IMDB #201 The African Queen

Number 201, ladies and gentlefolk, marks the fiftieth entry in the countdown! Drinks all around!

In fact, let's celebrate with some rust-flavored tea from the boiler of a steamship (since some dowdy preacher's sister poured all the gin overboard), as the last entry of the first fifth of the countdown is 1951's The African Queen.

The Key Players:

The higher we go, the more legendary the talent will become: not only do we visit with Katherine Hepburn for the third time, but we encounter the legendary Humphrey Bogart as well. After a stint playing gangsters in B-Movies, he rose to stardom in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon- then some chick walked into his gin joint in another film we'll get to a long time from now, and an icon was cemented.

Much like Titanic was made solely so James Cameron could go deep-sea exploring, The African Queen was made largely so director John Huston could shoot an elephant. He insisted it be shot on location, which would be the sweltering, wild, and malaria funhouses of the Congo and Uganda, and kept changing the locations last minute to be closer to ideal big-game hunting spots. Co-screenwriter Peter Viertel got so fed up he later wrote a thinly fictionalized account of the shooting entitled White Hunter, Black Heart, painting Huston as an addled, elephant-crazed Kurtz holding the entire pre-production crew at his mercy.

Despite all this, The African Queen is the most beloved film of Huston's illustrious career- basically six and a half decades of classics, from The Maltese Falcon in 1941 to Prizzi's Honor in 1985.

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The Story:

The plot mirrors that of C. S. Forester's novel pretty closely. Hepburn plays the sister of a British missionary in Central Africa- at the outset of World War I, the German military conscripts all the local natives. Her brother dies after the Germans burn the village (and he goes into shock, seemingly), so she's forced to flee with Bogart, the coarse Canadian captain of the titular African Queen, a steam-powered mining vessel.

When Bogart explains that not only do they have nowhere to go, but rescue from the British is blocked by the German warship Louisa in a lake far downriver, Hepburn suggests that they fashion makeshift torpedoes out of gas tanks and TNT, strap them on the African Queen's bow, and ram it into the German ship.

Naturally, the every-man-for-him-selfish Bogart objects, but is bullied into it by Hepburn polite Nationalism. So they set off downstream. Along the way: rapids, gunfire, larger rapids, a broken propeller shaft, a muddy river delta, (possibly real) leeches, and an awkward romance!

The Artistry:

As novel as the location shooting was at the time, the real heart of The African Queen is the chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn. I expected a sort of screwball, opposites attract sort of thing- and while there was an element of that, it's mostly Hepburn bullying Bogart into being a hero. My favorite moment is probably when he expects her to be discouraged after the first set of rapids, but she's instead envigorated by the sensation.

The steps after that- he drinks in despair and is rude, she pours out the gin and waits for him to get his nerve back up, he shaves his face and they fall in love- are all staples for a reason, and no one hits them better. I haven't read the novel, but it's played with a welcome humor that any modern day film set in WWI wouldn't even attempt- Bogart mugging and imitating hippos is a little corny, but it's still warm and well-meant.

Not that I can judge it in context, but the technicolor brought Africa reasonably to life, and the only odd moments are the clearly super-imposed backgrounds when they go over rapids. Otherwise the expensive trip to Africa paid off.


The biggest departure from the novel is the ending. In both versions our heroic couple argues about who should man the boat for the run at the Louisa before accepting that neither can leave the other behind. They pull out in a storm, but the holes cut for the torpedoes let in water, and the African Queen capsizes before reaching its target.

The next morning we see Bogart has been captured by the Germans- at their questions, he tells them he was fishing on the lake, but they sentence him to hang anyway. Hepburn is soon brought aboard, and proudly tells the enemy that they were thisclose to bringing down their warship- she's sentenced to hang as well.

Bogart asks the German captain to marry them, to Hepburn's delight and the captain's bemused frustration ("I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution!").

Of course, just in the nick of time, the Louisa runs right into the bow of the derelict African Queen, allowing our heroes to escape into the water as it sinks. The newlyweds merrily swim off to safety on the Belgian-held side of the Lake.

The novel ends with the same failed attempt- only the German captain decides to deliver them to a British nval vessel. They decide to get married when they get back to the consul, and it ends with "Whether or not they lived happily ever after would be difficult to say." Would it, really, omniscient narrotor of a fictional book?

So yeah, the ending is pretty standard Hollywood, and there's an over-reliance on deus ex machina in general: the end, the rainwater that gets them unstuck from the delta, and the sun in the eyes of a German sniper. But the smile that broke out on my face when I saw the upturned African Queen in the water probably means I didn't really care.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I'm going with higher, which is of course pending the rest of the list- there are two other famous Huston/Bogart collaborations to get through, after all.

The Legacy:

Oscars: Bogart won his only acting award out of three nominations for his workmanlike perfomance as Charlie Allnut. Hepburn would score a nomination for actress, and Huston for director as well as screenwriter (with James Agee).

Elsewhere- AFI lists left and right, NFR inclusion, and so on. It was adapted into a radio play (with Bogart reprising) in 1952, and Clint Eastwood even played the John Huston character in a film version of White Hunter, Black Heart.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Pretty much the only non-10m-long clip is the victorious moment in which they first kiss- as stiff as Hepburn's "hip hip hooray!" is, there's some great acting when they realize what they're doing.

It was another surprise that this moment would be so early in the film- I thought they would deny their feelings until much closer to the finale, you know, like you do in these types of films.

Leftover Thoughts:

-I wish that British trailer voice dude up there would narrate all trailers: "And filmed amid the jungles of the headquarters of Africa, the Dark Continent..."

-I'm getting conflicting information on whether or not there were real leeches all over Bogart in one scene. But they sure looked real- if so, there's the Oscar for you.

-This will be getting a region 1 DVD (and Blu-Ray) release for the first time coming up on March 23rd, 2010.

Coming Up...

200. Brief Encounter

199. Stalag 17

198. Kill Bill Vol. 2

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