At the start of World War 1, German imperial troops burn down Reverend Samuel Sayer’s mission in Africa. He is overtaken with disappointment and passes away. Shortly after his well-educated, snooty sister Rose Sayer (Hepburn) buries her brother, she must leave on the only available transport, a tired river steamboat The African Queen
manned by the ill-mannered bachelor, Charlie Allnut (Bogart). Together they embark on a long difficult journey, without any comfort. Rose grows determined to assist in the British war effort and presses Charlie until he finally agrees and together they steam up the Ulana encountering an enemy fort, raging rapids, bloodthirsty parasites and endlessly branching stream which always seem to lead them to what appear to be impenetrable swamps. Despite opposing personalities, the two grow closer to each other and ultimately carry out their plan to take out a German warship.
John Huston made better, more powerful films than The African Queen
, but none so universally beloved, on first appearance and over the decades since. In this adaptation of the C.S. Forester novel, Humphrey Bogart (who would win the best-actor Oscar®) and Katharine Hepburn costar as an unlikely pair thrown together in German East Africa during the First World War. He's the gin-soaked skipper of what we might call the title character, a none-too-reliable steam launch chugging along the backwaters of the "Dark Continent." Hepburn's a straitlaced Methodist missionary who, following the demise of her bachelor brother (Robert Morley) and the burning of their village by Kaiser Wilhelm's troops, determines that the Queen should be used to attack the Königin Luise, a large German gunboat patrolling a lake downriver. It's an absurd proposition. Then again, John Huston and the absurd were always on familiar terms.
It wasn't until he got to the Congo that the director realized what a funny picture The African Queen was going to be, thanks to the odd coupling of Bogie and Kate: "One brought out a vein of humor in the other, and this comic sense, which had been missing from the book and screenplay, grew out of our day-to-day shooting." Within the gunwales of a not-very-large boat, Huston managed to devise myriad ways to keep his two leading characters on separate visual planes even as circumstance and tender emotional urgency conspired to push them together. This was Huston's first feature film in Technicolor, and the peerless Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes) was there to shoot it. Unfortunately, neither of them could do anything about the process-screen technology needed for, and glaringly inadequate to, the sequence of Bogart and Hepburn shooting the rapids--just about the only lapse in an enchanting fairy tale for adults. The script is credited to Huston and James Agee; the uncredited Peter Viertel, summoned to the African locations to write some additional material, would later fictionalize the experience as White Hunter, Black Heart, a savage roman à clef. --Richard T. Jameson