edges. But you can tell the boat is his castle and if he was going to bite it, he’d like nothing more than to go down onboard The African Queen.
The beleaguered boat truly is a character in itself. It looks barely seaworthy at the start of the film and by the end, the old girl is in tatters, including its proud-flying Union Jack. The vessel is like an inverse metaphor for the bond between our lead characters. As it deteriorates, their relationship only gets stronger until, in the end, they don’t need to be on the boat at all to pull off their mission.
One of the things that makes The African Queen truly remarkable is how solitary it is. Once Rose’s brother is out of the picture, there really are no other characters aside from the two heroes in the entire film. Despite the fact that it’s only a two-actor picture, it’s briskly paced. Huston and his co-writers kept the scenes short and the constant momentum of the boat trip keeps the plot running toward its destination with few distractions.
If The African Queen were made today, I’d have to imagine there’d be a wacky sidekick thrown in who provides a deus ex machina in the end and a sinister villain who seems to pop up at every turn. This movie doesn’t have any of that. It’s just the two leads going from situation to situation and that proves to be plenty when you have actors that are this gifted.
One modern change that would do this film some good would be more diverse casting. For a film set in Africa, there are very few black faces in its frames and there are none that bill any higher than extras. The black performers in The African Queen essentially act as set dressing, running around in the background during the early village scenes just so the audience can be sure this is indeed set in Africa. This lack of color dates the film horribly, especially upon watching in the post-#OscarsSoWhite era.
But despite its issues, The African Queen remains worth the time of modern audiences if only to see two of Hollywood’s greatest titans doing fantastic work. Bogart shows his lighter side, playing Charlie as a bit of a goofball, especially in a sweet scene where he imitates hippos to make Rose laugh. And Hepburn is as magnetic as ever and is a blast to watch. She clearly eats this role up, teetering on the edge of overacting but never veering completely into that territory.
These are two wonderful and charming performances that every cinema lover should see before they die. It was the first and only time Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart would share the screen together, and after making six films together previously, Bogart and John Huston would only work together one more time before the actor’s death in 1957. This film represents cinematic history — pure and simple.
[Movie screen shots: Bluscreens.net]