The Greatest films of all time: 45. The African Queen (1951)(USA)


A film that is based on the novel of “The African Queen” of C.S. Forester of 1935, is about a British boat of the same name as the title of the film, which at the end heroically with explosives hits and destroys a German navy during the first world war. This at the best could be a film like “Das Boot” of Wolfgang Peterson in recent years, but in the hands of American master, John Huston, from the start of re-writing the script that he often pitches in his films to the direction, would be a master classic like no other.


Only in the beginning and the end scenes of the film, one would notice that the film is happening during the world war I, in a German occupied village of East Africa. The film basically is about the voyage of the African Queen captain, Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) who takes on sister Rose (Katherine Hepburn) on his boat over the Ulanga river out to the lake and safety. Adding to this first adventurous and dangerous trips, passing through a few wild rafts and a waterfall, and attacks by Germans from their fort above, is attacking and destroying the German navy at the entrance to the lake a the end of the film.


On a beautiful and colorful but dangerous wild life background of the African river running through a jungle, that was rightly filmed in Technicolor, the film is all about what is going on between the two on the boat. The relationship between the gentle full of etiquette British Christian missioner, sister Rose and the rough and alcoholic Canadian captain Charlie, is an original and one of the best ever screened. The film in addition to its twisted few adventures along the way, holds emotional and twists that ends in a romance, changing the whole relationship between the two travelers. Again in the hands of Huston, both actors play their best in unusual and unexpected roles for both, and this time while both were nominated for academy awards, only Bogart wins it as his only Oscar award of his life.

Another Classic Beyond Borders:

While in early 1950’s, Hollywood was self-absorbed with movie themes about herself and awarding themselves like “All about Eve” and “Sunset Boulevard”, John Huston, once again after “Treasures of Sierra Madre” broke the convention and took us beyond the borders with “The African Queen”. His “Treasures of Sierra Madre”, the first American film being shot out of Hollywood and on real location in the roughs of Mexico, was followed only a few of years later by “The African Queen”, being shot in location in the East African rivers and jungle. This time in Technicolor, the film was not just rich in touching the human’s relationship and inner natures, but their struggles for survival in the wild and while at the stake of enemy at war.


The film about the relationship between two, opposite and different in many ways, on a small boat on a wild river in Africa, is a rarity in cinema, specially the American’s. This time different than “Treasures of Sierra Madre”, the film while again dialogue dependent, but not as heavy and philosophical, but simple, ordinary, reaching more the depth of humans’ feelings, so at the end draws the two different and opposite to each other. The film with its beautiful cinematography and gripping acting in two unusual roles for two popular Hollywood actors, is heart warming, adventurous and romantic.


The opening scene while showing the titles and credits, filming through the African jungle, showing tropical greens, the songs of the birds and sounds of the jungle animals. Then this merges movingly in zoom on an east African village, mixing with the hymns of villagers in the church who just like animals only making noises, not able to follow the religious singing of the pastor and sister Rose, a brother and sister. All these interrupted with the honk of the African Queen arriving to the village and Captain Charlie intercepting the ceremony more by throwing his unfinished cigar to the villagers, who run out of the church in struggle to get it.

Invited to an afternoon tea in British style, dirty and in need of bath and hungry with his growling stomach, Charlie is ignored of his hunger, but politely offered sugar in his tea by sister Rose and his pastor brother. Upon leaving the tea table and farewell to the couple, Charlie telling them that could be his last time visit and bringing their mail, due to outbreak of the war in Europe that surprises the brother and sister. When they are warned to leave the village as the Germans would arrive soon, they refuse and want to witness their church and the village being totally burned down by the Germans. Soon Rose’s brother dies with a fever, then she has no choice to leave with Charlie on the African Queen.

Before departure, sister Rose comes up with a heroic idea of building torpedo, with the oxygen and hydrogen cylinders and explosive gelatins aboard, attaching to the Africa Queen, striking and blowing the German navy, waiting for them at the entrance of the river to the lake. Here the film takes on a heroic and war missionary content and twist, to only be accomplished at the end, after a failure attempt. This dangerous voyage down the river facing a German fort, shooting at them form the cliffs above, and challenged by a few rapids, on the screen was a novelty and heroic to be filmed on the location and was possible only by risk taking and adventurist, but yet deep thinker, John Huston.


The film goes through not only adventurous twists and actions of survival down the wild river, it also goes through some emotional twists. At the start and for a while the relationship between the two is rigid and polite on the side of sister Rose who still calls Charlie by his last name.  In the first pouring night, Rose does not let Charlie sleep inside the boat, but outside on the open deck in the rain. Charlie uptight in this rigid relationship on a dangerous voyage, starts drinking to the point of expressing himself and raising his voice against Rose, then passing out. Waking up still hang over, observing Rose emptying all his gin bottles to the river, changes the relationship between the two from then on. Charlie shaves his face and looks more normal and interesting, and when Rose is taking off a thorn of his foot and touching him for the first time, a positive emotion shines on her face, suddenly sees thing more beautiful, like the wild jungle flowers for the first time, asking their names from Charlie. Here Charlie while putting his hands on Rose’s Shoulder, she holds his hands, then the two enter a suddenly revelation of a romance between them, kissing then sleeping together.


In the morning after, Rose makes tea for Charlie who’s is still sleeping, surprised by being offered “breakfast in the bed”. Then for the first time Rose who has been calling Charlie by his last name up to this point, asking his first name. From here on, there a romance is added to the wild and dangerous trip, and Charlie starts calling her Rosy instead of Sister. Added a different loose flavor to the romance and adventure, is the scene of Charlie, making fun of the hypos in the river by copying their nasal sounds, that is uplifting and placed in the right moment of the film.

At the end of the river, it seems that all is lost when the boat lands in a muddy marsh. But the determination of sister Rose and the roughness and practicality of man of all trade, Charlie, make him to pull the boat through the maze of marsh that does not seem to have any exit. Charlie in his endeavor to pull the boat out, is attacked by leeches and finally runs a fever and is passed out on the boat. Rose also exhausted physically from thirst and hunger, as they had run out of water and food, before passing out, prays for them both being joined in heaven as a couple. All these scenes have been elegantly filmed and acted by the two great actors in a beautiful cinematographic background.


While the couple are both passed out, a heavy rain fills up the marsh and the boat starts drifting out and when both wake up the next day, find themselves at the entrance to the lake. Noticing the German navy far in the lake, they have to pull back the African Queen to the hiding in the marsh. Here they wait for the nightfall to execute their military and patriotic action of running their boat with the ready made torpedo to the German ship, destroy it and swim themselves to the safety of the shore.

But another heavy storm floods and capsizes the boat while they are directing it towards the German boat at night, and all their plan and hope were lost. Charlie loses the sight of Rose in all these and later on he is seen captured and interrogated by the German officers aboard the ship and sentenced to the death by hanging as a spy. But at this moment, Rose who was thought to have been drowned, is also captured by the Germans and brought to the ship, and now both are sentenced to death when Rose tells the officers all the truth of their plan out of pride.


African Queen

Before the execution, Rose requests the German captain to wed them that her wish is fulfilled reluctantly. Just as they are about to be hanged on the deck of the ship, there is a big explosion in the German boat as it had struck the overturned hull of their African Queen. Finally their plan was executed though late, now as a man and wife, they both happily and singing swim to the shore and the films ends.


In closing remarks “The African Queen” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality:“The African Queenis an original classic for an adventure, romance genre film in a background of the wild jungle and rivers of Africa, beautifully cinematographed in Technicolor. All these and the surprising great acting of both Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, all in a small boat were much ahead of its time.
  2. Technicality:The technicality of “The African Queen” is foremost in the adventure seeking and filming of its director, John Huston to film again on location, but this time in the wild of Africa. Added to this is its beautiful cinematography and superb acting, also the sound, editing and the score of the film are all commendable.
  3. Impact Factor:The influence of “The African Queen” has been on John Huston himself who makes another adventurous film of “Moby Dick” later on, but on other films and filmmakers in US and abroad, in making adventures and romance genres, and also starting to film on location outside the studios.
  4. Survival:“The African Queen” has survived well to this very day in its rating going higher as years have passed and being still a delight and eye opener when viewed again even by the new generations of filmmakers and real film lovers.



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