From the beginning, director John Huston insisted that The African Queen be shot on location. To find a river identical to the one in C. S. Forester's novel, he logged 25,000 flying miles criss-crossing Africa until he settled on the Ruiki in the then Belgian Congo. At a time (1951) when on-location shooting was nowhere near as common as today, traveling 1,100 miles up the Congo to make what is essentially a filmed dialogue must have seemed fanatical. And subsequent encounters with blood flukes, crocodiles, soldier ants, wild boars, stampeding elephants, malaria, and dysentery were hardly reassuring.
Yet The African Queen is more than a simple encounter between a man and a woman. It is a story of two very different people growing to love and respect one another after sharing and surviving severe hardships. Huston maintained that on-location shooting was the only way to make that suffering and subsequent romance believable and authentic. At Huston's insistence even the scenes shot off location were filmed under realistic conditions. For example, although Humphrey Bogart actually emerged from London rather than Ugandan waters (after pulling the African Queen), the leeches that covered him were the genuine article. Bogart's revulsion and shivering during that particular scene are convincing arguments for Huston's point-of-view.
Indeed, The African Queen's main strength is the acting of the two principal players – Humphrey Bogart as the seedy Canadian boat captain, Charlie Allnut, and Katharine Hepburn as the "Psalmsinging skinny old maid," British missionary Rose Sayer. According to Huston, although Bogart initially resisted and didn't like his character, after mimicking the director's gestures and expressions, "all at once he got under the skin of that wretched, sleazy, absurd, brave little man." Hepburn, too, had trouble at the beginning; her portrayal was brittle, cold, and humorless. However, once Huston suggested that she play her part as if she were that Grand Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she became both funny and refined, and a humor inherent in neither the novel nor the screenplay emerged between the two characters.
The humor is essential to the success of the film not because it makes the film more entertaining, but because it arises out of the equality and individuality of two eccentric and strong-willed adversaries. They may end up falling in love, but not without an often hysterical struggle. Bogart's character begins as a self-indulgent drunk who mimics the missionary's prim ways; she, on the other hand, frowns upon his drinking and cowardice, disagreeing with his lax views on human nature: "Nature is what we were put on earth to rise above." But in courageously facing and solving problems together, the two head towards a middle ground. Allnut stops drinking (Rose has thrown his gin overboard) and shaves, while Rose changes her mind about human nature. After encountering her first rapids, for example, she ecstatically exclaims, "I never dreamed any mere physical experience could be so stimulating! … I don't wonder you love boating, Mr. Allnut." Finally, after escaping both the Germans and the allegedly uncrossable rapids, the two impulsively embrace and fall in love. The humor does not stop here, however. After their first tender night together, Rose shyly asks Allnut, "Dear, what is your first name?" Their mutual delight in his response is completely captivating.
Our captivation with the two characters allows us to accept many of the film's more improbable moments – the quick dispatch of Brother Samuel Sayer, the sun shining in the eyes of a German sharpshooter as naively predicted by Rose, heavy rains freeing the mired African Queen after Rose prays to God, and the deus ex machina ending. In fact, the ending had been changed several times. Writer James Agee hadn't written it yet when he suffered a heart attack, so Huston tried to write one with Peter Viertel; before the fourth and final ending was conceived, three others were apparently considered: (1) a British warship rescues Rose and Charlie after a heroic battle with the Louisa, (2) Rose proposes marriage before the first available British consul, (3) Charlie remembers the wife he had left behind in England and hadn't thought of for 20 years. The first and second endings combined were similar to what occurred in the original novel (that is, Forester's second ending – even he had problems resolving the plot).
Huston's fourth and happy ending – which miraculously saves Rosie and Charlie from their postnuptial death by hanging – is atypical, as are other elements in the script. Many of Huston's previous films had a bleaker view of humanity and ended unhappily (e.g. The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Both Charlie and Rose exhibit an honesty and integrity at odds with such Hustonian liars and tricksters as Sam Spade, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Rick Leland, and Dobbs. The two survive because of an internal nobility that Huston's seedier characters outwardly lack.
Huston's new optimism/idealism struck the right note with the public. The African Queen became one of 1952's top moneymakers, having been nominated for Best Actor (Bogart won), Best Actress, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay. British readers of Picturegoer voted Bogart the year's best actor, and Hepburn experienced the greatest box office hit of her career. A film that began as a vehicle for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, and later Bette Davis and David Niven, had found the perfect couple for its improbable romance.
Release Date: 1951
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel, Walter Cotell, Gerald Ohn, Peter Swanwick, and Richard Marner
Director: John Huston
Writers: James Agee and John Huston with Peter Viertel
Source Citation: Henry, Catherine. "The African Queen." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 12-14.