In this romantic adventure set in German East Africa at the outbreak of the First World War, prim missionary Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) jumps aboard grubby Charlie Allnut’s steam boat and the unlikely pair set about a mission to destroy a German warship.
Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) is a hard drinker and takes some convincing to embark on Rose’s madcap scheme, but she wins him around with charm and good humour. It’s one long adventure as they travel down the river to the German warship, meeting crocodiles, mosquitos, leeches and white water rapids along the way.
Based on the book by C.S. Forester, the script is well paced and the two lead characters well drawn – their different backgrounds making for some amusing altercations and sharp dialogue. Rose is constantly surprising – the mission to destroy the warship is her idea. Allnut thinks the first, and rather tame, rapids will be enough to put her off the scheme, only to find that she loves the excitement of the boating lifestyle. Rose is a somewhat manic character and Katherine Hepburn plays her in a melodramatic fashion but this works alongside Bogart’s rather grumpy and put-upon Allnut.
Bogart received his only Oscar for his role as Allnut and it is well deserved. He pitches Allnut just right, giving us an independent, heavy drinking, irritable man who is also kind and warmhearted. Bogart’s Allnut is often oblivious to the views of his new companion creating a nice energy between the characters. In one of the film’s most amusing scenes, Allnut wafts a bottle of gin right under Rose’s face as she looks on shocked and repulsed, ‘would you like a cup of tea miss?’ he says innocently. Bogart is outstanding here, but this scene is also a perfect combination of performance, direction and music.
“A fantastic light-hearted adventure with a wonderful performance from Humphrey Bogart”
Director John Huston (winner of two Oscars for The Treasure of Sierra Madre in 1949) captures a perfect mood in The African Queen, balancing adventure with romance and comedy. The African Queen’s soundtrack from Allan Gray is also a joy, enhancing the film’s mood of adventure and drawing attention to the humour in the character’s interactions.
Cinematographer Jack Cardiff – winner of the Lifetime Achievement Oscar – shoots Zaire and Uganda beautifully. Extreme long shots let us see the vast and tropical nature of the landscape while close-ups of crocodiles and lions give us a window into the wilderness and danger that the adventure entails. A number of action sequences shot using obvious background projections and a model boat flowing through the rapids do detract from the tension, but The African Queen was made in 1951, so this can easily be forgiven.
Although the ending to The African Queen feels a little silly – it differs from the book – it’s tone is perfectly in-keeping with the rest of the film, blending intense adventure with some amusing touches.
The African Queen was a big hit in 1951 and was nominated for four Oscars in 1952 – Leading Actor, Leading Actress, Director and Writing. But the cast and crew endured much sickness during the filming process, making it something of a wonder that The African Queen turned out so well. Bogart and Huston avoided illness, IMDb explains, ‘by essentially living on imported Scotch. Bogart later said, “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus, and Scotch whisky. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead”’. Although the film-makers sought extra support from local natives, John Hutson claimed in a New York Times article in 1952 that very few actually turned up for fear that the crew were cannibals. An odd bit of trivia perhaps, but at the time location filming was not the norm.
The African Queen is a fantastic light-hearted adventure with a wonderful performance from Humphrey Bogart. There are plenty of moments that will make you smile, maybe even laugh out-loud. It’s a feel good movie that’s well worth watching and perfect for a Sunday afternoon with a cup of tea and a slice of cake.