After I finally sat down to watch The African Queen, the I immediately wondered why it had taken so long to check it off my list. I loved it. It’s the kind of film that feels tailored to me: action and adventure down the wild jungle rivers of Africa with a surprisingly welcome bit of romance.
Rose (Katharine Hepburn) is a British missionary in Africa with her brother in the early twentieth century. Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) is a steamboat captain who brings them mail and news, including that Germany and Britain are at war. By the next time Allnut visits, Germans have burned the village to the ground and Rose’s brother is dead. Taking pity on the lady, Allnut takes her with him on the river. Seeing he has a load of explosives and old canisters of gas, Rose gets an idea to make torpedoes and attack a German ship. The river journey ahead of them is long and treacherous, but along it they may find strength in each other and even love.
This film quickly becomes a thrilling ride of an adventure. In fact, it’s rumored that Walt Disney was inspired by The African Queen to create the Jungle Cruise ride. All along the river are wild animals, bugs, Germans and white water rapids. The rapids scenes are hair raising moments that make you hold on and release you into euphoric celebration alongside our characters. It’s so much fun!
Inside the boat, there is at first tension between Charlie and Rose. She, being so straight-laced, despises the way he drinks and he, being more laid back and not the happiest drunk, gets annoyed with her stuffiness easily. When Rose pours all of Charlie’s gin into the river, the scene rivals Pirates of the Caribbean for angry “Why is the booze gone?” moment. But after a close call down the rapids, which Rose handles like a champ, a spark is lit between them.
For the next scene or two, the nervous emotion between our leads is electric. In my mind, it rivals some of the greatest love scenes in its sweet and awkward sincerity. By the time their new found love and attraction is out in the open, it’s just as much an uplifting relief for the audience as it is for the characters.
The African Queen was nominated for four Academy Awards and won only one. It was nominated for best screenplay, John Huston for director, Katharine Hepburn for best lead actress and Humphrey Bogart won for best lead actor. In my mind, this is the best film of 1951. Okay, I’ll let it tie with A Streetcar Named Desire, but I finally understand how Brando didn’t win that Oscar.
Bogart is so energetic and endearing throughout the film. He seems to channel a bit of Buster Keaton’s character in The General in the way that he is so in tune with The African Queen. I love how Bogart gets up on the side of the boat and kicks the boiler with both feet to fix it. The early scene with his stomach growling is subtly hilarious and makes his character softer than his bristly face would suggest. His gin swilling side in the beginning of the film is wonderfully rough, yet gels well with his more lovable side later in the film. In the end, it may have been Bogart’s ridiculous hippo impression that sealed that Oscar envelope.
If you enjoy action, adventure, romance, Bogart and Hepburn (and who doesn’t?) you absolutely must see The African Queen. Honestly, go now, it’s on Netflix Instant. I imagine children will eat this movie up, with all the fun and thrilling moments journeying down the river. They’ll probably get a kick out of the random b-roll of wild animals edited in and the adults can enjoy unforgettable performances by Bogart and Hepburn.
“Never say die. That’s my motto.”