Crocodiles, tsetse flies, mechanical difficulties, African rains and burning sun, sickness, an erratic helmer — all these and more plagued the shooting of The African Queen, no less than the onscreen journey of the African Queen down the Ulonga–Bora River during the first World War.
Other than the absence of hostile German troops in Africa circa 1950, the harrowing journey of the eponymous tramp steamer was mirrored by the legendary hardships faced by the production filming on location in the Congo. Even director John Huston often seemed more interested in safari hunting than making a picture.
Back in civilization, the shoot was thought to be as quixotic and doomed to failure as the self-appointed mission of the two protagonists to make their way down notoriously unnavigable waterways and take on a strategically significant German gunboat with only makeshift explosives.
Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn were both getting past their prime, he playing a seedy river rat named Charlie Allnut, she playing a prim missionary spinster named Rose Sayer. “Two old people going up and down an African river” was British producer Alexander Korda’s withering assessment of the premise. “Who’s going to be interested in that?”
Yet against all odds the mission ends in triumph. With its canny blend of adventure, humor, romance, spectacle, and great performances from its two stars, Huston’s adaptation of the 1935 novel by C. S. Forester has remained an enduring favorite for nearly six decades.
The film starts a bit unevenly with a couple of unnecessarily drawn-out scenes early on at the expense of Rose’s genteel English sensibilities. The opening scene lingers on Rose and her clerical brother, Methodist missionaries to a tribe of East African converts, struggling through a pump-organ rendition of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” while their flock drones on uncomprehendingly. Then the missionary siblings squirm through an afternoon tea with Allnut while his stomach growls so ungraciously that he begins cheerily joking about it.
Both Rose and her brother, the film implies, are on the mission field because they were each washouts of a sort — he lacking the academic achievement for a vicarage in England, she “not comely among the maidens” and failing to land a husband. This rather dim assessment is partly balanced by making Allnut also a washout — a passive, underachieving boozer who has to be goaded into his finest accomplishment — as well as by the unexpected toughness and spirit that Rose exhibits when, deprived of her brother and thrown in with Allnut, she strikes on a plan to take part in the war effort.
Rose proves to be more than Allnut’s equal, and neither his protestations of the difficulties nor his pleas of human weakness after getting drunk one evening impress her. “Nature, Mr. Allnut,” she declares, “is what we are put in this world to rise above.” Her spiritual fervor in the first act is matched by the excitement with which she greets the dangers of the journey and by her determination to succeed in spite of all obstacles.
Whether or not the movie sees her adventure as the liberation of a repressed soul, Rose doesn’t seem to feel that she herself has changed in any fundamental way. Still, for a tale of a devout woman of religious commitment and an unrefined but capable man thrown together during wartime, cut off from civilization and surrounded by water, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison has a more thoughtful take, with its contrasting characters rooted in different worlds (but not altogether different) and different forms of service.
Rose and Charlie’s opposites-attract chemistry is a big part of The African Queen’s appeal, so it’s a bit surprising (and not altogether convincing) that the film allows their mutual resistance to be so easily and quickly overcome. Still, Bogey and Kate, working together for the only time in their careers, are so appealing and comfortable in their roles that they sell it easily. Bogey does some of his best work in the role that won him his only Academy Award, and Hepburn manages the tensions of a difficult character’s various facets with panache.
Meanwhile, the scenery is constantly changing and there’s always something worth looking at. There’s a nice bit toward the end when the couple have come to the end of their rope, and providence lends a hand (or two). The last act is terrifically exciting, with a brilliantly nonchalant climax and Peter Bull’s German captain’s classic line right at the end — a perfect ending to a highly entertaining film.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.