Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The African Queen’: A Real Adventure

Films that uplift the soul
April 11, 2020 Updated: April 14, 2020

PG | | AdventureDramaRomance | 21 March 1952 (USA)

How many films from 1934 to 1954 have you seen? Everyone recognizes titles like “Gone With the Wind,” “Casablanca,” and “The Wizard of Oz,” but many Americans have watched few or even no old movies. Although they can seem foreign to those unfamiliar with Hollywood’s Golden Era, these movies are worth watching for their artistry, stories, and decency.

Between 1934 and 1954, the Motion Picture Production Code was Hollywood’s moral compass, and no rating system was needed; all films obeyed the Code and were acceptable for all viewers. The Code curtailed violence—not action and excitement—so Code adventure movies came in many genres, including Westerns, war films, and swashbuckling dramas.

A great film for introducing adventure lovers to classic Hollywood is 1951’s “The African Queen,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. This film’s titular queen is a boat, not a person.

In 1914, middle-aged Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and her brother, Samuel (Robert Morley), are British missionaries in German East Africa. A Canadian riverboat pilot, Charlie Allnut (Bogart), brings word that Germany has declared war on England. Soon after, German troops burn down the village, leaving the missionaries as its lone occupants. The tragedy makes Samuel first go insane and then die. Charlie returns the next day and takes Rose aboard his riverboat, the African Queen.

a missionary and ship captain
A missionary (Katharine Hepburn) and ship captain (Humphrey Bogart) meet. (United Artists)

Aboard the steamboat, the journeyers’ lifestyles clash. After the prim spinster shows the unkempt bachelor that she won’t tolerate his drunken disorder, he begins appreciating her company.

Rose decides they must help the war effort by destroying a German ship. To accomplish this mission, they must make the Queen into a torpedo after a treacherous journey downriver. Charlie opposes the plan but eventually agrees. While enduring rapids, pests, and mud, the pair fall in love.

The African Queen-Hepburn and Bogard in swamp
Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) have an incredible adventure together. (United Artists)

An Odd Couple Turns Heroic

Neither Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut nor Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are a likely pair. This is the only film that paired the independent Bryn Mawr actress with the slurred-speech, heavy-drinking tough guy, perhaps because they were as unlikely a couple as these characters. Rose is a proper Englishwoman, who accompanied her missionary brother because she was unmarried; Charlie is a rough sailor who guzzles gin and fends for himself. Despite their differences, we can’t help loving this pair.

a missionary in Africa
Katharine Hepburn, a star for decades, plays a missionary in Africa, in the 1951 film “The African Queen.” (United Artists)

These two characters find strength together that they lack separately. Charlie never would have formulated the plan alone, knowing the danger, and Rose lacked the knowledge and experience to execute the plan alone. Together, they have enough resourcefulness, bravery, and stubbornness to succeed. Since they are so different, they supplement each other. Rose has fearless determination, and Charlie has clever ingenuity. Rose inspires Charlie to be clean, respectable, and selfless, and he teaches her to enjoy life and acknowledge her feelings.

a ship captain
Humphrey Bogart was known for his tough-guy roles. The character of Charlie Allnut was unusual for him. (United Artists)

These characters are not typical adventure-film heroes: athletic, fearless youths setting out to conquer. They are middle-aged strangers united by chance. Rather than just surviving, they risk their lives to aid the Allies’ efforts.

These characters are inspiring because they show that you don’t have to be a predictable hero to be heroic: Anyone, when circumstances require it, can find the bravery and strength to fight for right.

The African Queen’s torpedo expedition is a longshot, but this movie shows that you can find something wonderful when you take risks.

An African Adventure

Africa’s flora and fauna provide this drama’s background through Technicolor footage of “the dark continent.” Although filmmakers frequently created backlot jungles, director John Huston insisted on shooting this film in Uganda and the Belgian Congo. When the cast and crew settled into a makeshift camp in Ponthierville (now Kindu), they began an unforgettable adventure.

The African Queen on location
The African Queen sails on location. The film was shot in Uganda and the Belgian Congo. (United Artists)

During production, the film crew suffered plague-like ordeals straight out of the story, including wild animals, insects, torrential rains, and unbearable heat. Also, the contaminated water made everyone except whiskey-drinkers John Huston and Humphrey Bogart severely sick. Add to that the challenge of communicating with natives needed as extras, who mistook the filmmakers for cannibals! Nevertheless, Katharine Hepburn loved the experience, finding Africa “utterly divine.”

he African Queen-Hepburn and Bogard in swamp2
The actors really experience the travails of Africa: swamps, heat, humidity, insects, and rapids. (United Artists)

The difficult circumstances of this movie’s filming made it a masterpiece. Even the greatest actors can’t fully understand how foreigners might feel in the African wilds when comfortably filming in the Los Angeles Arboretum. Research and imagination can help them embody their characters’ trials, but not like 10 weeks in Africa. Bogie and Kate are Charlie and Rosie because they really did fight the mosquitoes, feel the rain, survive the humidity, and sail on rafts. This movie’s location footage did more than provide accurate, beautiful scenery. It gave the story gripping realism.

A Dramatic Introduction

Modern viewers—even those who aren’t already classic film fans—can enjoy “The African Queen.” First, it was filmed as a period piece (World War I), and so all historical references are explained; old films set contemporaneously can sometimes include vague references to current events that might be unknown to audiences today. Second, it’s in clear, vivid color, for eyes unfamiliar with black and white. Third, the exotic setting gives it a stark realism, which some classic films lack. There is no “Hollywood glamor” here.

The African Queen-Bogart and Huston on set
Humphrey Bogart (left of center) between takes with director John Huston (C) on the set of “The African Queen.” (United Artists)

This movie succeeded because the actors brought the moving story of C.S. Forester’s novel to life. Hepburn’s performance earned her a fifth Academy Award nomination, and Bogart’s won his only Oscar.

“The African Queen” was released almost 70 years ago, but it is as exciting, emotional, and humorous now as in 1952. Its inspiring message of heroism from an unlikely couple in unusual circumstances is always pertinent. If you enjoy adventure dramas, this may be the movie to make you a Code film fan!

‘The African Queen’
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, and Theodore Bikel
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Released: March 21, 1952 (USA)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.