The African Queen(1951), starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, was director John Huston’s adaption of C.S.Forester’s 1935 novel of the same name. The film had one of the most difficult shoots in movie history, but it resulted in one of the most endearing romantic adventure films of all time, with Bogart winning an Oscar for his performance in the film.
“A story of two old people going up and down an African river?
Who’s going to be interested in that? You’ll be bankrupt.”
Famous British film producer Alexander Korda may well have been stating an undeniable fact when he was talking about the perils of adapting C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel The African Queen. The novel was a love story set in 1915 between two rapidly aging cranks: Charlie Allnut is a gin-soaked Cockney skipper of the squat, 30-foot ramshackle supply launch steamer, The African Queen; delivering supplies, mail and news to the isolated villages up the Ruki River; Rose Sayer is an uptight British spinster who aids her brother, the Rev. Samuel Sayer, in his vocation: converting the local animists to Christianity. Charlie is the siblings’ only link with the outside world, irregularly bringing them packets of mail from their native England. This time he brings some unpleasant news along with the letters. German armies have invaded East Africa; the Kaiser’s troops are only hours away. The Sayers refuse to move. Charlie shrugs and goes upriver, whereupon enemy soldiers invade the Sayers’ turf as predicted, burning down huts and forcibly conscripting the villagers. The reverend protests and gets savagely beaten by a German officer. Wounded and in shock, he succumbs to jungle fever. Not long afterward, Charlie returns. He helps the grieving Rose bury her brother, and invites her to come aboard his little craft. Charlie will take her downriver to a safe haven, then move on to his own hiding place where he can wait out the war in drunken tranquility. But Rose is made of stronger stuff. She wants her brother’s death avenged, and conceives a plan to make the Germans suffer. The river is a tributary to Lake Albert, where a German ship, the Louisa, is known to be anchored. She and Charlie can make their way to the lake, convert the African Queen into a torpedo boat, and head it toward the Louisa, diving off just before it hits. Charlie regards her plan as insane: “There’s death a hundred times over,” he warns. Hazards include an enemy fort facing the river, as well as three sets of dangerous rapids. A war of nerves begins, but Nonetheless, as they surmount one danger after another, they are drawn closer and closer, ultimately falling in love, and they carry out their adventurous mission together. In the novel their mission fails: the Germans capture the couple, but they decide that it would be uncivilized to order their execution, and, flying a flag of truce, hand them over to the English. Forester’s ending was the weakest part of the novel. Rose and Charlie plan to get married by the local British consul. Having created an unusual romance, the author denigrated it in the final line: “Whether or not they lived happily ever after would be difficult to say.”
I read the novel before i saw the movie, and for the life of me, i could not imagine either Humphrey ‘Bogie’ Bogart of Katherine ‘Kate’ Hepburn – two of the most American of all actors – could be convincing as British nationals striking a blow for his Majesty’s cause against the Germans in the Great War. But that’s part of the great beauty of John Huston’s utterly delightful film version of The African Queen. It’s also a triumph of good old star power; something that has become totally extinct in today’s times. ‘Stars’ are very different from ‘Actors’; Stars have style, charm, charisma, and above all the camera loves them; they don’t have to be the greatest actors in the world to get through a film; They don’t even have to be the most handsome\beautiful of people: Bogie and Kate are the great examples of this; though beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, it can be safely assumed that neither of them fit the description of, what is commonly assumed as classically beautiful, yet they can hold the screen and command our attention better than anybody. It was for nothing that , when the American Film Institute (AFI) conducted a poll to decide the top 50 screen legends of all times, Bogie and Kate topped the list of greatest male and female legends respectively. So The African Queen is a special film that way; it’s the only film that brought these two greatest screen legends together; and the film needs these two stars for it to work; individually they are mesmerizing, together they are dynamite, they bring something called ‘star chemistry’ to the table, which is again very different from two great actors working well together. The African Queen cannot be made with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster; they are all wonderful actors and no doubt would give great ‘character’ delineation to their roles, but, that’s not enough to pull off a film like The African Queen.I remember De Niro said (as a put down) in an interview that Bogart always played himself; Bogart was a very stylized actor, no question about it, and his style was his chief artistic expression, but his greatness was how he played characters as varied as Sam Spade, Rick Blaine, Fred C. Dobbs and Charlie Alnutt with exactly the same style. That’s an artistry in it’s own right, of course he never cut off his hand or had his teeth knocked out to fit himself into a role, which may be the reason why Actor’s studio alumni like De Niro find him less endearing. Whatever i said about Bogart also fits perfectly for Hepburn; her style is so overt that every time she pronounces ‘Mistah Aw-lnutt‘, we know it’s Kate Hepburn and not the British spinster Rose Sayer who is talking, but that doesn’t damage the film at all, on the contrary, it makes it much more interesting. That’s what stars and real star power can do, and in a film like this , where the entire film is set around these two actors; it is just these two people in a boat and there is the wild African landscape (that’s what is there for almost two hours of this film). Another thing about these stars is that there is a cartoonish element to their physicality and acting style. Both of them are thin, short and gaunt, blessed with very unconventional facial features that would have been a cartoonist’s delight; and their acting style, especially their dialogue delivery, which on one level is very straight and honest, but on another level, its rather unintentionally comical, there is an exaggerated feel to it – thanks mainly to their strange sounding voice and accent; their romance isn’t just romantic, but it’s also funny, which makes it even more fun. Bogie had a natural gift for leavening his hard-nosed characters with a sardonic expression, and Kate had played superbly well opposite some of American cinema’s great light comedians, including Cary Grant, James Stewart, and, of course, Spencer Tracy. Bogie would prove to be their equal. Their interactions always posses a comic undercurrent, which gives the film that extra dimension. This is not a serious film at all; it’s a very light adventure story that doesn’t tackle any serious issues of the location or the period, unlike a film like Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa(1985), which went deep into relationships between colonials and natives and all that stuff , here Africa is just an exotic backdrop for an unusual romance between two disparate people. It’s like a road movie (by river) as the mismatched duo negotiate German patrols, rapids and swarms of flies. So the comic sensibilities of the lead actors hold the film in good stead.
Just take the scene were Ross convinces Charlie to go after Louisa; she concocts this crazy plan to turn The African Queen into a torpedo and to blow a hole in the German gunboat at the head of the river; a plan that could prove to be suicide. Charlie does his best to dissuade her, but she is determined and she slowly extracts enough information out of Charlie to get him deep enough into her crazy scheme that he has to agree to follow her. The conversation goes something like this:
Charlie: Rapids. A hundred miles of water like it was coming out of a fire hose. And after that, why, the rivers even got a different name. It’s called the Bora. That goes to show ya. They didn’t even know it was the same river until this fella Spengler got…
Rose: He got down it, I remember.
Charlie: Well, yes, Miss, in a dugout canoe. He had a half a dozen Swahili paddlers. Map makin’ he was. That was his map you was looking at.
Rose: Mr. Allnut?…What did you say is in these boxes with the red lines on them?
Charlie: Well them? That’s blastin’ gelatine, Miss.
Rose: Is it dangerous?
Charlie: Bless you, no, Miss. That’s safety stuff, that is. You can get it wet and it don’t do it any harm. You set fire to it and it just burns. You can hit it with a hammer and it won’t go off – at least I don’t think it will. It takes a detonator to set it off. I’ll put it over the side, though, if it worries you.
Rose: No, we may want it. Mr. Allnut?…What are these long, round, torpedo-like things?
Charlie: Oh them? Them’s oxygen and hydrogen cylinders, Miss.
Rose: Mr. Allnut?
Charlie: (smugly) I’m still right here, Miss. There ain’t much of any other place I could be on a thirty-foot boat, ha, ha, ha.
Rose: You’re a machinist, aren’t you? I mean, wasn’t that your position at the mine?
Charlie: Yes, a kind of a fixer. A jack of all trades, a master of none, like they say.
Rose: Could you make a torpedo?
Charlie: How’s that, Miss?
Rose: Could you make a torpedo?
Charlie: A torpedo?…You don’t really know what you’re askin’. You see, there ain’t nothin’ so complicated as the inside of a torpedo. It’s got gyroscopes, compressed air chambers, compensating cylinders…
Rose: (unperturbed) But all those things, those gyroscopes and things, they’re only to make it go, aren’t they?
Charlie: Yeah. Yeah, go and hit what it’s aimed at.
Rose: Well, we’ve got The African Queen.
Charlie: How’s that, Miss?
Rose: If we were to fill those cylinders with that blasting gelatin and then fix them so that they would stick out over the end of the boat, and then run the boat against the side of a ship, they would go off just like a torpedo, wouldn’t they?…We could, what do you call it, get a good head of steam up, and then point the launch toward a ship and just before she hits, we could dive off. Couldn’t we?
(Hepburn’s body language while delivering the above lines are just damn funny, she makes these crazy movements with her hands while talking about filling cylinders and blasting gelatin. She has little interest, concern or awareness of the challenges they face, and doesn’t want to just sit out the war. Charlie objects vociferously to her plans)
Charlie: There’s only one little thing wrong with your idea. There ain’t nothin’ to torpedo.
Rose: Oh yes there is.
Charlie: There’s what?
Rose: Something to torpedo.
Charlie: What’s that?
Rose: The Louisa.
Charlie: The Louisa! Oh now, don’t talk silly, Miss. You can’t do that. Honest you can’t. I told you before, we can’t get down the Ulanga!
Rose: Spengler did.
Charlie: In a canoe, Miss.
Rose: If a German did it, we can do it, too.
Charlie: Not in no launch, Miss.
Rose: How do you know? You’ve never tried it.
Charlie: I never tried shooting myself in the head, neither. The trouble with you, Miss, is, you, you don’t know anything about boats!
But Rose steadfastly sticks to her guns and finally Charlie has to go along. On a logical level, the scene shouldn’t work at all. There’s no way a a woman like Rose can convince a cad like Charlie to go along with her crazy plan, if at all a woman like her would concoct a plan like that. It’s the performances of the two stars that makes it work.
The role of Charlie Allnut was a natural culmination of all Bogart’s film characters; an aging, caustic, disillusioned tough—self-exiled from the real world but still with a spark of that animal courage that made him, unbeknownst to himself, an extraordinary man. Charlie Allnut is all male, like Fred C. Dobbs of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Dixon Steele of In a Lonely Place. The difference was that those men began with some appeal, then descended into paranoia and self-destruction. Charlie would reverse the process, starting off as an irritable antagonist and winding up as a lover who would prove alluring not only to Rose but to the audience. The only time Bogie pulled off this feet before (and perhaps even more spectacularly and memorably) was, as Rick Blaine, in the classic Casablanca(1942), which is undoubtedly the most popular film Bogie ever made. The same goes for Hepburn’s Rose Sayer as well; her snobby, stubborn missionary is a curious amalgamation of her real and reel persona. Rose would become the catalyst who would bring out the best in Charlie; at the same time, Charlie brings out the vulnerable woman inside her hard-shelled exterior. Charlie’s personality is direct, rough, plain-spoken. He is a drinker and a smoker, and a man proficient with boats (much like Bogart was in his real life, Bogart was obsessed about sailing, and had his own boat named ‘Santana‘). He is adventurous, fun-loving, and authentic. He candidly speaks his mind and is someone who likes to stir things up. Rose is conventional, composed, straight-laced, and cultured. She is concerned about appearances; toward the end of The African Queen, before she and Charlie torpedo a German gunship, she wants to clean their vessel, scrubbing decks and polishing brass. Unlike Charlie, Rose is discrete and serious. In the opening scene of the film we see the silent battle between these two contrasting temperaments; when Charlie arrives at the mission run by Rose and her brother, he throws his burning cigarette butt into the middle of a congregation of natives. Immediately there is a commotion with the natives fighting it out among themselves over the cigarette, which disturbs the ‘class’ conducted by Rose. Later, while having dinner with Rose and her brother. Charlie’s stomach gurgles and growls. He says that “ It’s like a Hyena in his stomach and he can’t do a damn thing about it.” . Again later, when he returns after Rose’s brother is dead, he doesn’t spend much time in mourning, and tells her that they should put her brother under the earth as soon as possible, because the corpse would start deteriorating pretty quickly in the tropical weather. Till then Rose has kept Charlie at a distance; though mildly amused at his vulgar antics. But now she accepts his sanctuary and decides to go with him on his boat. It is at this point that the main body of the film really begins
The film is directed by the great John Huston. He was a true Renaissance titan: he was a boxer, a painter, a poet, screenwriter, director and above all an eccentric adventurer. He had already made some tough, masculine films like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. All his movies are concerned with a long journey that human beings undertake; a search, or a mission which comes to define their internal journey to find their true selves. The African Queen is the most vivid example of such a metaphoric journey; the film becomes a tongue-in-cheek allegory for the developing relationship between a man and a woman; the initial repulsion, then full blown antagonism, then the slow thawing, then the attraction, the consummation of that attraction; and then the perils post the consummation of their love; and finally, happily ever after. The African landscape is deftly used by Huston to reflect the nature of their relationship; In the beginning the landscape is very tranquil, but as the antagonism between Charlie and Ross increases, the landscape also becomes hostile. After promising Rose to carry out her plan to destroy The Louisa, Charlie soon does a volte-face; he gathers up his bravado and courage after a few drinks and drunkenly reneges on his promise to go down the river to blow up the German warship. Charlie was secretly hoping that after going down the rapids, Kate would come to understand the perils of their journey, but instead Kate’s resolve is further strengthened; she is filled with a spiritual fire after the exhilarating experience, declaring emphatically: “I’ve only known such excitement a few times before – a few times in my dear brother’s sermons when the spirit was really upon him.“. She objects that Charlie even thinks of such a thing as abandoning her perfect plan, with a surprised: “What an absurd idea.” Her reaction prompts him to mimic her speech: “...What an absurd idea! Lady, you got ten absurd ideas for my one.” He warns her of the hazards ahead – the towering German fort at Shona with sharpshooting guards that they must pass in full daylight just before the vicious rapids and falls, and other unknown dangers. She calmly insists on taking Charlie’s boat past the armed guards at Shona and accuses him of being a liar and a coward. Exasperated, he loses his temper and belligerently gets his true feelings off his chest. He invokes the name of his “poor old Mother” who would affirm his belief that Rose is “no lady”:
Ooooh! Coward yourself! You ain’t no lady. No, Miss. That’s what my poor old Mother would say to you, if my poor old Mother was to hear you. Whose boat is this, anyway? I asked you on board ’cause I was sorry for you on account of your losing your brother and all. What you get for feeling sorry for people! Well, I ain’t sorry no more, you crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!
(Kate’s reaction to this insult is priceless. she at first is stunned and could hardly react, then she does what any woman would do, she slowly adjusts her hair and her face, convincing herself of her beauty)
After this insult Rose stops speaking to Charlie; moreover she gets her revenge when she pours every last bottle of alcohol into the river as a hapless Charlie looks on; he is unable to do anything as he is brutally hung over from all the liquor he has been drinking. Charlie then tries to charm Rose by cleaning himself up and flattering her with platitudes, but Rose refuses to budge. In the end, Charlie has no other option but to go along with Rose. In a memorable scene, they pass by the gun-fortified German fort at Shona – They both duck down low and prepare to meet the threat together. While being fired upon, the Queen loses power right in front of the fortress making them easy targets when the steam hose disconnects and the pressure drops. In an exciting sequence, Charlie courageously performs a makeshift repair of the hose while risking exposure to the guns of the fort’s guards (metaphorically, he is doing something similar about his relationship with Rose as well, this is an attempt on his part to repair the damage that has been done). He is saved from deadly sniper fire when the gunman’s gunscope is miraculously blinded by glaring sunlight (as predicted earlier by Rose), and they survive the danger as they pass out of range. At first triumphant after passing unhurt under the guns of the fort, they find themselves rushing directly into a wild, hazardous cataract of rapids. The steam-belching African Queen bobs through the rapids and rocks as they grasp the rudder and attempt to steer. Wildly relieved and exuberant at miraculously making it through, they embrace and kiss, forgetting themselves entirely. They shout exultantly: “We made it…Hip, hip, hooray.“; there is something great that Bogart does in this moment: he takes off Kate’s hat and throws it away before he kisses her, as if liberating her from her orthodox existence. After their spontaneous embrace, Charlie loads fuel into the furnace – his face reflects both skeptical dismay – and then a freeze-frame of pleasurable shock; that expression on Bogie’s face – It’s just utterly moving and, at the same time, very funny. More metaphorical sexual gestures follow, as Charlie hugs Kate from behind and they both start pumping water out of the boat. Although they are embarrassed and awkward, they fall in love and slowly succumb to each other’s charms. After their first night together (signaled by a fade to black and a fade-in), Rose prepares tea for Charlie in a semi-domestic scene. Then comes the most romantic moment in the film, a she switches from addressing him as ‘Mistah Aw-lnutt‘ to ‘Dear‘ , and then, she shyly asks Charlie for his first name so they can be less formal: “Dear. What is your first name?”.
The landscape also reflects their romance. They are in a paradisiacal setting – with natural shots of blooming flowers and hillsides; and they are like Adam and Eve in this garden of Eden, completely isolated from the rest of the world. Charlie starts behaving like a child indulging in clownish antics, he mimics the look and sounds of submerged hippos and scratching baboons on shore. After another disastrous encounter with rapids, the Queen is damaged and leaking water. They seek anchorage for a while in the still side waters of the river. After diving underwater, Charlie notices a twisted shaft on the rudder and a broken blade on the propeller. Rose suggests that the work will have to be done underwater. During the repair effort, when he swallows a lot of water and she volunteers to help free the drive shaft with him, Charlie rudely dismisses her. But she insists on helping him and she does dive underwater with him and helps him in fixing the propeller. In another instance of metaphorical lovemaking, both strip down to their underwear, detaches the damaged propeller; Rigs up a primitive forge on shore, straightens the shaft, welds a new blade onto the prop, and they continue on their journey. In their river adventure, they now enter an uncharted, unknown portion (just like their relationship), and are beset by man-eating and poisonous water creatures in an increasingly swampy, slow-moving river. First, they are attacked by a shroud of mosquitoes that eat them alive. To protect his loved one, Charlie throws a canvas tarp over Rose to cover her, and then poles the boat away from the shore. They reminisce about their adventure together and imagine a time (after their love has matured in the future) when they will have a family together: “What a time we’ve had, Rosie. What a time. We’ll never lack for stories to tell our grandchildren, will we?“; Rose, now totally besotted with Charlie, decides to gives up on her crazy plan to torpedo the warship, but this time Charlie gives her confidence, which buoys her fortitude, and she decide on proceeding with the mission. In the oppressive, humid atmosphere of the jungle, the river narrows and they become stuck in the reedy channel at the river’s end. An exhausted Charlie must get into the waist-deep water and pull the boat through the shallow muck and silt to deeper water. But it looks like all is lost and they are stuck in the reeds forever; destined to die in each other’s arms. Charlie becomes delirious with fever and Rose breaks down and pray to the almighty; the camera rises up to god’s point of view to show that they are, ironically, only a hundred yards away from the goal of their journey down the Ulanga River – the lake. And as if answering her prayers, Nature works its magic: During the night, clouds form and thunder rumbles. Large raindrops splat on white lilies and the storm quickly expands into a deluge (falling on jungle rivers, pink flamingoes, ducks, giraffes, hippos, lions, and a herd of bounding antelope). The drenching rain and windstorm raises the level of the foamy river, breaking down trees and carrying them along in its path. The rising current of water pushes the mired Queen free from her swampy grave onto the lake. They awaken and joyfully view the lake. They take in the African air, with different perspectives. Rose exclaims: “This air! Isn’t it wonderful?” Charlie replies: “Yeah, it’s like – I know you don’t approve, but it’s like a shot of gin. It makes your blood race, your face numb and your spirits soar.” Rose apologizes for pouring his gin out.
And then they both spot their target, the Louisa, on the horizon, headed straight for them. They make a run for it back into the camouflaging reeds. They immediately get to work: Charlie fashions some makeshift homemade torpedoes with detonators and inserts them through holes in the prow of the Queen, with the object of ramming the German warship. Charlie’s original idea is to leave Rose on the shore and take the Queen alone to ram the German ship. But Rose protests vehemently saying that they are going together, they get into an argument; their first ‘lover’s quarrel’ as Rose puts it. Finally, Charlie agrees that they will blow up the ship together: “All right. It’ll be you at the tiller and me at the engine, just like it was from the start.”, he says. They head for the gunboat to ram it under cover of darkness in an attempted night attack. But a raging storm arises and overturns and sinks their boat in the choppy water, and they become separated. Charlie is picked up by the German warship at dawn, and immediately brought to trial for being a spy. The German captain (Peter Bull) is exasperated and irritated with Charlie for lying and sentences him to death by hanging on the yardarm as a British spy; Believing that Rose has drowned, he makes no attempt to defend himself against accusations of spying. However, Rose is captured and brought to the ship just after Charlie’s sentence is pronounced. The captain questions her, and Rose confesses the whole plot proudly, deciding they have nothing to lose. The captain sentences her to be executed with Charlie, both as British spies. Charlie asks the German captain to marry them before executing them. After a brief marriage ceremony, and the nooses are tightened around their necks, an explosion disrupts their execution. The Louisa collides with their partly submerged Queen with their homemade torpedoes on its prow. The newly-married couple find themselves in the water as black smoke engulfs the Louisa: They have succeeded in their mission to destroy the German warship, and to their utter disbelief, both of them are still alive.
Charlie: What happened?
Rose: We did it, Charlie, we did it!
Charlie: But how?
Rose pulls over a piece of the wreckage floating in the water that shows the name African Queen. Charlie is impressed that they have accomplished their goal, and that they are man and wife – although he calls himself “an old married man.” They happily swim to safety singing the song: “There was an old fisherman...”
The African Queen is a deeply moving, marvelously funny, mature cinema experience and remains one of Kate and Bogart’s most unforgettable films, as well as one of their best performances. Together they created a kind of cinematic magic, their contrasting personalities cramming the film with one sharp scene after the other. That the film succeeds on so many counts: as an adventure story, as a romance, as a comedy and above all as a character piece, is down to a simple equation: a great story enlivened by great actors sparking off one another and a director keen enough to just let it flow. The great chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn (and between Bogart and director Huston), basically makes the film work. The film is complimented by a very fine music score by Allan Gray. The main themes are particularly good, but are often overtaken by various nature sounds or the boat’s noisy engine. John Huston had taken up the filming of The African Queen as a personal challenge to his masculinity, and wanted to do it the right way; on location in Africa. More than that, he wanted to use the opportunity to shoot an elephant. He was a close friend of Bogart and would make 6 films with him, including The Maltese Falcon, which launched Bogie to stardom. They had recently made Sierra Madre in Mexico, which proved to be a hellish shoot; The African Queen would top Sierra Madre in being a troubled production. Hollywood, at the time, was not used to extensive outdoor shooting schedules; most of the work were done in the studios, while a second unit would be send out to capture background mattes for back projection or for inserts. Huston was helped by the fact that this was an independent production helmed by the famous\notorious showman Sam Spiegel. Huston had hired the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff to shoot the movie. Before shooting began Bogie told Cardiff that the famous Bogart “lines and wrinkles” had been cultivated for years. “They are me,” he continued, “so don’t try to light them out.” Cardiff came through by showing Bogart in all his wrinkled glory. It was the first color film for both Kate and Bogie and it turned out to be a turning point for both of them, especially for Kate; the film showed Kate in her fiery-red hair and ash-gray eyes for the first time. This film helped change her sophisticated, society girl image, replaced forever by one of a more mature woman, a person who had the strength to endure the worst hardships and survive as ably as any man. She also proved that she could send sparks flying on screen with a leading man other than Spencer Tracy; As for Bogart, he finally won a much deserved Oscar, after being overlooked for such great performances in Casablanca and Sierra Madre.
The film has an interesting postscript: Peter Viertel, who wrote the film’s script with Huston, later wrote a novel called ‘White Hunter Black Heart“, which was made into a film by Clint Eastwood in 1990. It is a thinly disguised account of Viertel’s experiences while working on this classic film. The main character, brash director John Wilson who is obsessed with hunting an elephant, played by Eastwood, is based on John Huston, while Jeff Fahey‘s character Pete Verrill, was based on Viertel.