By Joan Amenn
Not only a great film, but a great adventure in filmmaking, “The African Queen” (1951) is definitely not a conventional love story. John Huston packed up his cast and crew and headed off to deepest Africa to film his adaptation of the C.S. Forester novel and mayhem pretty much ruled from there. The many trials and tribulations nearly eclipse the film itself, which would not be fair to the perfect pairing of Kate Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
Set in September of 1914, the film opens with Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother, the Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley, and he is utterly devastating) running a mission church and community in Uganda. News of the outbreak of WW1 reaches them from their mail and delivery service in the person of Mr. Charlie Allnut (Bogart). Tragedy soon descends on the little mission, throwing Rose and Charlie together rather uncomfortably as they flee for their lives.
There is nothing romantic in their relationship at first. Hepburn is her usual brittle, imperious self but her eyes give her away when she is afraid or hurt. The real surprise here is Bogart playing against his own persona as a tough guy. Charlie is uncouth, unpolished and somewhat cowardly. Of course, Hepburn almost never played anyone who was wasn’t fearless (an exception being her lead role in “Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962).) Her Rose inspires Charlie to change for the better, sometimes because she doesn’t leave him any choice. Her method of curing him of overdrinking might have tempted another man to throw her over the side of the boat. And then there is the boat, the “African Queen” which Charlie clearly loves. Rose learns to love it too and the rivers of Africa that they travel on together. However, their growing bond leads them to increasing peril as they face one danger after another.
John Huston knew how to ratchet up suspense even as he let his co-stars banter with each other for comedic effect. Rose calls Charlie a coward and he fires back that she is a “skinny old maid.” Eventually, they learn to respect and trust one another. Rose becomes gentler and more appreciative of the beauty surrounding her that she never gave herself the chance to notice before. Charlie becomes if not heroic, resolved to a noble purpose. They both become greater together than they could have been apart as they plot to do what they can to strike back against the German enemy. If that is an indication of the power of love, than “The African Queen” is definitely a love story.
“The African Queen” won Bogart his only Oscar. His Charlie isn’t tough talking like Sam Spade or noble hearted under a mask of isolationism like Rick Blaine, but he is perhaps, more relatable than either of them. He is an Everyman thrust into an extraordinary situation who just happens to be lucky enough to have a good woman by his side to help him face it. They don’t come much better than Kate the Great.