There were many misconceptions I brought into my viewing of The African Queen (1951), number sixty-five on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 greatest American films of all time. For starters, I thought it was filmed in black and white. The opening credits quickly take care of that one when it proudly displays the Technicolor logo. I also assumed that it would be full of regressive racial stereotypes. I knew that its stars did not share the same skin pigmentation as those of the continent on which it was filmed, and figured the proceedings would be full of that noblesse oblige that typified black and white cinematic relations at this time. There is a little early on, but otherwise it is pretty innocuous. Further, I did not expect that it would be set during World War I. I do not know what I expected, just not that era, for whatever reason. Finally, I was intent on it not being the most enjoyable experience since it stars Humphrey Bogart. In recent reviews, I have stated that I am not his biggest fan. This one, though, was a pleasant surprise. Read on to find out why.
In the heart of German East Africa (such was how we once referred to portions of the world, unfortunately), The African Queen brings mail and supplies to a British Methodist mission situated in a native village. The title refers to a boat captained and crewed by Charles “Charlie” Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). He arrives at the village in time to miss the cacophony of praise initiated by Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley), with his sister Rose “Rosie” Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) on the organ. After an uncomfortable tea for the gruff Charlie, he informs them that it might be some time before he sees them again due to war breaking out between Germany and Great Britain. The brother and sister are worried, immediately praying for England’s victory, but the fighting seems far away. Unfortunately, it comes to their corner of Africa sooner than later. A unit of African soldiers led by a German officer raids the village, burns it to the ground (including the church), and takes away the residents. Reverend Sayer is distraught, and eventually dies. It is not clear what kills him, but it seems to have something to do with the mental strain of recent events. This leaves Rosie by herself, though Charlie returns quicker than expected when he received word of raids along the river. He helps her bury her brother before they get her belongings and leave. From the start, it is clear that Rosie has her own ideas as to the route they should take. Charlie’s belief is that they should find some secluded place and wait out the war, which would not be too hard to do in a place like Africa. Rosie questions this, and as they look at the map together, he explains the dangers in going down the river. First, there are the natural impediments, namely the rapids, which are dangerous for a rickety vessel like his. The second is the Germans. They occupy a fort along the river’s bank from which they could destroy the boat as it passes. Should they manage the miracle of getting by, there is a larger warship patrolling the inland lake between them and friendly territory. If they somehow made it to that body of water, the Königin Luise would surely sink them. Charlie might as well have said nothing because Rosie is determined that is the course they should take, even believing they could blow up the German warship by rigging torpedoes from the materials onboard. Incredulous, he agrees to go ahead, but all the while looking for excuses to abandon their mission. To pacify himself, he keeps plying himself with gin until she takes his supply and tips it overboard. This is not the only area in which she has taken charge, being the one with the hand on the tiller as they steer the ship forward. What begins to break down the barriers between them is their survival of the various dangers they face. Upon successfully navigating a series of rapids, they find themselves in each other’s arms and kiss. At first, Rosie is shocked by the action, but she soon warms up to Charlie and they fall in love. It is a good thing, too, because they go over a waterfall and do serious damage to the boat. Before, Charlie would have been defeated. Instead, he lets Rosie’s enthusiasm inspire him to carry out repairs under difficult conditions. By the time they get to the estuary where the river empties into the lake, they are determined. Yet, they get lost in the many waterways into which the river splits, and eventually run aground on the mud. Luckily, a rain upstream floats them once more, and they are taken into the lake. They find the Königin Luise waiting. Hence, they retreat back to the estuary to rig the torpedoes. They set out again that night intent on carrying out their mission. Before they can get to the German vessel, a storm comes up and swamps the African Queen. Charlie is picked up by the Germans, and they plan on hanging him as a spy. Rosie suffers the same fate a little while later. They are both to be executed immediately. Charlie asks one last dying request, and that is that they be married and therefore die as a couple. What nobody aboard the Königin Luise realize is that they are headed straight for the half submerged eponymous boat. The warship strikes the African Queen just as the nooses are going onto to Charlie and Rosie’s necks. In the resulting chaos, they manage to slip away and presumably live happily ever after.
Africa is a continent that has been treated horribly by people from other continents, though that is not the point of The African Queen. Instead, it is a thrilling story of adventure in exotic locations. The only reason I bring up colonialism is in relation to the Methodist missionaries. Given how this is depicted, and the way they leave the service as soon as possible, it is evident that the Africans are not thrilled by them. I will not make any comparisons between the protestant approach to such situations to the Catholic one other than to say that if this were a Mass, it would have been done in the language of the people because that is how you evangelize. The bigger point I would like to make is how Katharine prays at the moment when she feels all hope is lost. She is not alone, in film or real life, in turning to God in a moment of desperate need. God loves us no matter if everything is in order or our house is on fire. Instead, what I would point to is the content of her prayer. She simply asks for God’s mercy, particularly since she assumed that they would be meeting him shortly. It is a prayer of surrender. She does not ask for anything specific, just that God show His mercy. That could take a number of forms, but God chose to give them what they needed to live another day. Had they died, at least their souls would have been more prepared. Either way, God is glorified and He responds.
Not to bury the lead with this review of The African Queen, but this is my favorite Bogart film. He is still roughly the same uncouth character as the others, but there is a depth to him here that I find lacking in other entries on his resume. Yet, my real preference here is Hepburn. She is great, and it is because of her that I recommend this film.