An updated version of an essay that I wrote for my Intro to Film class a few years ago on John Huston’s 1951 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
I’m really just posting this here because Humphrey Bogart’s characters name is Charlie Allnut and that’s the greatest thing ever.
The African Queen takes place during the beginning of World War I in German East Africa. The story begins in a village, on a September day in 1914, where missionaries Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her brother Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley), are holding a service at their place of worship in Kungdu. The service is interrupted by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a Canadian miner that delivers mail and goods to the Sayers on his boat, the African Queen. Mr. Allnut informs the siblings that he won’t be traveling their way for a couple of months because of the war’s outbreak
Not soon after his departure, German soldiers come to the village, forcing people out of their homes, burning down everything except for the small house that the Sayers live in. After being assaulted by German officers, Samuel becomes ill and dies, due to fever. The same day, Mr. Allnut returns and tells Rose how the German soldiers had made it to his now destroyed mine, and burnt down the villagers homes there too, and convinces her that it’d be best if they left, in fear of the soldiers return. When Rose asks why they would come back, Mr. Allnut explains that the African Queen contains blasting powder and other explosives that he had used for mining.
After leaving the village, the two companions try to figure out what their situation is. Rose is convinced that the British were sure to make an attack, yet Mr. Allnut explains that a German warship, the Louisa, blocks any chance of a British attack. Rose then asks if the supplies that Mr. Allnut had on the ship could be used to make a torpedo, and she reveals her plan to make a torpedo to destroy the Louisa. He agrees, halfheartedly.
Throughout the rest of their journey, a bond grows between these two very different individuals. Though there are symbols earlier that implied that death is near, such as the presence of the crocodiles, they fall in love, and Mr. Allnut decides to go through with the plan of destroying the Louisa. Once they get to the Louisa, they are captured and nearly executed, before the torpedo on the African Queen causes an explosion, and this is where the writing for the film differs from the novel that it is based off of, written by C.S. Forester.
In the novel and in the film, Rose and Mr. Allnut’s plans don’t succeed because a storm hits suddenly and the African Queen sinks, or so they think. They are separated during the storm and reunited on the Louisa. In the novel, when they are reunited, they are sent to a representative of the British, and Mr. Allnut enlists in the British Army. The ending of the novel is vague and doesn’t say whether or not they were reunited after the war, or if Mr. Allnut had died in the war.
In the film, after they are captured, they are sentenced to hang. Just as their captors decide to proceed with the execution, Mr. Allnut asks the captain to perform a marriage ceremony for the two of them before they die; the captain agrees. Then, just before the execution, there is an explosion, the African Queen has hit the Louisa, and the crew leaves the execution in an attempt to save the ship, giving Rose and Mr. Allnut a chance to escape. They swim away from the wreckage and the confused German crew, and that is where the film ends.
The ending of the film was changed by director John Huston, who was urged by the producers to give the film a more positive ending; an ending where the characters escape. In the documentary Embracing Chaos: The Making of The African Queen, Nicholas Meyer (director of Star Trek II) claims that Huston was against the happy ending because he didn’t think it was realistic, but decided to change the ending, supposedly, because of the chemistry between the stars, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
The African Queen was Bogart and Hepburn’s only film together, and earned Humphrey Bogart his first, and only, Academy Award. This role differed greatly from Bogart’s usual characters. Bogart usually played the antihero, for instance, in, arguably, one of his most famous films, Casablanca; he played Rick, a cynical nightclub owner. Charlie Allnut, on the other hand, is a very helpful man that delivers mail to the Sayers. The only thing that makes Mr. Allnut similar to an antihero is his cynicism. He doesn’t think the plan to blow up the Louisa will work and states that frequently, yet he stays true to his word and agrees to go through with the plan.
Bogart worked with John Huston frequently, and they got along well and had worked on other pictures together, but this was Katharine Hepburn’s first and only film with him. In her book about the making of the film, The Making of The African Queen, or: How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, she talks about how Huston gave her the greatest acting advice of her career, after she was told that the way she was portraying the character was incorrect. Huston told her that because she was portraying the character as cynical, it was building a relationship with Mr. Allnut that was very unlikely to end in romance. He told her to act more like an Eleanor Roosevelt-kind of “lady”. A woman that didn’t see herself as beautiful yet emanated beauty.
This film truly tested the acting abilities of both stars, because they were filming in Africa for a better part of the time, and were sometimes ill. Hepburn ended up with dysentery from drinking the water in Africa and had been vomiting between takes of what would be the opening church scene, where she had to sing, and Bogart had gotten a Chigoe flea stuck in between his toes during shooting. Yet through all of this, they created wonderful chemistry on-screen.
This is probably one of my favorite films to talk about and use for examples when talking about certain aspects of filmmaking, seeing as it impresses me in more ways than one. The fact that Huston decided to break so many of the “Hollywood rules” of that time, for instance, casting middle-aged stars, Bogart in his fifties and Hepburn in her forties, as two companions on an adventure, who become romantically involved wasn’t very common in films from the 1950’s. It was also an independent film with very famous stars, and that was uncommon as well.
The most impressive thing about this film is the use of the Technicolor camera and a blue/green screen while filming the more danger-filled scenes; I had never heard of a blue screen or green screen having been used in a movie from the 1950’s, especially since they were still using physical strips of film at the time. Technicolor cameras are very large, and they needed an entire raft to carry the camera and the lights on the water and film with it in the jungle, along with another raft for the make-up artists’ supplies and the entire crew, and Katharine Hepburn’s personal bathroom that she used during the making of the film, as part of her contract. So a chain of rafts were attached to one another, going down a river in Africa, with an entire film crew, for months.
What amazes me the most about this film though, was that it was an independent film. This was when more and more studios were popping up all over Hollywood, and John Huston decides to film an independent action film in Africa. A film that takes place on a river, in a boat, in Africa, with only two main characters, and it became one of the American Film Institutes’ Top 100 Films (number sixty-five) when all of the major studios wouldn’t even touch the project. I think it’s an impeccable story of finding love in an unlikely situation, adventure, and discovery of one’s strengths and abilities, with some interesting comedic twists along the way, in a situation where you would think there would be none.