The African Queen: A Look Back

The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart

Something happened to Katharine Hepburn in the 1950s that was both a blessing and a curse: she started playing a lot of spinsters. Some of these spinsters were painful to watch (think The Rainmaker and Summertime), but thankfully her turn as Rose Sayer in The African Queen (1951) was the perfect vehicle for her maturing talents. She had adept screenwriters (James Agee and John Huston); an accomplished director (John Huston); an award-winning cinematographer (Jack Cardiff); and an age-appropriate co-star (Humphrey Bogart)—all of these essential elements allowed Hepburn to turn Rose into the best spinster portrayal of her storied career.

Based on C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel The African Queen, the story takes place at the beginning of WWI in 1914 in German East Africa.  An old maid missionary (Hepburn) finds herself in a difficult situation after her Methodist minister brother (Robert Morley) is beaten by German soldiers and later dies of a fever.  Alone in the middle of the jungle, Rose is rescued by rough-looking steamboat (a very small one named, you guessed it, The African Queen) captain Charlie Allnut (Bogart), a man who delivers supplies and mail along the Ulanga River.  After learning that the boat is carrying the necessary supplies to make a torpedo, Rose attempts to convince Charlie that they should make one and then use it against a German gunboat as an act of patriotism (he’s Canadian, which at the time was still a part of the British Empire). While attempting to dissuade Rose from her suicidal plan, Charlie often finds himself at odds with the headstrong nature of his prim companion. What ensues is an adventurous love story between complete opposites in the middle of the African jungle.

Most people who have read Forester’s novel will tell you that the movie is 10 times better. This is not to say that screenwriters Agee and Huston changed a lot when they adapted the book, because they only made a few minor changes—most notably turning Charlie into a Canadian instead of a Cockney Londoner because Bogart couldn’t pull off the accent—but because the story plays better on screen than on the page.  They received an Oscar nomination for their crisp, smart dialogue and their ability to turn a somewhat turgid book into a sweeping adventure story. Writing lines for two completely opposite personalities can be challenging (you don’t want one to dominate the other too much) and that’s where I think Agee and Huston do a great job.  Perhaps my favorite exchange is this one:

Charlie: A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.

Rose: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

The characters’ words never seem forced and they always sound appropriate.  I wish more screenwriters wrote dialogue like this.

John Huston also received an Oscar nomination for his direction of the film.  While he and Bogart were cut from the same cloth, dealing with Hepburn in the middle of the jungle could have been a nightmare if he hadn’t approached her in the right way. He obviously was successful in this endeavor because Hepburn latersaid that it was “the goddamnedest best piece of direction” she ever received.  As if dealing with two of Hollywood’s biggest stars wasn’t enough, the film was shot primarily on location in central Africa (although for safety reasons all of the scenes where Bogart and Hepburn are in the water were filmed in a studio water tank).  Just the logistics alone were bad enough, not to mention the fact that it was being filmed by huge Technicolor cameras.  Sickness ran rampant on the set and the weather conditions were unbearable at times.  In the end, it turned out to be one of the best films of Huston’s career.

Besides the off-beat love story, what is most remembered about the movie is its cinematography.  Can you really shoot a film in the middle of the African jungle in anything other than Technicolor?  Vivid and lush, the color pops off the screen.  Cinematographer Jack Cardiff was known for his experimental use of Technicolor. His use of the dye-process color system made him the go-to cinematographer for the likes of Powell & Pressburger and Hitchcock.  Yet, he was also extremely adept in his lighting techniques.  There’s a story about how Bogart told Cardiff that it had taken him years to get the lines on his face and that he didn’t want Cardiff to wash them out with lights. Bogart might have kept his lines, but Hepburn never looked better in color.  Rose was supposed to be 33 years old, while Hepburn was in her mid-40s when the picture was shot; yet, I can’t recall a color film where Hepburn looked so real—her “take me as I am” appearance (with limited lighting hijinks) made her look like the beauty she was.  What makes this even more impressive is that throughout most of filming Hepburn was extremely ill with dysentery—and still she looked good, which no doubt she owed to Cardiff’s mastery.

Finally, what I think makes this Hepburn’s best spinster role is that her co-star is Bogart.  Slightly seven years older than Hepburn, Bogart looked like the kind of man who could fall for an aging old maid.  Rough and grizzled, Bogart had the necessary presence to stand next to a woman who could be perceived as domineering.  Perhaps this is why he won his only Academy Award for this role—he stood his own against one of the most powerful actresses to grace the silver screen.  When you compare his Charlie to the likes of Rossano Brazzi in Summertime (1955) and Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956) it’s easy to see where those films faltered while The African Queen thrived. While Hepburn received Academy Award nominations for all three of these films, this was the one she seemed the most believable in, which I believe is a direct result of who her co-star was.  I believe this is the inherent reason why The African Queen endures while Hepburn’s other spinster films are often pushed aside and/or forgotten.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.

  • RVoss

    Great piece on The African Queen! Add to the other accolades the fact that it isn’t a simple feat to create the sense of eroticism out of such disparate elements.

    • Kim Wilson

      Thanks!  It is a bit erotic–even for the 1950s.

  • Joseph Glaeser

    Very well done Kim. This film is one of my favorites and I’ll pull it from my collection at least 1-2 times a year to watch. You’ve hit on many of the reasons why it’s a film that can be watched many times and still find things new you may have missed before.
    Thank you for your interest and I’ll look forward to reading more of your material.

    • Kim Wilson

      Thanks, Joseph.  I’m glad you enjoyed it.  I’ve had a few articles posted here already, so if you search my name you will find about four others as well.  Or, you can always become a follower at my own blog (see above link).

  • Allen Hefner

    Great post, Kim. African Queen is without question one of the best star pairings in film history, without the stars becoming personally involved. Bogart and Bacall, as well as Hepburn and Tracy had real life chemistry so it showed on the screen. Bogart and Hepburn working together showed how acting should be done.

    • Kim Wilson

      Thanks, Allen.  Their chemistry was quite good here.

      • Grizzled Geezer

        A couple of points… In the novel, they fail to sink the German ship, and the story more or less limps to its ending. Also, the recent three-strip transfer of the Techniolor negatives has to be seen to be appreciated. It is a major improvement.

  • Joel

    Wonderful film!  Has always ranked in my top 5.  One of the few Hepburn
    films I will watch more than once….

  • Kentgravett

    Don’t knock Summertime, one of the best and emotionally real depictions of loneliness by any actress anytime. The movie, by the way, has not been pushed aside. It is a “kind of” cult film now. Also, directed by David Lean and gives a picture of Venice that is captivating—if one wishes to speak of the use of color. Also, the work done by her leading man was wonderful, an ordinary shopkeeper who is instantly drawn to her. At the end of the film, as she departs on a train, and he arrives with a flower, we see a great actress adding up what has happened and is enriched for the rest of her life. She knows that she has to leave a man she loves and that it is painful, but she also in a brief moment shows how she adds it all up and is ready to continue her life. It is real and very moving. So, dont knock this film. By the way, I agree about The Rainmaker. Lancaster was miscast and the film is very weak in comparison to the Broadway play which is its origin.

    • Kim Wilson

      We will have to disagree about Summertime.  I do think the cinematography is beautiful, though.  

  • Snow wolf

    I have always been a Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart fan..I love almost all their movies and this is one of my very favorites.

  • Marsja

    Awesome post, Kim!

    • Kim Wilson

      Thanks!

  • Lee

    Too bad Bette Davis turned down this role. At least I would of been able to stay awake.

  • Stldjen

    This is one of my favorite top 20 films; beautifully filmed (Cardiff), great direction (Huston, who was off drinking and shooting game making us think that’s the main reason why he wanted to do this film in Africa), wonderful acting. If not for Vivian Leigh that year this may have been Hepburn’s 3rd oscar.
    Bogie was so good in this film that he beat out Brando for ‘Streetcar.’ No small accomplishment, since Brando turned in the finest performance in his career. Anyone who hasn’t seen this must; for the amazing cinematography if nothing else. 

  • Stldjen

    Oops, maybe Hepburn’s second oscar. I don’t always proofread, lol.

  • Magman

    I really liked the fact that they shot the film on location in Africa. Living in a remote jungle with lots of bugs and questionable water, I heard that most of the cast and crew were sick almost every day with the exception of Huston and Bogey who stayed up most of the nights drinking. I guess booze can kill ingested germs. 

  • Publius

    One of the all-time masterpieces of film and filmmaking.  I saw the film when I was very young on television because my parents had seen it on their honeymoon in New York and remembered it.  I agree with most of the plaudits although I can’t imagine Bette Davis at all in this role.  The script has humor, adventure, seriousness, superb acting and there is never a dull moment.  My favorite lines are:  “You psalm-singing skinny old maid.”  “Just waiting for their supper miss.”  “I gotta work fast; one of my boys dropped a screwdriver down the manhole.”  “What would happen if you didn’t kick her?”  “Well…(laughs)…the whole boilers would blow up.”  My father always admired the scene where Robert Morley dies of fever; he thought it was the greatest bit of acting that he had ever seen.  Also, the music was PERFECT music for a motion picture.

    • Joel

      I agree about Davis.  I am no fan of Hepburn, but must admit, this is her best!

  • Frank pienkosky

    yeah…and the last I heard…the ol’ queen is still “chuggin’ aroun’” down in key largo…check it out if you get down that way’

  • Nils Goering

    I first saw AQ during its 1960s re-issue at the theatres.  I’d been a fan of Bogart from watching his films on television broadcasts.  It was the first time seeing him on a big screen.  The film was a great joy to watch.  The location photography was grand – however, the rear screen projection sequences (especially during the ride on the rapids) were jarring and somewhat spoiled the overall effect of the action.  Bogart was in fine form as Charlie Allnutt but, in my opinion, his performance as Fred Dobbs in ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ was more powerful and the one for which he should have been given an oscar.  Marlon Brando should have won the oscar for his dynamic performance in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ but I’m convinced the Academy voted for Bogart as a sentimental favorite. 

  • Cara

    Don’t forget Desk Set. Hepburn’s a spinster being dallied with by none other than Gig Young. One of Hepburn and Tracy’s fun but under appreciated films. The dialogue is witty–Nora Ephron’s parents wrote the screenplay. Joan Blondell gives a particularly adept comic performance, and the movie provides a unique perspective on the computing industry in the mid 1950s along with all the fears and expectations the arrival of the computer inspired. It provides a slice of history, served up with charm.

  • Michael81

    This movie contains a one word Hepburn line delivered perfectly; near the end of the film the Nazi Captain scorns the trip down the river. Hepburns states: “Neverthless”

  • HelenB

    The African Queen was great, but Summertime was breathtaking–as was its leading man!

  • Beth Palladino

    One of my favorite movies. I love the chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn. P.S. Even though Canada is not as closely tied to Britain as in the past, it still is not completely independent. The British Monarch (currently Queen Elizabeth) is still the sovereign over the country of Canada.

  • jan

    I have never really cared for Hepburn. She always seemed to be to ‘holier-than-thou’ and a smart aleck but she nailed this role. I can think of no one else who could have matched the great Bogart in this type of role. I have always thought Bogie did his best romantic scenes with his lovely wife, but the growing romance between Charlie and Rosie in this movie is so touching and believable. I love this movie and watch it often. As for the complaints that Brando should have won the Oscar over Bogie for that year – Never. This is one of the finest movies ever made and Bogie, by far, the better actor.

  • Michele Wood

    It would have to be “The African Queen”