Top 100 Movie Review: No. 088 – The African Queen (1951)

Ranked 88 on the IMDB Top 100 Movies. Watched April 2018.

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut), Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer), Robert Morley (Rev. Samuel Sayer), Peter Bull (German Captain)
Director: John Huston
My rating: 7.5 / 10

In September 1914 in the German East African village of Kungdu, British Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his spinster sister Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) lead prayers at the makeshift First Methodist Church. The natives struggle to follow the English psalm, but race outside when they hear Canadian Charlie Allnut’s (Humphrey Bogart) boat the African Queen laden with mail and supplies.

During lunch Charlie informs them about the encroaching war in Europe, and although the Sayers are frightened, they refuse to desert the village. Only hours later, however, German troops invade Kungdu, imprison the natives and burn down the huts. By the time the smoke clears, Samuel has been injured and grows very sick. When Charlie returns to the destroyed village the next day, he finds Samuel dead, and helps Rose bury him.

Rose then accepts Charlie’s offer to hide from the Germans on his boat. Once they are on the river, Charlie explains that the Germans have positioned a heavily armed steamer, the Louisa , at the mouth of Lake Tanganyika to block British troops. Rose, motivated by the death of her brother and the destruction of their village, forms a plan to attack the Louisa by crafting torpedoes out of explosives and an oxygen tank, strapping them to the African Queen and ramming into the steamer.

While Charlie tries dissuade her, describing the German fort and impassable rapids they will have to face along the way as impossible, Rose’s determination eventually shames him into agreeing to the plan. After they set sail, he teaches Rose how to read the river.

That night, a pouring rain forces Charlie to seek shelter under Rose’s tarpaulin, and after at first banishing him, Rose softens and allows him to sleep near her. They reach the first set of rapids the next afternoon, and Charlie’s hopes that the death-defying experience will frighten Rose are dashed after she proclaims it the most stimulating physical experience she has ever had. At night, a frustrated Charlie taps into his gin reserves and later rants drunkenly that he will not sail any farther, calling Rose a “skinny old maid.” He awakes the next morning to find her pouring each of his gin bottles into the ocean.

Their first obstacle is the German fort, where the soldiers open fire on the African Queen. The engine is hit, but Charlie repairs it and they sail on. Immediately afterward, they reach another set of rapids. Rose struggles to steer while Charlie races to keep the engine stoked, and although they are badly pummeled, they miraculously reach calm waters. Thrilled, Charlie and Rose fall into an embrace which quickly becomes romantic. Later, as they declare their love, they finally learn each other’s first name.

Later they hit a waterfall, which damages the rudder. Although Charlie despairs, Rose devises a plan to weld a new rudder, and days later, the boat is fixed. Just miles down the river, however, they are attacked by a horde of mosquitoes, which terrifies Rose and forces them to stay in open water. Within days, they become lost in the stagnant shallows. Thick reeds bog down the boat, forcing Charlie to pull it through the water. When he finally boards again, exhausted, he finds leeches covering his body, and even though he is shaking with revulsion, he must return to the water to keep the boat moving. Hours later, they reach land, where Charlie feverishly tells Rose they may not make it but that he loves her. They both collapse into sleep defeated however during the night, a fresh rain sweeps the launch downstream onto Lake Tanganyika.

They awaken to find the Louisa nearby and retreat into the reeds to hide. By the next day, they have discerned the ship’s sailing pattern and Charlie makes the torpedoes. They set out on their attack that night, but a sudden storm capsizes the launch and Rose and Charlie are separated in the dark.

Charlie is imprisoned by the Germans and, not wanting to live without Rose who he believes is dead, accepts his sentence of hanging. Just then, however, Rose is brought in, and when she hears that Charlie is to be killed, proudly admits their whole scheme to the soldiers. Before they are hanged, Charlie requests that the captain marry them, and just as the service ends, the African Queen surfaces, hits the Louisa and explodes.

Floating together in the water, the newlyweds see the boat’s nameplate, realize that their plan has succeeded after all, and happily swim toward the shore.

What’s to Like
The location shots of Uganda and the Congo, the thrilling rapid scenes, Katharine Hepburn’s performance as a woman who grows in strength after the death of her brother.

What’s not to Like
Missionary expeditions like that of the Sayer’s caused many problems in Africa (with some good as well) this isn’t explored at all other than a European war being bought to Africa.

Much of the film was shot on location in Uganda and the Congo in Africa which was very rare for the time and very impressive to make the movie feel much more authentic.

The surprise of the movie is how feel actors are used. The hostile environment is in many ways the antagonists of the story as much as the German’s are.

This is the only time Humphrey Bogart won and academy award and he seems well suited to the reluctant drunk hero who finds his courage and honour in a woman with abundance of such qualities.

The scenes on the rapids are thrilling and pull you into thinking they will fail. The obstacles feel real and almost insurmountable. You feel the apparent failure when the African Queen goes down, that after all their ordeals to get so close but to fail feels devastating but the final success feels very well earned by Rose and Charlie.

You wonder what we happen to our main characters as they float away. Will their marriage last, will they even survived stranded in Africa as German’s and English fight? The sign of a good movie is when you want to stay on the journey with these characters.

Academy Awards

  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Humphrey Bogart) – winner
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role (Katharine Hepburn) – nominee
  • Best Director (John Huston) – nominee
  • Best Writing, Screenplay (James Agee and John Huston) – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries in this amazing world.
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