If ever there was a beautiful tale of the little guy making a big difference, The African Queen surely fits the bill. Shot in Technicolor, this 1951 adaptation of C.S. Forester’s novel of the same name is a gorgeous adventure in duty, struggle, and love when least expected. From the beautifully lush opening to the end scene, this film is full of the visual delights found on location in Africa, where the majority of the movie was filmed.
The setting is German East Africa in 1914. Rose Sayre (Katharine Hepburn) and her brother have been entrenched in the area for 10 years. Humphrey Bogart portrays Charlie Allnut, a gin-swilling riverboat captain that frequents their outpost with mail and provisions. Rose, upon hearing about the German ship, the Louisa, begins to concoct a plan to undermine the German’s hold on the area. She asks Charlie if he might be able to build a working torpedo. He readily agrees that he could, and Rose embroils them in a scheme to sink the Louisa and do their duty to their country and fellow man. Thus begins their (and our) adventure going down the river wild to meet the German vessel.
“Well, do so, Mr. Allnut.”
Once again, the story is made up of the chemistry between the leading actors, Hepburn and Bogart. Watching their on-screen performance, one would never guess that Hepburn was sick with dysentery throughout the shoot, and Bogart and director John Huston stayed soused on gin the entire time to prevent getting ill like everyone else. Oddly enough, Katharine loved Africa, even though very sick throughout the production; Bogie, on the other hand, hated every minute he was there and couldn’t wait to leave, even though accompanied by his wife, Lauren Bacall.
Charles Allnut is a rough-around-the-edges fellow who is fueled by gin at first, but soon begins to find himself motivated by his love for Rose Sayre. We watch him evolve from a man who has very few social graces into a man who has found a reason to be brave and noble in the face of adversity. We meet him at a sit-down with Rose and her preacher brother, at which his stomach growls so loudly that he repeatedly comments on it. As always, Bogart’s expressive face is invaluable as he reels off one-liners such as “Ain’t a thing I can do about it”, with a hang-dog look of apology at his hosts. As the journey goes on, we see him brighten and soften and become a happier – though dirtier – version of his old self. Love brings out in him the best, both in expression and in deed.
Rose Sayre could not have been adequately brought to life by any other actress of that time period. Katharine Hepburn had the refined speech and mannerisms, the delicate bone structure, and the steel spine needed to bring the “hero-wine” of the film to fruition. She also evolves as the journey progresses, starting out as a tight-laced missionary who barely cracks a smile, and ending up smiling and laughing and crying and living life to the fullest with her newly-found love. Watching her change in such a way is endearingly sweet, as is hearing her croon “Oh Charlie” in that voice only Kate was blessed with. Her delight when going over the rapids is also exuberating to the viewer, as her face is equally as expressive in joy as in distaste or sadness. She turns the tide for their journey when she dumps all of Allnut’s gin in the Ulanga-Bora River, much to his chagrin. But even though he protests, she carries on, knowing what is best for all parties involved. This is just one instance of her will carrying them through.
I won’t spoil the ending for you. I will simply encourage you to watch this film so that you too can enjoy the tale as it unfolds.Though not my favorite Bogart film, I can’t say this IS a Bogart film, really. Katharine Hepburn owns – and carries – as much of it as he does, if not more. I’ve come to love faces that express so perfectly the emotion needing to be conveyed, and Hepburn’s face is absolutely riveting in every scene. Bogie had his hands full during the production of The African Queen, and I believe it made a better film for all that.