skip navigation
The African Queen

The African Queen(1951)

  • Friday, October 3 @ 08:00 PM (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
Up
Down

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:
Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (1)

DVDs from TCM Shop

The African Queen A grizzled skipper and a... MORE > $9.99 Regularly $19.94 Buy Now blu-ray

Articles

powered by AFI

SEE ALL ARTICLES
teaser The African Queen (1951)

SYNOPSIS

Charlie Allnut is the slovenly, drunkard captain of a steamer called The African Queen, which ships supplies to East African villages during World War I. Rose Sayer is the prim sister of a British missionary. When invading Germans kill Rose's brother and destroy the village, Allnut offers to transport Rose back to civilization. She can't tolerate his drinking or gruff manner, and he can't stand her pious, judgmental attitude. Inevitably, this mismatched relationship turns to one of affection as they traverse the treacherous waters and devise an ingenious way to destroy a German gunboat.

Director: John Huston
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Screenplay: James Agee and John Huston, based on the novel The African Queen by C.S. Forester
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Editing: Ralph Kemplen
Art Direction: Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Allan Gray
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut), Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer), Robert Morley (Reverend Samuel Sayer), Peter Bull (German Captain), Theodore Bikel (German First Officer), Walter Gotell (German Officer), Peter Swanwick (German Officer), Richard Marner (German Officer), Gerald Onn (German Officer), John von Kotze (German Officer), Harry Arbour (German Sergeant Major).
C-106m.

Why THE AFRICAN QUEEN is Essential

Shot on location in the Belgian Congo in deepest Africa, The African Queen was a true original and had everything one could want in a movie: romance, adventure, humor, drama, spectacular locations and two Hollywood icons in the leads.

To shoot a film on location in such a remote area was extremely rare for 1951. Movies with exotic locations were usually shot in the studios with painted backdrops and Huston's achievement was a pioneering step in motion picture making.

The African Queen marked one of the few times acclaimed novelist and film critic James Agee collaborated with a director on a screenplay. When he became too ill to travel to the African locations to complete the screenplay, screenwriter Peter Viertel was brought in to complete it and help John Huston devise a satisfactory climax to the film. The movie was a uniquely personal project for Huston, who indulged in one of his favorite pastimes - hunting - during down time on location; it later served as the inspiration for Peter Viertel's novel White Hunter Black Heart which Clint Eastwood directed and cast himself as the surrogate John Huston protagonist.

The African Queen was a big box office and critical success, honored with four Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. It also provided a major career boost for the director and his two stars. In fact, Humphrey Bogart scored his biggest triumph with his role as Charlie Allnut, and he won his only Academy Award as Best Actor for it.

by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser The African Queen (1951)

Trivia and Fun Facts for THE AFRICAN QUEEN

Real leeches were used on Bogart for the scene where gets covered in them while towing the boat in chest-high water.

Producer S.P. Eagle is really Sam Spiegel - that was his alias.

The ants were so severe in the sleeping quarters that the legs of the beds had to be placed in pools of kerosene.

Future Academy Award-winning actress Anjelica Huston was born to John Huston's wife Ricki during the making of The African Queen.

According to the web site "The Greatest Films" (http://www.filmsite.org/afri.html)"There were three other endings that were considered, but dropped:
-the rescue of Charlie and Rose by a British warship after their battle against the Louisa
-Rose proposes marriage before the first available British consul
-Charlie remembers a wife left behind over 20 years ago in England"

Buzz started early that Bogart would win a much overdue Academy Award for his performance in The African Queen, which Bogie shrugged off. He publicly expressed his distaste for actors competing against each other, but deep down, according to Lauren Bacall, he did want to win.

When the Academy Awards ceremony was held, Bogart was certain that Marlon Brando would win for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Bogart, however, was a sentimental favorite on top of being a fine actor. At first it looked like Streetcar would win everything: Vivien Leigh had already beaten Katharine Hepburn, and Karl Malden had taken the award as Best Supporting Actor. Then Greer Garson announced Bogart as Best Actor. "A scream went up in the audience," said Lauren Bacall, who was then four months pregnant with their second child. "I leaped into the air-thought I'd have the baby then and there." Bogart was touched, and made a gracious acceptance speech for this career milestone.

As a present to Humphrey Bogart on Oscar® Night, Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall had a model replica made of The African Queen with the inscription: "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." It was one of Hepburn's lines in the film.

Humphrey Bogart's third wife, Mayo Methot, died during the filming of The African Queen. When he heard the news, Bogart said, "Too bad. Such a waste."

The African Queen was originally thought of as a vehicle for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester at RKO.

Famous Quotes from THE AFRICAN QUEEN

"Well I ain't sorry for you no more, ya crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!" Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) to Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn).

"How do you know? You never tried it."

"Well, yeah, but I never tried shooting myself in the head neither." Rose and Charlie.

"God has not forsaken this place, Mr. Allnut, as my brother's presence here bears witness." Rose to Charlie.

"I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!" Rose to Charlie.

"Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above." Rose to Charlie.

"By the authority vested in me by Kaiser William II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution." Captain of the Louisa (Peter Bull) while presiding over Charlie and Rose's wedding.

"What an absurd idea! What an absurd idea! Lady, I may be a born fool, but you got ten absurd ideas to my one, and don't you forget it!" Charlie to Rose.

"One thing in the world I hate: leeches. Filthy little devils." Charlie Allnut.

"Dear Lord, we've come to the end of our journey, and in a little while we'll stand before you. I pray for you to be merciful. Judge us not for our weaknesses, but for our love and open the doors of heaven for Charlie and me." Rose, praying.

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen began as a novel written by English author C.S. Forester and published in 1935. This unique adventure story about the relationship between a prim spinster and the scruffy boat captain who takes her down the river was kicked around as a potential movie idea for years in Hollywood. RKO thought about making it with Charles Laughton and his actress wife Elsa Lanchester, but ultimately the project was scrapped. The thinking was that audiences would not want to see a romance between two middle-aged people. One script reader's notes at RKO reads, "It is dated, incredible, quite outside acceptable dramatic screen material...Its two characters are neither appealing nor sympathetic enough to sustain interest for an entire picture...Both are physically unattractive and their love scenes are distasteful and not a little disgusting. It's no bargain at any price. No amount of rewriting can possibly salvage this dated yarn."

Still, others saw potential in The African Queen. In 1946 Warner Bros. bought it as a possible vehicle for Bette Davis. That never came to fruition, however, and by 1947 they were trying to unload the property.

Director John Huston, who had always been a fan of the book, wanted desperately to purchase the rights to the property with his producing partner Sam Spiegel as a project for their independent film company, Horizon Pictures. Warner Bros. was willing to sell it to them for $50,000, but even between the two men they couldn't come up with the cash. They racked their brains to come up with a way to get the money. Finally, Sam Spiegel decided to approach Sound Services, Inc., a company that specialized in supplying sound equipment to studios, and see if they would give them the full amount to finance the project. Sound Services, Inc. wasn't in the business of loaning money to purchase film properties, but Spiegel promised the company that not only would Horizon pay back every cent, but they would also use Sound Services equipment to make The African Queen, giving them full credit in the finished film. Sound Services agreed, and the project became theirs.

Huston was adamant that writer James Agee would be the one to help him write the screenplay. Agee was a poet, novelist and film critic whose work Huston had always admired. The two men had become friendly years before when Huston sent Agee a note of appreciation for a review he had written for The Battle of San Pietro (1945) in Time Magazine, which Huston found "sensitive and perceptive." It was the first and only time Huston ever corresponded with a critic. Huston and Agee didn't meet in person until later when Agee did a profile on Huston for Life magazine. As the two became friends, Agee confessed to Huston his secret desire to write screenplays.

When The African Queen project came around, Huston thought immediately of his friend Agee and offered him the job. Agee agreed and flew out to California, where he and Huston holed up in a resort hotel outside of Santa Barbara to work on the screenplay. They set a strict regimen for themselves of work and exercise. Though they got a tremendous amount done, Agee was not taking care of himself-he was drinking, smoking and eating too much and not getting enough sleep. Before they could finish the script, Agee had a heart attack and was out of commission for a lengthy recuperation.

Meanwhile, Huston was searching for the ideal leads. Katharine Hepburn was the first one contacted. In 1950 she was touring with the stage production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, which was currently playing in Los Angeles. Sam Spiegel sent her a copy of the original novel The African Queen to read while she was staying at the home of her good friend Irene Selznick. She read it and loved it, knowing that the part of Rose would be perfect for her.

Sam Spiegel came out to visit Hepburn, and the two discussed the project and potential actors to play opposite her. Charlie Allnut was supposed to have a Cockney accent, which limited their choices until Spiegel suggested Humphrey Bogart. They both thought him perfect for the part and simply decided to make his character Canadian, which would solve the problem of the Cockney accent. As Katharine Hepburn later wrote in her 1987 book The Making of the African Queen; or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, "Now, looking back at that conversation-can you imagine anyone but Bogie playing that part? He was really it-hook, line and sinker".

John Huston and Humphrey Bogart had worked well together previously on The Maltese Falcon (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Key Largo (1948) so Huston called up his old pal and said, "Hey, old son, I have a great property. The hero's a low-life, and since you're the biggest low-life in town the part is therefore ideal for you!" Though Bogart wasn't keen on shooting in Africa, he trusted his friend Huston. "He's brilliant and unpredictable," said Bogart of Huston. "Never dull. When I work with John, I think about acting. I don't worry about business." Huston, in turn, called Bogart "an ideal collaborator and companion...He's a joy to work with...his figure seemed to find its way into whatever I did."

Bogie had never worked with Katharine Hepburn, and neither had John Huston for that matter. The actor was somewhat leery of working with her, having heard she could be difficult. However, when Bogie and Huston met with Hepburn, she won them over. In her 1979 autobiography By Myself, Lauren Bacall (Humphrey Bogart's wife) said that Bogie had never wanted to travel out of the country, but she herself was longing to go and see the world. "Bogie," she said, "liked his life as it was; going to New York was all the traveling he wanted to do. Finally Sam Spiegel told Katharine Hepburn that he had Bogie and John - told John that he had Bogie and Katie - told Bogie that he had John and Katie - and The African Queen was put together."

John Huston was excited about going on location to Africa and was adamant about shooting it in color, even though it meant more hassles and expense. He felt that color would bring an element of vivid richness to the exotic locale that would bring people into the theater. "I had to do this film on location," explained Huston in an interview. "I wanted these characters to sweat when the script called for it. On a sound stage you fake it, but in Africa you don't have to imagine that it's hot, that it's so hot, that it's so humid and wet that cigarettes turn green with mold; it really is hot and clothes do mildew overnight-and when people sweat it isn't with the help of a make-up man. Africa was the only place to get what I was after."

Securing financing for the ambitious project was complicated. Most banks were uneasy about putting up money for a film that would be shot in such a remote location. There was unpredictable weather to consider along with a host of logistical problems. A new London based company called Romulus Productions, however, was eager to lure Hollywood talent overseas, so they took a chance and provided most of the film's financial backing.

As preparations began, Katharine Hepburn was still waiting to see a finished script. She was growing increasingly irritated with Huston's vagueness about the details, and she often sensed that Huston was avoiding her altogether. It was the first time she had worked with the eccentric director, and she didn't know what to make of him. Bogart tried to reassure her that this was the way Huston always worked.

Pressured to complete the screenplay, Huston dashed off a rather hasty ending just to get something on the page before rushing off to England with Sam Spiegel to begin location scouting. James Agee, they hoped, would eventually join them in Africa to finish the script.

Once in Africa, Huston and Spiegel began scouting the dense jungle areas by air. They were looking for a dark, winding body of water like the one described in the original novel. They logged 25,000 flying miles over the areas, and finally, there it was - the Ruiki, a tributary to the Lualaba that was ink black with decaying vegetation. The area in the Congo was so remote that it wasn't marked on most atlases. It was exactly what Huston wanted.

by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser The African Queen (1951)

For the temporary production headquarters, John Huston set up shop in Kindu (then called Ponthierville) which was little more than a collection of tin roof huts at the end of a small railway line that carried river cargo to and from the nearest town, Stanleyville. Huston hired locals to clear an area and build a camp for the production within 8 days. There were makeshift dorms, bungalows, offices, a storage hut, makeup hut, a dining area and, of course, a bar. With added cots, chairs and mosquito netting, the camp was ready for habitation just prior to the arrival of the rest of the cast and crew. It would prove to be an adventure of a lifetime for all involved.

John Huston and Sam Spiegel settled into their makeshift camp in Africa, and the other cast and crew arrived shortly thereafter. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who came along for the ride, traveled together via London, and Katharine Hepburn arrived solo.

Bogart hated Africa immediately and was miserable, but Hepburn adored it, calling it "utterly divine." Bogie complained about everything: the heat, the humidity, the dangers, the food. "While I was griping," said Bogart in a later interview, "Katie was in her glory. She couldn't pass a fern or berry without wanting to know its pedigree, and insisted on getting the Latin name for everything she saw walking, swimming, flying or crawling. I wanted to cut our ten-week schedule, but the way she was wallowing in the stinking hole, we'd be there for years."

John Huston loved being in Africa just as much as Hepburn, which further irritated Bogart. Huston took his time with everything and was in no rush to leave. Huston became intent on shooting an elephant while he was there, fancying himself a great hunter. Whenever it would rain, which was often, Huston would go off hunting with his rifle, obsessed with bagging his ever-elusive elephant. "John really became a white hunter in Africa," wrote Lauren Bacall in her autobiography, "he believed he was one-and he adored it; he didn't care how long he stayed. That was John. Bogie was different-he wanted to be back in civilization."

Though Hepburn was having the time of her life in Africa, she was dubious about the production in the beginning. "Frustrated rage was my constant mood," she said. She remained alarmed at the lack of a completed screenplay from Huston, lack of clear communication, the vagueness of the details, and the general attitude of just winging it. She didn't really know Bogart or Huston except that they made great movies together and liked to drink - a pastime she took no pleasure in, having dealt with Spencer Tracy's alcoholism for years. To make matters worse, Huston and Bogart enjoyed having fun with the haughty Hepburn. "Both Bogie and I teased Katie unmercifully at the beginning," said John Huston in his 1980 autobiography An Open Book. "She thought we were rascals, scamps, rogues. We did everything we could to support this belief. We pretended to get roaring drunk. We even wrote dirty words in soap on her mirror. But eventually she saw through our antics and learned to trust us as friends."

In Africa at that time, moving heavy film equipment and supplies was a tricky undertaking. The roads in the area were at best just narrow paths cut out between jungles. For shooting on the river, they built the steam powered African Queen; another boat for towing the Queen with a generator, lights and reflector platforms; followed by a raft with heavy camera equipment and a small crew from Britain; another raft with props and sound equipment; and finally a floating makeshift dressing room/toilet for Katharine Hepburn made with bamboo. Hepburn had insisted on having the privacy of a dressing room, but after having it dragged up the river several times it was clear that it was totally impractical, so she valiantly gave it up.

Hepburn had insisted that Huston use Doris Langley Moore as her costume designer, as her costumes were meticulous period recreations. The brutal heat and humidity of the area, however, made it impossible for the clothes, costumes or anything to dry completely, and mold would even grow on the fabric. Hepburn desperately wanted a full-length mirror in order to check her appearance between takes, and she got one. She lugged the cumbersome mirror all over the jungles of Africa-until it broke in half. Without blinking, Hepburn carried around the larger broken half without complaint.

Shooting The African Queen was slow going. Tempers often flared and the cast and crew faced constant dangers and difficulties including torrential rains that would close down shooting, wild animals, poisonous snakes and scorpions, crocodiles, armies of ants, water so contaminated that they couldn't even brush their teeth with it, and food that was less than appetizing. "We decided first night out that it was advisable not to ask what we were eating," said Lauren Bacall, "we didn't want to know." Often the cumbersome raft carrying equipment behind the African Queen refused to follow the curve in the river while being transported, and the heavy scorching boiler would come close to tipping over. Cameras and lamps would get caught on overhanging shrubbery, boats would get caught on submerged logs, the boat engine would stop abruptly, or hornets would attack the cast and crew while shooting. To complicate matters, there was a language barrier between the film people and the locals that led to wild misunderstandings. For instance, for the scene that called for Brother Samuel's mission to be burned by the Germans, the crew built a village for the express purpose of burning it down. Huston asked a local leader to bring a bunch of locals to be extras in the scene. However, when the day came for filming, not one of them showed up. It turned out that a rumor had spread among them that the film people were cannibals and it was a trap-anyone who came would be eaten.

Since she was the only one not directly involved in the filming, Lauren Bacall helped out by preparing lunches for the cast and crew. Bogart was miserable-the jungle noises kept him up at night along with the scorching heat and humidity, and he and Huston drank too much. Bacall did her best to be cheerful and make their accommodations as homey as possible. Slowly but surely she forged a friendship with Katharine Hepburn, while Bogie worried about whether or not they would ever get out of Africa.

Bacall also played nursemaid to the cast and crew whenever anyone got sick, which was often. There was dysentery, malaria, and bites from all sorts of bugs to deal with. One night a crew member even came down with appendicitis. Bacall saved the day by being the only one who had thought to bring antibiotics, which were given to the man before he was rushed to the closest hospital in Stanleyville for emergency surgery. Even the stoic Katharine Hepburn finally succumbed to illness towards the end of shooting, though she had taken every precaution imaginable.

Even though bottled water was brought in, boiled and treated with halazone tablets, people still got sick. The only two people who seemed to be immune were John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. "Bogie and I never got sick," wrote Huston in his autobiography, "possibly because we always drank scotch with our water."

Bogart and Hepburn worked very well together and discovered a chemistry between the two characters that wasn't fully developed in the novel and gave the film a welcome dose of humor. At first, however, John Huston felt that Hepburn was playing her role much too seriously. It didn't help matters that the corners of Hepburn's mouth naturally turned down, making it appear that she was frowning. The relationship between Huston and Hepburn up to this point was somewhat strained. She sill looked upon him with frustration and mistrust, and Huston felt like she ignored all of his suggestions.

One night, Huston had a talk with Hepburn and told her that he felt she was playing her role too intensely. He suggested that she use Eleanor Roosevelt as a reference point for inspiration, noting the way Roosevelt's smile seemed always full of hope. For the rest of her career, Hepburn always cited this simple advice as the best piece of direction she had ever received from any director. All of her doubts about Huston vanished. "I was his from then on," she said. "He may have no common sense-he may be irresponsible and outrageous. But he is talented. He ain't where he is for no reason."

Writer James Agee, who had worked with Huston on the screenplay back in California and had suffered a debilitating heart attack, was never in good enough health to join Huston in Africa to continue working on the script. Huston therefore asked another writer, Peter Viertel, to fly over and help him. The author of the original novel, C.S. Forester, had told Huston that he had never been completely satisfied with the way the book ended. In fact, he had tinkered with the ending so much that two different endings found their way to publication - one for the American version, and another for the English. Huston found neither of them satisfying and always felt that the film should have a happy ending. He set about to write a new ending with Peter Viertel's help and together they pounded out the final scenes that exist in the completed film.

With only two days left to go on the shoot, everyone was on edge and ready to go home. When Huston announced that he would need three additional days to film, there was a near mutiny. Bogart was furious and so was the crew. Huston tried to appease everyone with a rousing "team spirit" speech, which was met with frustration. The cast and crew agreed to stay longer, but they believed that the schedule could be speeded up if they all pulled together. They decided on the last Friday to record all of the sound over Saturday and Sunday, while all props and electrical equipment could be shipped out Sunday night. Only the camera, a few crew members, and Bogart, Hepburn and Huston would remain until the very end. The last location shots were completed by noon on Monday, with everyone going straight to the airport. Bogart was elated to be out of there.

On the way back to the United States, they stopped in London to shoot some more interiors, some underwater filming in a studio tank, and the scenes with Robert Morley (who never went to Africa), who played Rose's missionary brother. Bogart still had some difficult scenes to shoot - in London he had to face a handful of real leeches for one of the film's more memorable scenes. But, as production finally ended and everyone made it back safely to the U.S., everyone had become lifelong friends with nothing but good things to say about each other. "It was a wonderful experience," said John Huston in a 1984 interview. "One of the happiest I've ever had" - even though he never did shoot that elephant.

by Andrea Passafiume

back to top
teaser The African Queen (1951)

AWARDS AND HONORS

The African Queen was nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Best Director (John Huston) and Best Screenplay (James Agee and John Huston). Humphrey Bogart won for Best Actor.

In 1994 it was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry.

It was named #17 on AFI's 100 Greatest Movies List and #14 on AFI's 100 Greatest Love Stories List and #48 on AFI's Most Inspiring Movies list.

THE CRITIC'S CORNER THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

"Just offbeat enough in story, locale and star teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to stimulate the imagination. It is a picture with an unassuming warmth and naturalness that can have a bright box office chance through good selling and word-of-mouth...Performance-wise, Bogart has never been seen to better advantage. Nor has he ever had a more knowing, talented film partner than Miss Hepburn." New York Times.

"(Huston's) lively screen version...is a slick job of movie hoodwinking with a thoroughly implausible romance, set in a frame of wild adventure that is as whopping as its tale of offbeat love. And the main tone and character of it are in the area of the well-disguised spoof...there is beauty and excitement...While the hardships were said to be oppressive, he and his producer, S.P. Eagle (Sam Spiegel), have been repaid. Their picture is doubly provided with the insurance of popularity." The New York Times.

"Filmed in the Congo, the movie, rich in pictorial beauty, is virtually a Technicolor cook's tour of jungle wonders, further enriched by performances unmatched by anything Hepburn and Bogart have yet contributed to the screen. The African Queen is one of the best pictures of the year-a mature, deeply touching, adult romance linked to a first-rate thriller." --Cue.

"The movie is not great art, but it is great fun. Essentially it is one long, exciting, old-fashioned movie chase. Filmed in the Belgian Congo and Uganda by Director John Huston, it tells its adventure yarn in a blaze of Technicolor, fine wild scenery and action. Bogart, cast as a Canadian instead of a Cockney, does the best acting of his career as the badgered rumpot who becomes a man and a lover against his will. Katharine Hepburn is excellent as the gaunt, freckled, fanatic spinster. Their contrasting personalities fill the film with good scenes, beginning with Bogart's tea-table agony as the indelicate rumbling of his stomach keeps interrupting missionary Robert Morley's chitchat about dear old England." --Time.

"Impossible to deny this film's entertainment value, even if it's hardly the great classic it's often claimed to be...A witty script by James Agee (from C. S. Forester's novel) and fine colour photography by Jack Cardiff help to counteract the basically contrived and implausible nature of the story." - Geoff Andrew, TimeOut Film Guide.

"...it is one of the most charming and entertaining movies ever made...The story, set in central Africa in 1914, is so convincingly acted that you may feel a bit jarred at the end; after the lovers have brought the boat, the African Queen, over dangerous rapids to torpedo a German battleship, Huston seems to stop taking the movie seriously." - Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies.

"Despite some unfortunate studio sets mixed in with real African footage achieved through great hardship by all concerned, this is one of those surprising films that really work, a splendidly successful mixture of comedy, character and adventure." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.

"A sure-fire "feel-good" movie.....Fifty-three-year-old Bogart and 45-year-old Hepburn get sexier by the minute...this is perhaps the cinema's greatest romantic adventure which is set in the 20th century - films such as Romancing the Stone [1984] were greatly influenced by it." - Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic.

"The emphasis in the film is on the change in the characters of Rose and Charlie and on the stupidity of war. Bogart, in the role of the dissolute riverboat captain, gives a superb and many-layered performance....but he is more than matched by Hepburn's authoritative creation of the shy spinster; the scenes of their dawning love for each other are a delight. This is one of Huston's favorite films." - Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films.

Compiled by Andrea Passafiume & Jeff Stafford

back to top
teaser The African Queen (1951)

"A story of two old people going up and down an African river... Who's going to be interested in that? You'll be bankrupt."

So spoke British producer Alexander Korda to American producer Sam Spiegel upon learning that Spiegel wanted to film The African Queen. Korda wasn't alone in his skepticism. The novel by C.S. Forester had been making the Hollywood rounds since its 1935 publication. Columbia originally bought it as a vehicle for Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester. When that duo instead made The Beachcomber (1938), a similar story, the deal fell through. Warner Bros. then bought it for Bette Davis and David Niven, but that deal also unraveled before the property ultimately found its way to Spiegel. "It will give John [Huston] the kind of commercial hit he had when he made The Maltese Falcon [1941]," Spiegel boasted to The New Yorker before shooting even began. But Spiegel would turn out to be right: the roughly $1.3 million gamble turned out to be not only a critical success, earning four Oscar nominations, but a huge commercial hit, pulling in $4.3 million in its first release.

The African Queen (1951) is set at the beginning of WWI. German troops set fire to an African village, resulting in the death of an English missionary. His straightlaced sister Rose (Katharine Hepburn), now alone, is taken aboard a riverboat, the African Queen, by its gin-soaked Canadian skipper, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). Allnut would love to sit out the war just drinking and smoking, but Rose convinces him otherwise; newly invigorated and desiring revenge, she persuades him to take her downriver where they will try to destroy a German U-boat using homemade torpedoes. Along the way, the unlikely pair falls in love.

The location shoot in the African Congo turned out to be one of the most difficult, most legendary, and most recounted in Hollywood history. To start, the company arrived in Africa without a finished script. James Agee had collaborated with Huston on the screenplay, but a heart attack kept Agee from flying to Africa for the shoot and from writing the film's ending. Instead, Peter Viertel came in to help, and he later related his run-ins with Huston in his novel White Hunter, Black Heart, a thinly disguised expose of the making of The African Queen and its director who would rather hunt elephants than shoot film. (Clint Eastwood directed a film version of that book in 1990, playing the Huston character himself.) Hepburn's entertaining 1987 book The Making of the African Queen also details Huston's obsession with hunting. One day he even convinced Hepburn to join him, and he inadvertently led her into the middle of a herd of wild animals from which they were lucky to escape alive.

Other location problems included sun, rain, snakes, scorpions, crocodiles, tsetse flies, hornets, huge biting black ants, and constant humidity which created mildew everywhere. Further, the African Queen's engine had problems, rope would get tangled in its propellers, sound from the generator would interfere with shots. One night the Queen sank, and it took three days to raise the boat and get it ready again. There also were no toilets except the outhouse back at camp. The food was OK but the dishes were washed in infected river water, and virtually everyone in the cast and crew got sick - except for Bogart and Huston, which they attributed to the fact that they basically lived on imported Scotch. Bogart later said, "All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead."

But in Hepburn's memoir, the shoot nonetheless comes off as a grand adventure, led by John Huston, a man with a strong but odd personality. Hepburn was frustrated with Huston's lack of interest in discussing the script - which Hepburn thought had major problems - before leaving for Africa. Finally he "ambled" up to her hut one morning and began to talk the script over with her. "We had long and amiable arguments," wrote Hepburn. "Nothing much was done, really, and I seemed to be happy. I found that I could be quite honest with John about what I thought, and I also found that where I had good ideas he would take them. Where I was just worrying and confusing the issue, he would say, 'Let it alone.'"

As Hepburn found out from Bogart, Huston's nickname was "the Monster" for the way he tended to treat people around him. He enjoyed seeing his actors suffer, it seemed. Simply deciding to shoot in the Congo was one way of torturing everybody. Another example was the scene in which Bogart finds his body entirely covered with leeches (This was actually shot in the studio in London). Bogart insisted on using rubber leeches. Huston refused, and brought a leech-breeder to the studio with a tank full of them. This made Bogart queasy and nervous - qualities Huston wanted for his close-ups. Ultimately, rubber leeches were placed on Bogart, and a close-up of a real leech was shot on the breeder's chest. Hepburn observed these kinds of incidents, and later wrote of Huston, "I never did see him go to the outhouse. Maybe he never did. Wouldn't surprise me a bit. Would explain a great deal."

Still, for all Huston's oddities and the pranks that he and Bogart pulled on Hepburn (such as writing dirty words in soap on her mirror), she came to respect his talent deeply. One episode in particular won her over for good. The director had been dissatisfied with Hepburn's performance, finding it too serious-minded. He came calling at her hut one day and suggested that she model her performance on Eleanor Roosevelt - to put on her "society smile" in the face of all adversity. Huston left the hut, and Hepburn sat for a moment before deciding, "that is the goddamnedest best piece of direction I have ever heard." Hepburn, Bogart, Huston and Agee went on to earn Oscar® nominations, and Bogart won the Best Actor Academy Award® for the first and only time in his career.

Producer: Sam Spiegel, John Woolf
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: James Agee, John Huston, Peter Viertel, C.S. Forester (novel)
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Film Editing: Ralph Kemplen
Art Direction: Wilfred Shingleton
Music: Allan Gray
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut), Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer), Robert Morley (Rev. Samuel Sayer), Peter Bull (Captain of Louisa), Theodore Bikel (First Officer), Walter Gotell (Second Officer).
C-105m. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

back to top