African Queen, The (1951)
Release Date: December 23rd, 1951 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Huston Actors: Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel
he acting is flawless – Bogart and Hepburn have crafted two of the most perfect screen personas of all time. Just as famous as their performances is the turbulent making of the film on location in Africa, plagued by sickness, poisonous creatures, difficulties with native crews, and more. But it was undoubtedly worth it. “The African Queen” is a simple story with universal appeal, thanks to the powerful script and poignant character development that garnered an Academy Award nomination for Hepburn as well as Humphrey Bogart’s only Oscar win.
It’s German East Africa, in 1914, and prim and proper Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) plays the piano at the 1st Methodist Church of Kungdu, struggling to teach the locals to sing – something they couldn’t care less about, as evidenced by disinterested faces and a preoccupation with obtaining a discarded cigar from a new arrival. The visitor is gruff, unshaven, gin-loving mineworker and deliveryman Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), who smokes and reclines on his little 30-foot boat, African Queen. He’s clearly not thrilled to be in the company of Rose and her brother, the reverend (Robert Morley), indifferent to their work in Africa and to the war breaking out in Europe. It’s closer than they think, however, when troops march into the church and set it ablaze. Traumatized, the reverend loses his grip on sanity and eventually passes away. Mr. Allnut returns to the disheveled remains of the church and convinces Rose to accompany him on his outbound vessel – while the going is good.
Charlie is satisfied with waiting out the war in the backwaters, but Rose insists she can’t sit idly by. The German army has a 6-pound gunship called “Louisa” and forts set up across the rivers and borders of Africa, inspiring Rose to devise a plan to turn the Queen into a makeshift torpedo – for ramming the enemy craft. Charlie isn’t keen on the idea and hopes to scare her out of it, but he’s also not entirely comfortable abandoning his country in her time of need. As they journey downstream, dealing with heavy rains, white water rapids (comparable to her brother’s most spirited sermons), crocodiles, enemy snipers, drunkenness, madness, waterfalls, and more, the two find themselves falling in love, despite their incredible differences.
Like few other actors, Bogey and Hepburn create a pair of the greatest odd couples, distinguished by their likeableness, wit, charm, and, perhaps most notably, age. It helps that nearly the entire movie showcases nothing but the two of them, slowly adapting their relationship through harrowing adventures and meaningful exchanges. Allnut is filled with glib, sarcastic comments and crass remarks while Rose speaks carefully and gracefully, sips tea, and disapproves of just about everything Charlie does. But their resulting bickering is hilarious, touching, and decidedly believable. “The African Queen” is also filled with some of the most memorable visual moments in cinema: Rose dumping Charlie’s booze into the river, Sayer’s silent treatment, the learning of Allnut’s first name, a run-in with leeches, and the thrilling conclusion on the deck of the German ship. It’s a film that can be watched again and again for its lighthearted characters, abundant humor, and magical chemistry.
– Mike Massie