A spirited romantic adventure starring two of Hollywood’s biggest legends at their finest
“The African Queen” is an adventure film that crackles with magic. Surprises fill the screen from beginning to end as we watch the work of moviemakers at their best. From its description it would seem an unlikely classic – taking place almost entirely on a small boat with only two passengers played by movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn deliberately at their most unglamorous. But their overpowering charisma and spark-filled chemistry are so infectious they elevate this film firmly into the pantheon of classics. It was nominated for four Academy Awards (and won one), and has become so enduringly popular, in 1998 the American Film Institute named it the 17th Greatest American Movie of All-Time and the 48th Most Inspiring. It was also said to be (in part) Walt Disney’s inspiration for the Jungle Cruise attraction at the Disneyland Theme Park (which opened in 1955). Spellbinding and highly entertaining, this one is bound to leave a smile on your face.
It's a simple story: At the beginning of the First World War, “Charlie Allnut” (the gin-drinking Canadian skipper of a rickety, thirty-foot boat named the African Queen) finds himself alongside “Rose Sayer” (a spinsterly British missionary) in the wilds of German East Africa (the Belgian Congo). Hiding from the Germans aboard the African Queen, they plot to blow-up a German ship (the Luise) which is blocking their only path to freedom. That path happens to be down the remote, crocodile-filled Ulanga River, which flows past a German fort and includes dangerous rapids. A river with a reputation for being unnavigable, “Charlie” says their mission is one of suicide. What unfolds is the exciting and touching story of two misfits who have nothing in common, coming together and finding courage and love.
Just as the journey of “Charlie” and “Rose” is riddled with danger and hardships, so was the production of “The African Queen”. This film is a mighty reminder of the astonishing artfulness bestowed upon the people who made movies at the time. While fraught with chaos and adversity and isolated in the middle of a jungle, they still managed to produce a masterpiece. That includes its stars, who didn’t get a script until filming began (and even then it was unfinished), yet still delivered flawless performances.
This film was a British-American production spearheaded by independent producer Sam Spiegel (who appears in the credits as S. P. Eagle). A controversial force who could sell you ice in the winter, Spiegel asked director John Huston to choose a film he wanted to direct, and his answer was a screen adaptation of the 1935 C. S. Forester novel, “The African Queen”. Previous plans had been made to turn the novel into a movie (including one to star Bette Davis), but it took Spiegel’s drive to make a film version happen. Huston asked James Agee (a novelist, former film critic, and current freelance writer) to co-write the screenplay. While writing, Agee suffered a serious heart attack (though much of his work is in the film), and Peter Viertel took over and flew to Africa when filming began to co-write the final scenes with Huston. In 1953, Viertel published a thinly veiled account of his experience on the film in the novel, “White Hunter, Black Heart”, the story of a difficult filmmaker who goes to make a film in Africa, but is actually more interested in hunting elephants (the book was made into a Clint Eastwood film in 1990). Only Agee and Huston received film credit, and it earned them both Best Screenplay Academy Award nominations. Agee wrote only one other full screenplay in his short life, the 1955 classic, “The Night of the Hunter” (previously featured on this blog). Agee was married three times and died in 1955 at the age of 45 from a second, fatal heart attack. He posthumously received a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “A Death in the Family”, published in 1957.
Huston was intent on filming in Africa, and according to which stories you believe, it was because of his love of danger, his desire to have the film look realistic, his dream of hunting an elephant, or any combination of the three. The location proved to add tremendous authenticity to the film and enhance the performances of its stars, though it caused many difficulties. They filmed in remote African locations (Belgian Congo, Uganda, Lake Albert, Murchison Falls), having to travel via trains, cars, and boats to get to filming locations. And the film was shot in Technicolor, which required an enormous camera (about 4 feet by 2 feet). Pontoons were built to accommodate the camera, crew, props, costumes, and a private “bathroom” for Hepburn (which was quickly destroyed by low hanging bushes), all towed along in the water. An actual boat was used as the African Queen, and several moveable portions of the boat were reproduced on a large raft in order to shoot close-ups.
In her book, "The Making of The African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind”, Katharine Hepburn paints a telling picture of what filming was like: “We’d be going around a curve, and the raft would not follow around the curve but would continue in a straight line toward the bank and its dense overhanging foliage. John (Huston) would scream - Bogie (Bogart) and I would jump - and the boiler would be tipped over, or nearly. The canopy would be torn off. The camera or lamps or whatever, was caught by the overhanging shrubbery on the banks. Or we would be going along nicely - hit a submerged log and catch on it. Or the sun would go in. Or it would rain… Or the engine on the Queen would stop. Or one of the propellers would be fouled by the dragging rope. Or we would be attacked by hornets. Or a stray pirogue would suddenly appear in the shot. If it was a stationary shot there were many of the same problems but also the question of whether the sound had picked up the generator noise. Technical problems galore and no chairs - no dressing rooms - no toilet… The hysteria of each shot was a nightmare”.
Everyone got stricken with every imaginable sickness (including malaria) except for Bogart and Huston who drank whiskey instead of water. Hepburn got very ill twice. As she stated in a 1973 interview on “The Dick Cavett Show”: “The big joke was on me because I was rather self-righteous. And I thought, well, I’m traveling with two drunks, I better not drink anything. So I drank lots, lots of the water… Huston never got sick. Bogie never got sick. And I nearly died of the dysentery because the water was poison”. In addition to the heat and humidity, their makeshift living quarters were overrun with soldier ants, and one time everyone awoke to find the African Queen had sank overnight in the mud (it took two days to pull it out). Since one could get deathly ill from the bacteria in the rivers and lakes where they were filming, any shots of people in the water were filmed in a studio in England (as well as those on the German boat and those with Robert Morley who plays “Rose’s” brother).
If you want to understand what a director adds to a film you can easily see it in this film. With John Huston’s dexterity and colossal talent at film directing he knows what to show, when to show it, and how to show it in the clearest and most entertaining ways. A perfect example is the ever-so-fun scene in which “Charlie” awakens from a drunken stupor. As he sits up in the boat, the camera rises with him, revealing “Rose” in the background pouring his bottles of gin into the river. The way in which the camera reveals her actions make us as surprised as “Charlie”, though we laugh while he doesn’t. And at the end of the scene, Huston has the camera focus on the last bottle dropped into the water and again slowly pans up, revealing the large quantity of bottles “Rose" has emptied. From his choice of using simple, specific camera movements we feel surprise and humor while the drama is heightened.
Even with the film’s action and adventure, Huston never loses sight that the film's main focus is on “Charlie” and “Rose”. He was drawn to telling stories about outsiders and underdogs (one of his classics is even titled “The Misfits” - a film I previously wrote about), so “The African Queen” was right up his alley. He had established himself as a great writer/director with his first film, “The Maltese Falcon” in 1941, which earned him a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination. His 1948 masterpiece, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” further established him as a major film director, and won him two Academy Awards (one for Best Director and other for Screenplay). He earned two of his fifteen career Oscar nominations for “The African Queen” (Best Director and Best Screenplay alongside Agee). One of cinema’s premiere writers and directors, you can read more about John Huston in my posts on “The Maltese Falcon” and "The Misfits" (just click on the titles).
While many of the consummate technical aspects remain invisible, the performances by Bogart and Hepburn are noticeably staggering. Both were already accomplished actors and established movie stars in top form, and they flood their characters with personality and a magnetizing mix of humor and conflict. Watching polar opposites “Charlie” and “Rose” move from disagreeable to loving is in itself, sublime entertainment. The two have a gloriously odd electric chemistry, and during filming Hepburn and Bogart each brought humor to the script no one previously realized was there. Their mix on-screen becomes nothing short of a tour-de-force.
Humphrey Bogart is fantastic as “Charlie Allnut”, the somewhat mild-mannered captain of the African Queen. “Charlie” is warm, cheery, and just an average Joe with a taste for liquor. We clearly see his class divide with “Rose” at the beginning of the film in laughable displays of discomfort while “Charlie’s” stomach loudly rumbles over tea with her brother. It’s a funny scene that sets the stage for a somewhat comedic film, and gives us a complete glimpse at both character’s personalities. Bogart imbues “Charlie” with a sweet and tender side, which we as he first arrives at the church and again when he asks “Rose” to join him on the Queen. Even when “Charlie” occasionally mocks “Rose”, Bogart does it with such finesse it is funny without a shred of meanness. Words and emotions roll out of Bogart so naturally and casually, his performance is a pure joy to behold and one can’t imagine any other actor inhabiting this role so fully. He lights up the screen every time he appears.
After becoming pigeonholed as cinema’s new type of tough guy, the role of “Charlie” afforded Humphrey Bogart a change of pace and the opportunity to play a down and out, soft, vulnerable gent. It turned out to be a blatant reminder that he was more than simply a movie star. Bogart was a serious and talented actor, and Hepburn described him as one of the few men she ever knew who was proud of being an actor. While he gave many superb performances in his illustrious career, this one may be his best, and for it he earned his only Academy Award (for Best Actor), beating the likes of Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire”, Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun”, and Fredric March in “Death of a Salesman”. This was Bogart’s second of three Oscar nominations (the other two were for 1942’s “Casablanca” and 1954’s “The Caine Mutiny”). His devoted wife, actress Lauren Bacall accompanied him to Africa, and she ended up becoming a huge asset to the production, cooking and taking care of the cast and crew as they each got sick. It’s a treat to watch Bogart and Hepburn in the only film they made together. They were each voted the #1 male and female Greatest American Screen Legends by the American Film Institute. “The African Queen” was Bogart’s fifth appearance in a film directed by Huston, out of a total of six. You can read more about Humphrey Bogart in two previous posts: “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon”.
Katharine Hepburn is eminently compelling as “Rose Sayer”, the strait-laced, strict schoolmarm-type, missionary. From her enthusiasm while playing the organ to a congregation of bewildered locals to the prim and proper way she interacts with her brother and “Charlie”, we can see “Rose” is a woman lacking in humor, and ignorant of the world outside her puritan upbringing. And the fact that she is a missionary in the middle of nowhere and has been in Africa for ten years tells us she is brave and strong. With all of this hardness, Hepburn keeps "Rose" thoroughly interesting, and like Bogart has the ability to make you care. “Rose” becomes a fully formed woman with a tough prudish exterior and a very human interior. Watch the brilliant little bits of business Hepburn does while trying to nervously compose herself when “Charlie” returns to check on her and her brother after the Germans have left. She oozes vulnerability.
At its heart, “The African Queen” is a love story of transformation, and Hepburn’s amazing performance is key to its success. This icy woman slowly softens and melts as she travels downriver experiencing the world for the first time, a metamorphosis that Hepburn makes tantalizingly believable. As mentioned above, she was ill twice during the shoot, and while filming the film’s opening (playing the organ), she was vomiting between takes. Like her fellow cast and crew, she was adroit and professional at what she did, and no one can tell the challenges she endured by watching her performance. Huston took her aside at the beginning and mentioned how her naturally turned-down mouth and hollow cheeks can make her look serious. He asked if she had seen newsreels of Eleanor Roosevelt visiting soldiers in the hospitals, and she had. That’s all he said, and then he walked away. From that Hepburn instantly discovered the character of “Rose”, and later commented “That was the goddamnedest best piece of direction I have ever heard”. She earned her fifth Best Actress Academy Award nomination for “The African Queen” out of twelve career nominations (and four wins - a record for actors and actresses that still stands as of the writing of this post). This film marked a new period in Hepburn’s career. It was her first film in color, her first and only with Bogart and Huston, and her first to play a middle-aged spinster type (which she continued to play in other notable films including “Summertime”, “The Rainmaker”, and "Suddenly, Last Summer”). I have written more about the life and career of Katharine Hepburn in my posts on “The Philadelphia Story” and “Bringing Up Baby”. Please check them out.
Robert Morley play “Reverend Samuel Sayer”, brother of “Rose”. He is seen at the beginning of the film, and from his brief appearance seems to be even more rigidly uptight than his sister. He isn’t given a lot of screen time, but definitely adds a bit of humor and insight into “Rose’s” life. English born Robert Morley was perfectly cast, as he was a well-known character actor who often played eccentric, conservative, and/or pompous type British gentlemen. He began his career on the London stage followed by Broadway, and continued to work in both countries during his sixty-plus year career. His first film appearance was in an uncredited role in the 1935 British film “Scrooge”, and his second was as “King Louis XVI” in the 1938 Hollywood film “Marie Antoinette”, for which he earned his one and only Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actor). In addition to stage and film work, he also sporadically appeared on television beginning in the 1950s. From his well over 100 film and TV credits, other notable films include "The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan", "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines", "Hotel Paradiso", "Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?", and the 1953 Huston cult classic, “Beat the Devil”, also starring Bogart. He was married once, to Joan Buckmaster (the daughter of actress Dame Gladys Cooper) for over fifty years, until his death. Robert Morley died in 1992 at the age of 84.
I’ll also briefly point out Theodore Bikel who makes a fleeting appearance as the “First Officer" on the Luise. It was his first credited film role, and he would go on appear in over 150 films and TV shows including "My Fair Lady", "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming", "I Want to Live!", and his Best Supporting Academy Award nominated performance in "The Defiant Ones”. Born in Austria, he and his family fled the Nazis (they were Jewish), and ended up in Mandatory Palestine. After working in an Israeli theater company and then studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, he moved to the United States in 1954. Also a singer and composer, he recorded almost two dozen albums of folk songs in twenty-one different languages. He is perhaps best known in the US for touring as “Tevye” in the stage musical, “Fiddler on the Roof” beginning in 1969, and holds the record for playing that role more than any other actor (he also played “Tevye” in his stage debut as a teenager in Israel). Bikel also originated the role of “Captain von Trapp” in the Broadway musical, “The Sound of Music”. He was a longtime civil and human rights activist. He was married four times. Theodore Bikel died in 2015 at the age of 91.
The cinematography for “The African Queen”, was by none other than Jack Cardiff, widely regarded as cinema’s greatest color cinematographer, and the foremost Technicolor expert. He managed to capture massive trees, lush foliage, dark water, and wildlife in a real jungle, and keep it looking like a real jungle even when set against Hepburn and Bogart. Cardiff brought two lights and a generator with him into the African bush to make sure he could get what he wanted in both sun and shade, and the film’s light and color are gorgeous. “The African Queen” was digitally restored in 2010, and the new print looks beautiful. Be sure to watch that version. You can read more about Jack Cardiff in my post of “The Red Shoes”.
This lighthearted adventure classic will lift the sprints of people of all ages. It is immensely captivating, and a grand opportunity to see the work of masters both in front and behind the camera. Enjoy “The African Queen”!
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