The African Queen
The African Queen is a 1951 adventure film adapted from the 1935 novel of the same name by C. S. Forester. The film was directed by John Huston and produced by Sam Spiegel and John Woolf. The screenplay was adapted by James Agee, John Huston, John Collier and Peter Viertel. It was photographed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff and had a music score by Allan Gray. The film stars Humphrey Bogart (who won the Academy Award for Best Actor – his only Oscar), and Katharine Hepburn with Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Walter Gotell, Richard Marner and Theodore Bikel.
The African Queen has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1994, with the Library of Congress deeming it “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
Robert Morley and Katharine Hepburn play Samuel and Rose Sayer, brother and sister British Methodist missionaries in the village of Kungdu in German East Africa at the beginning of World War I in August/September 1914. Their mail and supplies are delivered by the rough-and-ready Canadian boat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) of the African Queen, whose coarse behaviour they tolerate in a rather stiff manner.
When Charlie warns them that war has broken out between Germany and Britain, the Sayers choose to stay on, only to witness the Germans burning down the mission village and herding the villagers away. When Samuel protests, he is beaten by a German soldier. After the Germans leave, Samuel becomes delirious with fever and soon dies. Charlie returns shortly afterward. He helps Rose bury her brother, and they set off in the African Queen.
In discussing their situation, Charlie mentions to Rose that the Germans have a gunboat, the Queen Louisa (actually Königin Luise in German), which patrols a large lake downriver, effectively blocking any British counter-attacks. Rose comes up with a plan to convert the African Queen into a torpedo boat, and sink the Queen Louisa. Charlie points out that navigating the river would be suicidal: to reach the lake they would have to pass a German fort and negotiate several dangerous rapids. But Rose is insistent and eventually persuades him to go along with the plan.
Charlie hoped after passing the first obstacle that Rose would be discouraged, but she is confident they can handle what is yet to come, and argues that Charlie promised to go all the way. During their journey down the river, Charlie, Rose and the African Queen encounter many obstacles, including the German fort and three sets of rapids. The first set of rapids is rather easy; they get through with minimal flooding in the boat. But Rose and Charlie have to duck down when they pass the fortress and the soldiers begin shooting at them, blowing two bullet holes in the top of the boiler and causing one of the steam pressure hoses to disconnect from the boiler, which in turn, causes the boat’s engine to stop running. Luckily, Charlie manages to reattach the hose to the boiler just as they are about to enter the second set of rapids. The boat rolls and pitches crazily as it goes down the rapids, leading to more severe flooding in the boat and also collapsing the stern canopy.
While celebrating their success, the two find themselves in an embrace. Embarrassed, they break off, but eventually succumb and strike up a relationship. The couple decide to take a pit stop to gather more fuel and drain the boat. Back on the river, Charlie and Rose watch hippopotamuses and chimpanzees frolic on the nearby river bank when the third set of rapids comes up. This time, there is a loud metallic clattering noise as the boat goes over the falls. Once again, the couple dock on the river bank to check for damage. When Charlie dives under the boat, he finds the propeller shaft bent sideways and a blade missing from the propeller. Luckily, with some expert skills and using suggestions from Rose, Charlie manages to straighten the shaft and weld a new blade on to the propeller, and they are off again.
All appears lost when Charlie and Rose “lose the channel” and the boat becomes mired in the mud amid dense reeds near the mouth of the river. First, they try to tow the boat through the muck, only to have Charlie come out of the water covered with leeches. All their efforts to free the African Queen fail. With no supplies left and short of potable water, Rose and a feverish Charlie turn in, convinced they have no hope of survival. Before going to sleep Rose prays that she and Charlie be admitted into Heaven. As they sleep, exhausted and beaten, heavy rains raise the river’s level and float the African Queen off of the mud and into the lake which, it turns out, is just a short distance from their location. Once on the lake, they narrowly avoid being spotted by the Queen Louisa.
That night, they set about converting some oxygen cylinders into torpedoes using gelatin explosives and improvised detonators that use nails as the firing pins for rifle cartridges. They then attach the torpedoes through the bow of the African Queen, to be used as improvised Spar torpedoes. At the height of a storm, they push the African Queen out onto the lake, intending to set it on a collision course with the Queen Louisa. Unfortunately, the holes in the bow in which the torpedoes were pushed through are not sealed, allowing water to pour into the boat, causing it to sink lower and eventually the African Queen tips over.
Charlie is captured and taken aboard the Queen Louisa, where he is questioned by the captain. Believing Rose to have drowned, he makes no attempt to defend himself against accusations of spying and is sentenced to death by hanging. However, Rose is captured too and Charlie hollers her name, then pretends not to know her. The captain questions her, and Rose confesses the whole plot proudly, deciding they have nothing to lose anyway. The captain sentences her too to be executed as a spy. Charlie asks the German captain to marry them before executing them. After a brief marriage ceremony, the Germans prepare to hang them, when there is a sudden explosion and the Queen Louisa starts to sink. The Queen Louisa has struck the overturned hull of the African Queen and detonated the torpedoes. Rose’s plan has worked, if a little belatedly, and the newly married couple swim to safety in Kenya.
Production censors objected to several aspects of the original script, which included the two characters cohabiting without the formality of marriage. Some changes were made before the film was completed. Another change followed the casting of Bogart; his character’s lines in the original screenplay were rendered with a thick Cockney dialect but the script had to be completely rewritten because the actor was unable to reproduce it.
The film was partially financed by John and James Woolf of Romulus Films, a British company. The Woolf brothers provided £250,000 and were so pleased with the completed movie that they talked John Huston into directing their next picture, Moulin Rouge (1952).
Much of the film was shot on location in Uganda and the Congo in Africa. This was rather novel for the time, especially for a technicolor picture which utilized large unwieldy cameras. The cast and crew endured sickness, and spartan living conditions during their time on location. In one scene, Hepburn was playing an organ but had a bucket nearby because she was often sick between takes. Bogart later bragged that he was the only one to escape illness, which he credited to not drinking any water on location, but instead fortifying himself from the large supply of whiskey he had brought along with him.
About half of the film was shot in England. For instance, the scenes in which Bogart and Hepburn are seen in the water were all shot in studio tanks at Isleworth Studios, Middlesex. These scenes were considered too dangerous to shoot in Africa. All of the foreground plates for the process shots were also done in studio.
A myth has grown that the scenes in the reed-filled riverbank were filmed in Dalyan, Turkey.But Katharine Hepburn’s published book (p. 118) on the filming states ‘We were about to head… back to Entebbe, but John [Huston] wanted to get shots of Bogie and me in the miles of high reeds before we come out into the lake…”. The reeds sequence was thus shot on location in Africa (Uganda and Congo) and London studios.
Most of the action takes place aboard a boat – the African Queen of the title – and scenes on board the boat were filmed using a large raft with a mockup of the boat on top. Sections of the boat set could be removed to make room for the large Technicolor camera. This proved hazardous on one occasion when the boat’s boiler – a heavy copper replica – almost fell on Hepburn. It was not bolted down because it also had to be moved to accommodate the camera. The small steam-boat used in the film to depict the African Queen was built in 1912, in England, for service in Africa. At one time it was owned by actor Fess Parker. In December 2011, plans were announced to restore the boat. Restoration was completed by the following April and the African Queen is now on display as a tourist attraction at Key Largo, Florida.
Because of the dangers involved with shooting the rapid scenes, a model was created at the studio tank in London.
The German gunboat in the film, the Königin Luise, was inspired by the former World War I vessel MV Liemba (known until 1924 as the Goetzen), which was scuttled in 1916 during the Battle for Lake Tanganyika, but was subsequently refloated by the British and continues to operate as a passenger ferry to this day. The actual vessel used in the film to portray the Louisa was the steam tug Buganda, owned and operated on Lake Victoria by East African Railways & Harbours.
The African Queen opened on December 23, 1951 in Los Angeles, in order to qualify for the 1951 Oscars, and on February 20, 1952 at the Capitol Theatre in New York City.
The film earned an estimated £256,267 at UK cinemas in 1952, making it the 11th most popular movie of the year.It earned an estimated $4 million at the US and Canadian box office.
Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut
Katharine Hepburn as Rose Sayer
Robert Morley as Rev. Samuel Sayer
Peter Bull as Captain of Louisa
Theodore Bikel as the First Officer
Walter Gotell as the Second Officer
Peter Swanwick as the First Officer of Shona
Richard Marner as the Second Officer of Shona