The African Queen (1951)
Written by John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel, and John Collier
Directed by John Huston
Despite his track record of dark, crime-centric movies, John Huston was also a romantic. That was on full display in The African Queen. This wasn’t Huston’s last film with Humphrey Bogart, but it is considered his last great film working with the actor. He was working with a lighter, comedy type of film. Huston also shot on location in Uganda and the Congo. The African Queen was a Technicolor picture that added difficulty to the production. The cameras needed for the Technicolor process were large and somewhat unwieldy. But in an effort for authenticity, Huston refused to shoot most of the picture on a soundstage.
Set in 1914, World War I has just broken out while British missionary siblings Samuel Sayer and Rose (Katherine Hepburn) evangelize to natives in the German East African territory. They get their mail delivered by steamboat captain & mechanic Charlie Allnut (Bogart), who informs them about the war and the danger they might be in. Months pass, and when Charlie returns, he finds the village empty of natives, forced into conscription by the Germans. Samuel had died from stress, and Rose is all alone. Charlie’s gig at a Belgian mine ended when the German seized it as well. He and Rose decide to find a way to escape the continent before they are discovered, but that will involve crossing a large lake, patrolled by The Louisa, a deadly German gunship.
I was incredibly struck by the beautiful restoration that has been done on the movie. The colors and lighting are so rich. It helped me understand what all the fuss about Technicolor was. Having grown up with color movies, you don’t think it would be that amazing. However, there is a definite difference. Filming on location helped, and some scenes look like they could be shot for a modern film. Shooting on location makes this feel less like an older film where soundstages are incredibly obvious.
From a plot perspective, I don’t feel like anything in The African Queen is exceptionally memorable. What makes the film stand out are the performances from its leads. My tour through Huston’s films has taught me why Bogart was so well regarded as an actor. Before this month, I think Billy Wilder’s Sabrina might have been the only Bogart movie I’d seen. In The African Queen, he gets to showcase his comedy chops, giving a rather silly performance. He’s a technically skilled man with definite charms but rough around the edges. I’d never seen a film starring Katherine Hepburn before this but certainly knew her reputation. She’s excellent here and plays against Bogart perfectly. I expected more of a quarrelsome relationship between the two, but other than a few disagreements, this is more a straightforward romantic comedy. You can definitely see the blueprint being laid for future relationships like Han Solo & Leia in this picture.
What is also pretty amazing is that Bogart & Hepburn were considered past their prime. He was 52 years old, and she was 44. Their careers had spanned decades before this picture was made, so they weren’t necessarily the hottest ticket in town. Explaining the story to someone unfamiliar probably wouldn’t draw them in. Bogart & Hepburn are in a boat floating down a river and talking for most of the film. In another context (I’m looking at Disney’s Jungle Cruise movie), this would have been a madcap, slapstick, melodramatic adventure picture. There’s nothing wrong with those sorts of films, but they are the standard rather than the exception in our time. The actors can take this adventurous material and inject it with humanity. You genuinely believe their love story as improbable as it seems.
The African Queen won’t be one of my favorite Huston films, but even an okay Huston movie is miles better than most pictures. It can be a pleasure to just watch two actors, masters of their craft, working together. That back and forth can be as filling as a good meal. Huston credits his actors with bringing humor into a story that didn’t necessarily play as a comedy on the page. Hepburn says it was Huston’s suggestion she played her character like Eleanor Roosevelt that helped her figure out an angle on the material. Bogart plays a man who is deeply shy and feels undeserving of Rose. That humanity is what endears the film to so many.