1914: After Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) loses her brother to a fever, a boat captain called Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) offers her safe passage through the African terrain. Not satisfied with their running away, she persuades him to help her destroy a German gunboat. However, the two spend much of their time together arguing. Fighting each other rather than the Nazis, facing numerous dangers on their journey, like river rapids, poisonous leeches and their own differences of opinion. Their issues mixed with Rose’s obsession with killing the Nazis makes for strangely amusing bedside talk. And these are two people who rely on each other in every way possible.
The African Queen has lots of those adventure film tropes and cinematographer Jack Cardiff with director John Huston make it look like a documentary, but not a documentary. Much alike Attenborough’s documentaries, The African Queen is pure cinema and one of the most captivating love stories ever put to film. Through swamps and over rapids and into the clutches of Nazis, Bogey (Casablanca) and Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) have seen it all. Not to forget to mention those damn leeches. This film is an epic quest, an adventure for the ages and it’s the sort of story that has been told since the beginning of cinema but it’s truly its own beast.
Based on the novel by C.S. Forester, this is the tale of a straightforward steam captain (Bogart) and the well-to-do, Methodist, missionary spinster Rose Sayer (Hepburn). They’re put together by chance when Nazis invade Africa during the First World War. Once aboard his grubby boat, The African Queen, Charlie wants to do nothing more than go the opposite way to the Germans. He’s really quite happy to do this until the war is finished with. Rose, on the other hand, wants to do something that might make a difference. She wants to do something big and spectacular, some more than doing “her bit”. She wants to sail the boat downriver to face the Germans head on.
Filmed on location in the Congo, the cinematography (Jack Cardiff) is great without being overtly noticeable; the screenplay is subtle with a natural aura about it. Oscar-winners Bogart and Hepburn are really good in their roles too and their onscreen rapport with one another helps them in their performances. As an adventure film, it has a sense of realism that a lot of films of this kind don’t. As an analysis of class it is a reflection of the North-South divide (in a way) and as a love story it works well. Though, it’s often too sentimental but it’s still excellent and I can see why others would like the layered sentimentality. What’s best, is that anyone can watch this film. Even children can enjoy it.
Hepburn and Bogart carry The African Queen, as the plot revolves around the dialogue of two people on a thirty foot vessel. However, there are three characters. There’s Charlie, Rose and one more… Nature itself. Filming in the Congo helped to show Nature as a viable character. Is Mother Nature a villain? I wouldn’t say so. She doesn’t discriminate. Nature is what nature is. Sometimes she’s our friend but sometimes she’s not. But without the considerable acting chops of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn this film could have been reduced to a documentary-style drama on how Africa is a “savage land” and the Nazi occupation is terrorising the locals and the animals.
Both of our characters experience an epiphany. Charlie (Bogart) goes from being an apathetic man who has an addiction gin to a brave man who goes beyond the call of duty to help Rose. She allows her to look beyond the constraints of class. She grows to see herself and Charlie as human beings. And for this to happen she had to be vulnerable in a life-threatening situation. I think that because we have career actors in these roles, actors at the top of their industry here, The African Queen is as good as it could possibly be. Without that industry experience, it might have had a boring start with an unfathomable romance and an ending that would just seems outlandish.
The African Queen is one of the best love stories ever told. Many thanks to the cast, crew and the direction by John Huston and adapted to the screen by him and James Agee. This film is an acquired taste for sure and a product of the era it was made but it’s still a good time and a film that all the family can watch on a peaceful Sunday afternoon.