VOD film review: The African Queen
Bianca Garner | On 31, Jul 2021
Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Morley
Watch The African Queen online in the UK: MUBI UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn – is there a better, more legendary line-up than this one? It’s still hard to believe that The African Queen remains Bogart’s only Oscar win for Best Actor, but it’s a well-deserved win for this iconic actor. Bogart stars as a tough-talking and even tougher-drinking boat mechanic who is tasked with helping Hepburn’s snobbish missionary escape East Africa at the dawn of the First World War. The African Queen has it all: romance, adventure, comedy and great performances from its leading actors. If you’ve never had a chance to experience this film until now, then you’ve been missing out.
Based on the 1935 novel of the same name, written by CS Forester, The African Queen was somewhat revolutionary for its time of release (1951) as a large proportion of the film was filmed on location in Uganda and the Congo. The tales of crew sickness and tough living conditions are the stuff of legend, with Hepburn throwing up into a bucket between takes. Legend says that only Bogart and Huston escaped illness because they drank nothing but Scotch. Bogart apparently claimed that, “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whisky. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.” Knowing the tremendously hard production history behind the film manages to add another magical layer to this mythical film.
It’s September 1914, and Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) along with his sister, Rose (Hepburn), receive news that Germany is at war with Great Britain. The two of them are missionaries based in a small remote village in a German colony with their supplies delivered by a small steam boat called the African Queen, manned by the gin lovin’ Charlie (Bogart). Things take a dramatic turn when German imperial troops arrive at the village and destroy the missionary. Sayer is attacked by a German officer and later dies of a fever. This leaves Rose all alone, with her only means of escape via river and she reluctantly accepts help from Charlie.
While planning their escape, Charlie mentions to Rose that the British are unable to attack the Germans due to the presence of a large gunboat, the Königin Luise, patrolling a large lake downriver. Rose comes up with a plan to convert the African Queen into a torpedo boat and sink the Königin Luise. Charlie points out that navigating the Ulanga River to get to the lake would be suicidal: they would have to pass a German fort and negotiate several dangerous rapids. But Rose is insistent and eventually persuades him to go along with the plan. Along the way, the two have to battle rapids, leeches and romantic feelings for one another.
Despite middling reviews at the time, The African Queen has gone on to become a beloved classic. There’s something so charming about the film that you can’t help but be dazzled by it. The chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn is electrifying. At times, their bickering and bantering is side-splittingly funny, and there’s just something about these two icons of classical Hollywood being together on-screen which further excels The African Queen in terms of quality and enjoyment. There’s something so striking about the two characters that these great actors play that it seems like these roles were specifically written for them. We fully believe that Bogart is a gin-swilling steamboat captain and Hepburn is this uptight missionary who is pining for romance.
The powerful romance story isn’t the only aspect of the film that is noteworthy. This being a John Huston picture – he also directed classics such as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975) – there’s plenty of action and suspense to keep viewers hooked. The effects may be extremely dated in our modern era of CGI, but when putting them in the context of the early 1950s, they are something to be marvelled at. The boat shown going down the rapids, shot through a telephoto lens, was actually a model boat about 8 feet long. Scenes on the boat were filmed using a large raft with a mockup of the boat on top, with sections of the boat set designed to be easily removable to make room for the large Technicolor camera.
The African Queen is one of those rare films that can be enjoyed by anyone, no matter their age. It’s a perfect excuse to gather the family around and escape into the world of Technicolor, romance, adventure and the comedic delights of Bogart and Hepburn. There won’t be a dry eye in the house at the end of the film, and along the way you’ll also be left in stitches. A true classic in every sense of the word.
The African Queen is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.