THE AFRICAN QUEEN, 1951
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull,
Africa, World War 1. Gin-soaked riverboat captain Charlie Allnut is convinced by strait-laced missionary Rose Sayer to attack a German warship.
Winner of the Best Actor in a Leading Role award at the 1952 Academy Awards
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While Humphrey Bogart's real-life romance with Lauren Bacall ensured fireworks every time they appeared on screen together, there was another woman who was just as capable of lighting up a scene with Bogie. Fiery, energetic and supremely talented, Katharine Hepburn was an excellent foil in this classic John Huston movie. Remarkably, neither Bogart nor Hepburn were the original choices for The African Queen (Bette Davis was offered the role of Rose Sayer a number of times, with David Niven and James Mason both considered for Charlie) but to watch the film now, one couldn't think of a finer double act.
The film takes place in the heart of Africa, where Rose lives and works alongside her brother as a Christian missionary. Crashing into their idyllic community come two poor influences: Charlie Allnut, captain and owner of riverboat the African Queen, who regularly visits with mail and supplies; and World War 1, when the German army run through their encampment, destroying much of the area. When her brother dies, Rose is rescued by Charlie and taken aboard the African Queen. They learn that a German warship, the Louisa, is anchored in a lake downstream and preventing a British advance. Sayer, fuelled by patriotic duty and anger over her brother's death, convinces Allnut to fit two makeshift torpedoes to the front of his boat and attack the Louisa.
What follows is one of cinema's classic "odd couple" stories. Allnut regularly sucks away on bottles of gin while the teetotal Sayer tries to take afternoon tea. Charlie's uncouth behaviour belies a certain charm and chivalry; unaccustomed to having women on his boat, he does his best to protect Rose's modesty, putting himself out for the benefit of her own comfort. Bogart's ability to play it straight has never been in any doubt, but his gift for comedy shines here - and indeed, earned him his only Academy Award. Charlie Allnut is unwashed, unshaven and honest to a fault when drunk, but keenly aware of his mistakes and always working to atone for them, as when he calls Rose a "crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid."
Hepburn, likewise, is excellent as the uptight, fervent Christian woman seeking to bring a little civilisation to a savage land. To do this she soon learns a little savagery is no bad thing, becoming more comfortable around Charlie. His rugged charm eventually sees her take more and more of a shine to him, and watching these two very different people grow closer is both heart-warming and hilarious. They’re older and supposedly wiser than your typical romantic leads, and this adds an air of authenticity to their romance - two people who have experienced all that life has to throw at them, capable of looking after themselves but ready and willing to look after each other.
The African Queen is more than a romantic comedy, though. It's a ripping yarn in the best sense of the word, as Allnut and Sayer steer their boat down the wild and dangerous Ulanga River. Battling through white water rapids, African guerrillas and German outposts, the success of their already ridiculous mission becomes less and less assured. When the African Queen becomes stuck in a marshy swamp, Charlie is left to drag the boat onward, attacked constantly by mosquitoes and leeches. It's harsh stuff, to say the least, but that our protagonists endure all this hardship is a shine of their ever-hardening resolve.
Huston shot most of the riverboat scenes in Africa, where he and Bogart subsisted on imported Scotch (Hepburn, as a response to their heavy drinking, consumed only water and ended up suffering from dysentery.) It was by no means an easy shoot, but the director's sure hands guide us through a movie that is a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows. Huston's skill behind the camera earned him an Oscar nomination, as well as a second shared with James Agee for the film's screenplay. With copious wit, charm, excitement and humour, not to mention a dash of great screen chemistry between the leads and an excellent supporting cast, The African Queen is a war movie that proves small people can accomplish incredible deeds.