The African Queen

Released:  1951

Cast:  Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley

Oscar Wins:  Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Best Adapted Screenplay (James Agee, John Huston), Best Director (John Huston)

SUMMARY:  In the fall of 1914, British missionaries Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his sister Rose (Katharine Hepburn) are stationed in Kungdu, in German East Africa.  Their only communication with the world outside their village is Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a Canadian boat captain who delivers mail and supplies.  It is through Charlie that they Sayers learn of the outbreak of WWI, and that Germany and Britain are enemies.  Despite the news, they decide to stay in Africa.  A short time later, German soldiers enter the village and burn it down, while either arresting or scaring all of the villagers away.  When Samuel confronts one of the soldiers, he is hit in the head with a rifle; this soon turns ino a more serious illness, and Samuel dies.  The same day of his death, Charlie returns to the village and offers to take Rose to safety.  After burying Samuel, the two set off down the river in Charlie’s 30-foot boat, the African Queen.  The two have a rather hostile relationship, as Charlie sees Rose as too prim and proper, and she hates his rough manners.  When Charlie reveals that British troops cannot get into the area because it is being blocked by a German gunboat called the Louisa, Rose decides that they should convert the African Queen into a giant torpedo, and ram it into the German ship.  Charlie vehemently opposes this plan for several reasons:  the river is considered un-navigable, and has several stretches of dangerous rapids; there is also a German fort along the way, in addition to the problem of approaching the German ship and making it out alive.  He voices all of these concerns, but Rose insists on her plan, and eventually Charlie agrees.  He expects Rose to give up after going through the first (and easiest) set of rapids:  to his surprise (and her own), Rose is energized by them, and her enthusiasm for the plan only increases.  However, when the boat goes past the German fort, the soldiers begin firing on the pair, and damage the ship’s boiler.  Charlie manages to do a temporary fix, but the boat then hits the second, more severe, set of rapids.  The boat takes on a considerable amount of water, but makes it through.

Charlie and Rose are thrilled, and in their excitement end up kissing each other.  They try to pass it off as heat of the moment, but both quickly realize that something more serious is going on.  Some time later, they encounter the third and final set of rapids, and this time, they are not so lucky.  While they make it through, the boat’s propeller has lost a blade, and the propeller shaft is bent.  However, working together Charlie and Rose are able to mend the shaft and propeller, and keep moving.  After the final set of rapids, the river turns into a maze of small channels, and the African Queen becomes lost.  Charlie and Rose are unable to find their way through the swamp-like environment, and are forced to muscling the boat through:  first by poling, then by pulling the boat.  While in the water towing the boat, Charlie gets covered in leeches, and that night he develops a fever.  Both he and Rose finally admit that they are hopelessly lost, and out of supplies; that night, Rose prays that they are let into Heaven before falling asleep.  That night, a huge rainstorm floods every waterway in the area, and raises the channel enough to float the boat out.  When they wake up, Charlie and Rose find that they were extremely close to the lake where the Louisa is stationed, and that the overnight rains have pushed them onto the lake.  They use all of the materials on the boat, including oxygen cylinders and gelatin explosive, to make torpedoes, which they position in holes cut into the side of the boat.  They plan to steer the African Queen directly at the German ship, then jump off and swim to safety as the torpedoes explode.  Unfortunately, a storm pops up that night, and water comes into the Queen through the torpedo holes.  Despite their attempts to bail out the water, the boat eventually sinks, leaving Charlie and Rose stranded in the water; because of the storm, they are soon separated.  Charlie is fished out by the Germans and questioned.  He believes that Rose drowned, and so makes no attempt to fight the accusations of spying the Germans level at him.  The captain of the boat then sentences him to hang.  Just then, Charlie sees another group of Germans approaching with Rose in tow.  Charlie tries to protect Rose, but she decides to reveal their plot, since there is nothing left to lose.  She is then also sentenced to hang, but before the sentence is carried out, Charlie asks the captain to marry them.  Unbeknownst to everybody, the African Queen has managed to float back to the surface (it flipped over).  Just as the Germans prepare to hang the pair, the Louisa hits the Queen, which explodes; the German ship then sinks.  Charlie and Rose are launched into the lake, and happily start swimming to safety on the Belgian side of the lake.

MY TAKE:  If anybody could take on the Germans and come out on top, it’s Katharine Hepburn:  that she’s paired with Bogey makes it that much better.  It’s a little bit different movie, in that both main characters were older that typical headliners:  Bogey was in his early 50s, and Hepburn was in her mid-40s.  Again, though, who could resist seeing the two of them together?  Bogey holds his own against Hepburn, and was rewarded with the only Oscar of his career.  Some of the best aspects of Hepburn’s personality come out in the movie, like her determination and persistence, which you can see in her desire to follow through with the plan, and particularly when she’s helping to pole the boat down the river.  I did find it amusing that Charlie thought she drowned during the storm, but that was because I knew Hepburn was a terrific swimmer.  Maybe Rose wasn’t.  A lot of the film was shot on location in Africa, which makes for terrific scenery.  The water scenes, particularly the boat going through the rapids, are also fun, and really make it an adventure movie.  It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s entertaining.  However, the movie has also become famous for the behind-the-scenes stories that go along with it.  Humphrey Bogart was married to Lauren Bacall at the time (there’s actually a bunch of pictures of her on set), and she actually went with him on location; apparently she acted as “den mother” for the cast and crew, cooking and keeping camp.  This is also when she and Hepburn developed their life-long friendship.  Bogey claimed that he avoided getting any diseases by only drinking whiskey that he had brought with him; he was frequently joined in this habit by director John Huston.  Hepburn tried to show them up by only drinking water, but eventually did become ill.  In the scene at the beginning of the movie when she’s playing the organ, there was apparently a bucket hidden nearby, because she kept puking — no wonder she looks uncomfortable in the scene.  She loved it in Africa, but apparently this sentiment was not shared by Bogey.  He also must have hated leeches, because he insisted that rubber leeches were used in the boat-towing scene.  They had a leech-breeder on set, and it’s actually this man’s chest you see in the close-up shot.  Speaking of John Huston, his daughter, actress Anjelica Huston, was born while he was in Africa shooting this movie:  he learned about her birth by telegram.

RATING:  Great stars, fun adventure.



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