The film of The African Queen (1951) is the tale of an improbable love affair between two drastically mismatched personalities as they travel in a riverboat at the beginning of World War One. They reluctantly develop love and respect for each other, as they face tropical dangers and evil enemies. The acting of the two principal actors - Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn - is legendary, though this is the only time they ever worked together.
The film opens at a mission
in "German East Africa
" where English missionary Rev. Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his prim, repressed
sister Rose(Katharine Hepburn) lead the service.
The sharp sound of a steamboat's whistle interrupts the service as uncouth drifter Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), arrives to deliver supplies, mail and news to the isolated village in his scruffy, 30-foot steamer, The African Queen.
The service spoiled, Charlie is invited to tea with the missionary couple. The scene illustrates their personal, spiritual and social differences as the stuffy English pair determinedly ignore the embarrassing growls from Charlie's stomach and his equally embarrassing attempts at apology.
Before Charlie leaves he tells them about the start of a European war between Germany and England. They are alarmed at being seen as "enemy aliens" in German East Africa but as Charlie doesn't believe they will be affected by the conflict in their out-of-the-way location and they feel a duty to their "flock", they decide not to try to reach refuge in the city.
However, soon after Charlie leaves a platoon of German troops invade the mission village. Without any warning, they burn the huts and the church to the ground. Samuel protests and is hit violently in the head with a rifle butt. The natives are rounded up and herded off as forced soldiers or slave laborers.
A distraught Rose helplessly watches as Samuel, feverish and delirious, suffers a nervous breakdown from the shock of losing his life's work. He dies shortly afterwards.
When Charlie returns the on day of Samuel's death and learns of it, he offers to bury the reverend, and take Rose downriver from the now-dangerous territory to civilization.
Charlie explains that he must also escape, since his cargo includes blasting gelatin, and cylinders of oxygen and hydrogen. Charlie is content to sit out the war in the sanctuary of a quiet backwater but Rose develops a plan and becomes determined to take action against the Germans - to travel on the Ulanga and Bora rivers to the lake where they can destroy the German gunboat that controls access to central Africa, using the explosives he has on board.
She has little interest, concern or awareness of the challenges they face. Charlie objects to her scheme but Rose accuses him of not helping their country in its hour of need, and eventually Charlie submits.
As they proceed downstream, he teaches Rose how to work the tiller and "read the river" and its currents. At first, they are politely tolerant of each other, he swigs his gin while she sips a cup of tea. However, when Charlie tries to take shelter from a storm in the cabin area where she sleeps, Rose misinterprets this as an amorous advance and she throws him out. Realising her mistake she takes pity on him and invites him back in, giving him an umbrella to keep off the rain.
After running and surviving one series of dangerous white-water rapids, Charlie expects her enthusiasm to disappear, but instead she is excited and even more determined to continue. Later, after he has been drinking, he tries again to back out, and warns her of the hazards ahead - the German fort at Shona with its armed guards, the vicious rapids and falls, and other unknown dangers. She accuses him of being a liar and a coward. Exasperated, he loses his temper.
They turn into adversaries, sniping and confrontational - he can't stand her judgmental, imperious attitude, and she is appalled by his uncouth manners and drinking.
After a binge, Charlie passes out in a drunken stupor and wakes up to find that while he slept, Rose has emptied bottle after bottle of his gin overboard into the river. He is horrified by her revenge and pleads with her to stop.
Sociable Charlie is no match for the silent treatment Rose gives him -- he shaves his scruffy beard and then tries to patch things up but she responds with ostracism and stony silence. Finally, he flares up and yells at her. She responds by lecturing him, and then reveals that it wasn't his drunkenness that upset her so much as his reversal on his promise. Charlie again tries to explain, but Rose is adamant. Accepting utter defeat, Charlie gives in.
They pass the gun-fortified German fort at Shona, and while being fired upon, the Queen loses power right in front of the fort leaving them a sitting target. Charlie performs an urgent repair, completely exposed to the guns. He is saved from deadly sniper fire when the gunman's scope is dazzled by glaring sunlight.
At first triumphant after passing the fort safely, they find themselves rushing directly into a wild, hazardous cataract of rapids. Relieved and exuberant at miraculously making it through, they embrace and kiss, forgetting themselves entirely.
They draw closer as the journey progresses -- he embraces her from behind and they join their hands as he teaches her how to use the pump properly, she kneels in front of him to remove a thorn from the bottom of his foot.
When he tentatively rests his hand on her shoulder, she places hers on it and then they kiss each other - the beginnings of intimacy and harmony between them. Thus grows one of the most unlikely screen romances ever - a teetotal, pious spinster and a drunken, ratty boatman. There is no explicit sex, of course -- as they sleep together for the first time the screen fades to black -- but the implication is clear.
On the way they have another disastrous encounter with rapids, causing major damage to the Queen and necessitating them to anchor and make repairs. This time Rose is almost ready to give up, but Charlie buoys her spirit and inspires her to carry on. They continue on their way, now entering an uncharted, unknown portion of the river, and are beset by man-eating and poisonous creatures in an increasingly swampy, slow-moving river.
In the oppressive, humid atmosphere of the jungle, the river narrows and they become stuck in the reedy channel at the river's end. An exhausted Charlie must get into the waist-deep water and pull the boat through the shallow muck to deeper water.
They seem beaten, finished, trapped and unable to continue - famished, feverish, and bone tired. As Rose, resigned to failure, prays for mercy, the camera rises and pans away to show that they are, ironically, only a hundred yards away from the goal of their journey down the Ulanga River - the lake.
During the night, a monsoon comes. The drenching rain and windstorm raises the level of the river, breaking down trees and pushing them along in its path. The rising water lifts the mired Queen free and onto the lake. Rose and Charlie awaken to find themselves at the place they have tried so hard to reach.
Then they both see the German steamship Louisa, on the horizon, bearing down on them. They flee back into the camouflaging reeds. With renewed optimism, Charlie knocks together some makeshift torpedoes with detonators and pushes them through holes in the Queen's, prow intending to ram the Louisa. They clean up the Queen, because "She ought to look her best, representing as she does, the Royal Navy."
As they wait for dark they argue whether Charlie will go alone, or take Rose with him. Eventually Charlie agrees that they will blow up the ship together: "All right. It'll be you at the tiller and me at the engine, just like it was from the start."
They head for the gunboat to ram it under cover of darkness, but another monsoon overturns and sinks their boat in the choppy water, and they become separated. Charlie is picked up by the German warship at dawn, and immediately brought to trial and sentenced to death by hanging on the yardarm as a British spy just as Rose is also brought on board as a prisoner.
Spliced within scenes of their questioning and preparations for the execution are views of the capsized Queen slowly surfacing upside down in the lake, with the torpedoes angled upward above the waterline and aimed directly at the Louisa.
When they are brought on the deck for the hanging Rose asks to be hanged with Charlie, and he requests that before they die, they are married. The captain performs the wedding but leaves them little time to exchange vows and smiles: "I now pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution."
As the nooses tighten around their neck, the Louisa collides with the partly submerged Queen and the homemade torpedoes on its prow. In the explosion, they are thrown clear, and in disbelief as successful saboteurs, they float alive:
Charlie: What happened?
Rose: We did it, Charlie, we did it!
Charlie: But how?
Rose pulls over a piece of the wreckage floating in the water that shows the name African Queen, and they swim towards the shore and a life together.
The plot is wildly improbable, and the movie ought to be trite, but it isn't. There are four key reasons for this.
First is the script. Neither of the main characters ever speak outside their allotted roles - Charlie is, from beginning to end, down to earth, diffident and ordinary. He never gives a grand or heroic speech, however courageous or heroic his actions. Rose too, never quite loses her primness or her slightly stilted speech patterns - the characterisation is completely consistent throughout.
Second is the direction and camera work - the shots of the African countryside are by turns threatening and hypnotic, and the pace of the scenes perfectly accords with the pace of the action.
Third is the characters themselves. They are plain, ordinary, and middle-aged. They do remarkable things through a combination of stubbornness and necessity. They are always real people.
Finally, and most important are the performances of Bogart and Hepburn. (both of whom were nominated for Oscars, though only Bogart won. This is essentially a two person film, and any faltering would have led to alienating the audience, as they lost the suspension of disbelief, but at no point do either falter.
"The African Queen" is a classic in the truest sense of the word. See it, if you haven't already.