The African Queen

Legend has it that humor wasn’t even on the menu before Bogie (if he was Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, here he is incorrigibly Bogie) got upstaged on his own deck by the snootish, bible-thumping Rosie. Katharine Hepburn showed up and reduced the part to herself, into a kind of Mrs. Roosevelt-on-safari that makes guiding the gin-swilling grinner less critical and nunnish and more like the aloof amusement of a put-out playmate. The balance defines and drives The African Queen, where the similar pairing in Rooster Cogburn (starring Hepburn opposite John Wayne) becomes a polemical slog. Hepburn’s ability under Huston to seem at once aloof and daring, reserved and risqué, would make Huston’s adventure worth the wild ride, even if it wasn’t this lush and fragrant anyway.

Huston’s Africa is atypically coarse for a 50s jungle flick, taking little of the predictably fluffy Americana from the road pictures or the pseudo-jive from the darker corners of post-colonialism (or the Weissmuller Tarzan films). There’s a tad of the Victorian verve, hardhats and adventurer’s spirit wot, but reality clings close to the unlikely couple as they drift on sepia tides in the unlikely tramp steamer. In place of the typical archetypes, leeches and drunken insults and crocodiles keep them accountable to their surroundings (and emotions). Movies of this kind had a habit of staging an adventure but keeping emotions safe and detached, with characters that went through the bother of dressing in jungle wear but without the bother of acting beyond their British parlors. The artificiality compounded with clear uses of matting and rear projection, natives with coconut bras, and Bob Hope. But here Huston aims at unprecedented realism in confecting a gritty jungle for his two stars to get entangled in, particularly in the unsightly pairing of the two leads themselves, who at first seem no more compatible than they really would be.

When WWI breaks out, Captain Allnut (Bogie) picks up perfidious spinstress Rosie (Hepburn) to take down the river with him, mostly out of pity. Early on she comes up with the grand idea to turn his ship, The African Queen, into an explosive projectile to be used against the German harbor patrol, a proposition he’s none too delighted by. He prefers to stay apolitical in matters that don’t concern him directly. As he refers to a building project, he says, “Don’t know what they wanted the bridge for, both sides of the river being the same.” Africa seems to support his hands-off approach to king and country and he likes it that way.

That the film isn’t simply Allnut’s reformation at the capable hands of a reverend’s sister is part of its secret appeal. In these old situations the perfectly moral route isn’t always the audience’s preference, and Bogie’s special brand of cockeyed sneering is less than righteous but helplessly loveable. Huston’s solution is to have both of them offer something to the other: she offers him the steady courage of a nationalist and he gives her the blood-thumping excess of an adventurer. When she dumps his gin in the river it’s not because she’s a Prohibition-era frump, but because she wants to see him for more than he is. When he banters against her propriety it’s not because he’s a brute, but because he starts to see the man that she sees as well.

Brilliantly, the critic James Agee, in adapting this script from a C.S. Forrester novel, doesn’t write these as lessons or leaps in character but as the emergent parts of each lover that the other draws out of hiding. They become retroactively perfect for each other. When Allnut says, “Well, Rosie, here we are, floating down the river like Anthony and Cleopatra on their barge,” it’s as if in the movie’s terms and in terms of The African Queen in the history of the adventure film, he is absolutely right. His podunk empress has a most ineffaceable grin about it.

The grimier these two get, the more regal they seem. Bouts with humor seem so natural that they never slip into the kooky road pictures’ habit of winking at the camera or shrugging to the filmic gods for writing them a zinger. Huston paces humor as spontaneous and subtle banter, smarter than he cares to convince anyone he is. Little moments canonize his balancing act: Hepburn struggling to climb back into the boat while clearly nude (though magically clothed in an undergarment when revealed), Bogie shaving just to spruce up that doggish mug for a passive aggressive confrontation at the impending wilderness teatime.

Two people whom you can hardly imagine being paired with anyone end up forcing you to try and imagine them with anyone else. Rosie, who keeps her eyes open when she kisses, is never so restrictive or snobbish that you take Allnut’s side, nor is he ever long enough without his snarky grin for you to fully take hers. Their love emerges about 45 minutes in where you’d expect it to take its sweet time till the end. Rosie and Allnut give the audience what it already knows will happen, and this gives the action dramatic stakes—where their affair would normally be inevitable and slow-moving, here it’s evident and consecrated. When the action sets in, it feels like they have everything to lose. The romance isn’t potential (indeed, the original script had a premarital consummation that the MPAA shot down but quick) but brought uncertainly into existence and thrown onto the frontline.

When she tells him, “You’re the greatest man that ever lived,” you believe how she sees him. In this way she gives us the essential Bogie, the dirty scamp that we inexplicably think is the singular romantic figure of the movies. The on-location filming, the raft disguised as a boat, the apparent real sickness of the whole cast and crew (save Bogie, appropriately fortressed by gin and emotional acidity) all do so much to make the film seem real that it’s disheartening to think how even the slightest mismanagement of the central pair could make all that reality seem just as unbelievable as one of the studio Tarzans. While not featuring the most fortified of movie heroes in terms of depth or intellect, The African Queen places their love so dearly at the center of their survival that the stakes in romantic adventures, particularly up to that time, have scarcely been higher.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

John Huston

John Huston (screenplay)

James Agee (screenplay)

Peter Viertel (screenplay)

John Collier (screenplay)

C.S. Forester (book)

Charlie Allnut Humphrey Bogart
Rose Sayer Katharine Hepburn
Rev. Samuel Sayer Robert Morley
Captain of the Konigin Luise Peter Bull
First Officer Theodore Bikel
Second Officer Walter Gotell
First Officer of Fort Shona Peter Swanwick

Official Trailer

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