The African Queen (1951)
The African Queen (1951) is the uncomplicated tale of two companions with mismatched, "opposites attract" personalities who develop an implausible love affair as they travel together downriver in Africa around the start of World War I. This quixotic film by director John Huston, based on the 1935 novel of the same name by C. S. Forester, is one of the classics of Hollywood adventure filmmaking, with comedy and romance besides. It was the first color film for the two leads and for director Huston.
The acting of the two principal actors - Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn - is some of the strongest ever registered on film, although this was their first and only pairing together. They portray an unshaven, drinking and smoking captain of a cranky tramp steamer, and a prissy and proper, but imperious and unorthodox WWI-era African missionary spinster. [This was 44 year-old Hepburn's first screen appearance as a spinster, and marked her transition to more mature roles for the rest of her career. At 52 years of age, Bogart was also past his prime as a handsome, hard-boiled detective.] John Mills, David Niven, and Bette Davis were, at one time, considered for the lead roles.
During the course of many hardships and quarrels along a course filled with tropical dangers and 'evil' Germans in a warship, they develop a hard-earned love and respect for each other. The real prize and goal of their water journey down the Ulonga-Bora, other than the destruction of a German boat, is to overcome the various psychological obstacles that stand between them.
[There is a remarkable resemblance between Disneyland's 'Jungle Cruise' attraction and this film. A 1977 TV remake starred Warren Oates and Mariette Hartley. In 1987, Hepburn wrote a pungent account of her experiences during the shoot in her first book, The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. Actor-director Clint Eastwood also chronicled the making of the film in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), basing it on Peter Viertel's 1953 account of his experiences making the film and working on James Agee's script with John Huston.]
Directed on location (on the Ruiki in the then Belgian Congo and the British protectorate of Uganda) by John Huston (it was his ninth feature film and fifth film with Bogart), the film was nominated for four Academy Awards - Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Best Screenplay (James Agee and John Huston), Best Director, and Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart). Bogart was the only one to win - the film's sole Oscar. In hindsight, Bogart's award (his sole career Oscar) was probably consolation for the oversight he experienced three years earlier when he wasn't even nominated for one of his best roles as Fred C. Dobbs in Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).The Story
Credits for the film are displayed atop a view of the blue, cloud-filled sky through the canopy of the rain forest. The camera tracks along the crown of the trees and then slowly moves downward to a shot of thatched rooftops in a native village. One of the buildings has a cross at the pinnacle of a steeple - a title card reads: "GERMAN EAST AFRICA, September, 1914." From a closer angle, the camera again descends from the cross into the doorway where an engraved stone panel identifies the site: 1st METHODIST CHURCH KUNG DU. Inside the mission church, stuffy English missionary Rev. Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his prim, repressed, spinster sister Rose Thayer (Katharine Hepburn) lead the church service.
Utterly devoted to her brother, high-collared, fervent, perspiring Rose pedal-pumps and plays the organ to assist the uncomprehending natives in noisy, atonal hymn singing - in the semi-comic scene. Above the sound of the voices inside, the sharp sound of a steamboat's whistle is heard to announce its arrival. A gin-drinking, cigar-smoking, uncouth drifter named Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), the owner of the squat, 30-foot ramshackle supply launch steamer, The African Queen, arrives on his up-river rounds to deliver supplies, mail and news to the isolated village.
A grubby, seedy-looking Charlie observes the out-of-place British couple in the mission leading the service. Representing the secular and carnal world, he discards his stogie absent-mindedly on the ground outside. [A similar scene involving another cast-off cigarette by Bogart opens The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).] The black natives enthusiastically rush to pick up the discarded item, causing a commotion and distracting them from the seriousness of their singing and religious endeavor. He is invited to share afternoon tea with the missionary couple. As they walk inside, the simple-minded Charlie brags: "There ain't nobody in Africa except yours truly who can get up a good head of steam on the old African Queen."
In a humorous scene again illustrating their personality, spiritual and social differences, the very-very stuffy English pair, primly starched and dressed, ignore his embarrassing and uncontrollable stomach growls and gurgles as the Reverend notices an advertisement in a newspaper he is reading for "Page Woodcock's Wind Pills" - the perfect antidote for Charlie's indigestion and liver complaints. He daintily sips tea with his grimy hands and tries to apologize but only makes things worse: "Just listen to this stomach of mine. Way it sounds, you'd think I had a hyena inside me...Ain't a thing I can do about it." The Sayers continue on with their restrained parlor room conversation and disregard his down-to-earth comments.
Before Charlie leaves and continues on his journey, he warns them that he may not be around for a few months on his regular route delivering mail or supplies, alarming them with the news of the start of a European war between Germany and England. Rose and Rev. Samuel fear being middle-class English colonialists - alien foreigners ("enemy aliens") in German East Africa. Charlie doesn't believe they will be affected by the conflict in their out-of-the-way location. Defensive and corrective, Rose is faithful and confident that they will be safe:
Charlie: What harm could anyone do the Germans in this god-forsaken place?
Rose: God has not forsaken this place, Mr. Allnut, as my brother's presence here bears witness.
Charlie: Oh, no offense, Miss.
Rev. Sayer: War.
Charlie: Yeah, yeah it looks like it.
On second thought, Rose wonders whether they should try to reach refuge in the city while they can. But her brother believes "a good shepherd doesn't desert his flock when the wolves are prowling." They kneel to utter a self-important prayer together: "We must ask the Almighty to bless the arms of England to carry her through her hour of triumph."
Soon after Charlie's tug is seen leaving, a platoon of German troops (led by two white German-speaking officers and a group of black soldiers) marches into the mission village. Without any warning, they invade and burn the huts and the church to the ground. Samuel protests the destruction: "What's the meaning of this outrage? How dare you?" He is dealt a blow to the head from a rifle butt. The natives are rounded up and herded off as forced soldiers or slave laborers.
A distraught Rose helplessly watches as her shattered, fragile older brother deliriously suffers a fever and nervous breakdown. The shock of seeing his life's work destroyed causes him to lose his mind. He remembers that he volunteered as a missionary because he had no facility with languages of Greek and Hebrew and failed the exams. He cruelly appraises the comeliness and insignificance of his sister as his accompanying servant to Africa, while she tends to his perspiring forehead:
Not comely among the maidens, but she too can be a servant in the House of the Lord. Even for such as she, God has a goodly purpose.
He dies shortly afterwards (off-screen) one morning. When the grizzled Charlie returns the day of his death, he learns that Rose's village has been devastated and that her brother has expired ("They didn't shoot him, Mr. Allnut, but they may as well have done"). He offers to promptly bury her brother ("What with the climate and all, the quicker we get him under the ground the better..."), rescue her and take her downriver from the now-dangerous territory to civilization.
Along with her as additional freight, Charlie explains that he must also escape with the battered African Queen, since his cargo includes blasting gelatin, and cylinders of oxygen and hydrogen. Charlie is content to sit out the war in the sanctuary of the quiet backwater and not go anywhere to escape detection. He believes they have plenty of supplies to last a long while:
Charlie: So far so good. Here we are safe and sound, as you might say. The question is, 'What next?'
Charlie: We've got heaps of grubs here, Miss. We're all right as far as that goes. 2,000 cigarettes, 2 cases of gin. Ha, ha. We could stay here for months if we wanted to. It's not a bad place to sit out a war...All the comforts of home including running water.
Rose: We simply can't remain here in this backwater until the war is over, Mr. Allnut.
Charlie: Can't we, Miss? You got the map. Show me a way out and I'll take it. (He dangles a cigarette from his lower lip.)
Rose: The British will certainly launch an attack. The only question is which way will they come.
Their escape route seems impossible anyway - the large Central African lake at the end of the dangerous and treacherous connecting river, the Ulanga and Bora Rivers - is patrolled by a large German warship, the 100-ton steamer, the Louisa. "She's the boss of the lake 'cause she's got a six pounder...the biggest gun in Central Africa." Before the lake, the Germans occupy a fort overlooking the river at Shona, and all along the way there are treacherous rapids:
Charlie: Rapids. A hundred miles of water like it was coming out of a fire hose. And after that, why, the rivers even got a different name. It's called the Bora. That goes to show ya. They didn't even know it was the same river until this fella Spengler got...
Rose: He got down it, I remember.
Charlie: Well, yes, Miss, in a dugout canoe. He had a half a dozen Swahili paddlers. Map makin' he was. That was his map you was looking at.
Rose: Mr. Allnut?...What did you say is in these boxes with the red lines on them?
Charlie: Well them? That's blastin' gelatine, Miss.
Rose: Is it dangerous?
Charlie: Bless you, no, Miss. That's safety stuff, that is. You can get it wet and it don't do it any harm. You set fire to it and it just burns. You can hit it with a hammer and it won't go off - at least I don't think it will. It takes a detonator to set it off. I'll put it over the side, though, if it worries you.
Rose: No, we may want it. Mr. Allnut?...What are these long, round, torpedo-like things?
Charlie: Oh them? Them's oxygen and hydrogen cylinders, Miss.
Rose: Mr. Allnut?
Charlie: (smugly) I'm still right here, Miss. There ain't much of any other place I could be on a thirty-foot boat, ha, ha, ha.
Rose: You're a machinist, aren't you? I mean, wasn't that your position at the mine?
Charlie: Yes, a kind of a fixer. A jack of all trades, a master of none, like they say.
Rose: Could you make a torpedo?
Charlie: How's that, Miss?
Rose: Could you make a torpedo?
Charlie: A torpedo?...You don't really know what you're askin'. You see, there ain't nothin' so complicated as the inside of a torpedo. It's got gyroscopes, compressed air chambers, compensating cylinders...
Rose: (unperturbed) But all those things, those gyroscopes and things, they're only to make it go, aren't they?
Charlie: Yeah. Yeah, go and hit what it's aimed at.
Rose: Well, we've got The African Queen.
Charlie: How's that, Miss?
The intrepid, strong-willed Rose develops a brave plan and becomes possessed and determined to carry out the daring scheme to take action against the Germans - to travel on the Ulanga and Bora Rivers to take them to the lake where they can destroy the German gunboat that controls access to central Africa, using the explosives he has on board:
If we were to fill those cylinders with that blasting gelatine and then fix them so that they would stick out over the end of the boat, and then run the boat against the side of a ship, they would go off just like a torpedo, wouldn't they?...We could, what do you call it, get a good head of steam up, and then point the launch toward a ship and just before she hits, we could dive off. Couldn't we?
She has little interest, concern or awareness of the challenges they face, and doesn't want to just sit out the war. Charlie objects to her hair-brained, suicidal scheme:
Charlie: There's only one little thing wrong with your idea. There ain't nothin' to torpedo.
Rose: Oh yes there is.
Charlie: There's what?
Rose: Something to torpedo.
Charlie: What's that?
Rose: The Louisa.
Charlie: The Louisa! Oh now, don't talk silly, Miss. You can't do that. Honest you can't. I told you before, we can't get down the Ulanga!
Rose: Spengler did.
Charlie: In a canoe, Miss.
Rose: If a German did it, we can do it, too.
Charlie: Not in no launch, Miss.
Rose: How do you know? You've never tried it.
Charlie: I never tried shooting myself in the head, neither. The trouble with you, Miss, is, you, you don't know anything about boats!