The African Queen (1951)

Directed by John Huston.

If you are a fan of Humphrey Bogart and have only seen films the likes of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep, then you owe it to yourself to see The African Queen for many reasons. Those previous three films are three of my absolute favorite films, all due to Bogart's spellbinding performances as Rick Blaine, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlow, respectively. While each of those performances are different and fun to watch, they all kind of fall into the same category of a blunt, witty, alcoholic, emotionally wounded man with a hard exterior and a soft interior, all men "who stick their neck out for nobody" (-Casablanca). But The African Queen is a different story.

Bogart: A changed man.

Set during the beginning of the First World War, it follows two opposing characters: Bogart's dirty, alcoholic riverboat captain Charlie Allnut, and Katharine Hepburn's prim and gorgeous Christian missionary, Rose Sayer. Together they journey down the Ulana River in the Congo, and Rose convinces Charlie to use his boat to torpedo a German gunboat stationed down-river. While the gun-boat is the mission, the focus of the film is the developing relationship between the two stars. At first clashing, mostly over Charlie's alcoholism (solved by Rose pouring out 15 bottles of gin into the river), they grow to like each other, and eventually love each other. They also learn a lot and push each other to do things outside of their comfort zones.

Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut.

While Hepburn's Rose is at first quite high maintenance seeming, she quickly shakes that and gets involved in the operation of the boat. She, at first quite hesitantly, takes the tiller, and before they know it she is helming the small steam boat over the rapids. While she retains some of her ladylike behaviour and her love of afternoon tea, she steps it up and helps Charlie fix the propeller (underwater), and gets out to wade in leech-infested waters beside Charlie as they pull the small boat through a particularly thick bit of reeds.

In the reeds.

Bogart's performance as Charlie is just as interesting. I'm pretty sure that this is the first film I've ever seen with Bogart in colour, everything else has been in glorious black and white. It's neat to see him in technicolour though, and in a way it helps set aside his legendary noir roles of the 1940s. Charlie is generally a happy person, he's not consumed by a broken heart like Rick Blaine, he carries no chip on his shoulder like Sam Spade or Philip Marlow, and he is not consumed by greed like Dobbs of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Instead, this is a slightly older Bogart, a slightly more mature and content Bogart. He's found a place that he loves (Africa), he's found a way of life he is happy with, and now he's found a companion in Rosie. There is something more positive, more upbeat about this character. Even when he has the occasional angry outburst (as Bogart is so good at), it doesn't seem as seething, and seems to pass more quickly. This is probably due to the character of Charlie Allnut being a Canadian!

The African Queen: the little boat that could!

Aside from a handful of very peripheral characters, the film is carried by it's two stars, as well as the river. Much of the film was shot on location in the Belgian Congo in the early fifties and it sounds like it was quite a shoot. This was the time of the communist witch hunt and the Hollywood blacklist era, and director John Huston, Bogart, and Hepburn, all being rather left-leaning, decided it would be a good idea to get out of dodge for a little while and left for Africa to take on this incredible project. The crew literally drifted down the river on a assembly of rafts and barges for weeks, and faced the real challenges of Africa: Malaria, wild animals, insects, food poisoning.

On set. Apparently director John Huston, with rifle, really wanted to shoot an elephant.

The "Making of" on the DVD shows how while Hepburn was extremely high maintenance and had her own personal WC raft, Bogart was the opposite; during down time he would find a quiet place and lay down for a nap in the shade, wherever he was out of the way. Having worked on set as a PA, part of me appreciates this! Actors, and even low-level ones on Movies-of-the-week are often whisked away back to their trailer when there is the slightest amount of down time. Real stars, like Bogart, are there to do their job, and that is to act, not to tax the film crew with unnecessary duties! Bogart's wife, and movie star in her own right, Lauren Bacall was also on set the whole time. While you would think that she would fall into the Hepburn category of maintenance, she actually was more like Bogart. Like being on a working boat, Bacall understood that if she were to occupy a place there she had to make herself useful, and useful she was, acting as cook and nurse, taking care of those who were sick and wherever else she was needed. Props to Bacall!

Behind the scenes: Bacall (centre) makes sandwiches for the crew.

Down-time: Hepburn, Bacall, Bogart.

So go rent (or borrow from the library, like I did!) The African Queen for a number of reasons:
-Bogart, Hepburn (in their only film together), and the Belgian Congo in beautiful Technicolour
-Bogart as a Canadian!
-It's a major part of the extensive collaborations between Bogart and director John Huston (also including The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Beat the Devil, Across the Pacific, and Key Largo).


  1. Great review of "The African Queen".
    I love the chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart.
    Too bad they didn't make more films together.
    I think Bogie would have been much better in "Pat and Mike" with Hepburn than Spencer Tracy was.

  2. Thank-you! Yeah, it is a great movie. Such a privilege to see things like that on the big screen! Bogie was so charismatic.