Director: John Huston
Screenwriters: James Agee, John Huston
Director of Photography: Jack Cardiff
Running time: 104 minutes
Today, John Huston’s African Queen might seem tame and innocent, but I can imagine that it was quite a different story when it was released in 1951. It tells the story of a very tightly wound church organist in German East Africa (present-day Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda), a woman named Rose Sayer, who in 1914, on the eve of the First World War, flees her small village in the jungle when the Germans are rounding up the villagers with a scorched earth policy, to turn them into soldiers and thus protect the area from outside forces.
The only way out is with Charlie Allnut, a Canadian mailman who is used to travelling from one village to the next on his little fishing boat, the “African Queen”. He is played by Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn stars as Rose Sayer. In the very first scene of the film, during a service at the church of Rose’s brother, it is made clear that Allnut and Rose are quite different. While she plays the organ, dressed like something out of a Victorian novel, and sings with her brother, who tries to conduct the congregation from the pulpit, the villagers merely mumble along. The service is crudely interrupted by the loud steam whistle of Allnut’s boat, and we see him interacting with the locals in their native tongue.
So, when these two board the same boat, it seems unlikely that it would be the start of a beautiful friendship. And yet, soon enough, we discover that they both have strong, assertive characters that are nonetheless willing to compromise and, most importantly, they are both very likeable. Rose refuses to stay hidden in the forest until the war is over and insists that they make their way downriver to a large lake, where they would blow up the “Louisa”, the German ship patrolling the body of water, and thus make their escape.
Much of the film was shot on location, a remarkable feat for the time – as it would still be today. The cinematography is gorgeous, as is to be expected from Jack Cardiff; the rivers are either sapphire blue or pitch black and the greens of the lush forest foliage are spectacular. For some of the more animated scenes on the river, such as those in which Charlie and Rose have to make their way across the rapids, rear projection was used, making for a less than credible combination of real and staged materials, but luckily these scenes are kept to a minimum. Rather, our attention is directed at Rose, who surprises (and is surprised herself at this revelation) with a genuine excitement at the dangers they face together: “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”
How she deals with the river and the quirks of her companion, especially his fondness for Gordon’s Gin, is entertaining because we like to see what conflict results from their inescapably intimate living conditions on the boat. While I didn’t much care for the brief scene in which they are apparently “drunk on love”, including Charlie’s imitation of the animals in and out of the water, their romantic camaraderie is rather affecting.
It was a pleasant surprise to find Peter Bull, who starred as the Russian Ambassador in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, as the German captain of the “Louisa”. His deadpan delivery of very contrasting ideas are hilarious and fit in superbly with the kind of humour that Hepburn and Bogart do so well and it is a testament to the acting ability of Hepburn and Bogart that they leisurely carry almost the entire film on their own.
With the exception of the rear projection, which is below par, as well as a scene in which the main characters are attacked by buzzing insects, both scenes visibly more defective because of the film’s use of colour, The African Queen receives full marks in every aspect of the film’s production and entertainment potential. Hepburn’s tongue is not as sharp as in some of her other films (such as Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story in particular), but while she certainly stands her ground against the dry wit of Humphrey Bogart, she does not overpower him, which makes the romantic union all the more convincing.