The African Queen tells the sort of adventure story you don’t see anymore, more interested in characters than big explosions. It’s the simplest of stories but it’s told so perfectly that it elevates the material to the level of classic.
A missionary and his sister are spreading the word of God in German East Africa at the start of the First World War. When German troops decimate the village and take the locals to join their army they leave the Reverend Samuel Sayer (a brief but excellent turn by Robert Morley) injured and so traumatised he loses the will to live. His sister, finding herself alone in the jungle, takes sanctuary with riverboat Captain Charlie Allnut. She persuades him to set out downriver on a mission to destroy a German warship.
As Rose and Charlie, Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are the ultimate mismatched couple – a straight-laced spinster and a gin-swilling riverboat captain who’s almost as dilapidated as his vessel. Hepburn would play similar prim-and-proper parts in years to come but they never matched her role here with its perfect blend of drama and comedy. Throughout the film she switches nimbly between light-hearted moments like the afternoon tea scene and emotional drama as she watches her brother wither away and die.
Bogart is no less impressive as Charlie Allnut, going through a journey that transforms him from a crusty old river rat intent on self preservation to a love-struck convert on what appears a suicide mission. Bogart had nothing in common with Charlie, with the exception that both liked the odd tipple, but he completely convinces as the working class engineer and the film won the actor his only Oscar.
Both actors weren’t typical Hollywood stars. Bogart didn’t have the looks of your usual leading man and Hepburn, particularly by this point in her career, was no oil painting despite the studio's attempt to portray her as such (just take a look at the film’s poster). Yet they showed that talent was far more important than looks and by this stage were two of the world’s biggest movie stars. In his commentary on the UK DVD of the film, cinematographer Jack Cardiff mentions some other actors who were considered for the parts (Bette Davis and David Niven!) but this is one of those films where it’s impossible to envisage anyone else in the roles.
Director John Huston loved to shoot on location, no matter how far flung that location was, not only making The African Queen in Uganda but also The Barbarian and the Geisha with John Wayne in Japan. It gives them a sense of authenticity absent from many of the films of the era. How much of Huston’s desire to go to Africa was down to The African Queen and how much to his wanting to hunt big game is open to speculation (check out Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart for a fictionalised take on the production) but whatever the reason, it resulted in an amazing visual experience brilliantly captured by ace cinematographer Jack Cardiff.
With the exception of Huston and Bogart everyone in the cast and crew fell ill during the production and Hepburn didn’t fully recover until some months after her return to America. The experience made such an impact on the actress that years later she wrote a book about it — The Making of The African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. Incidentally the director and leading man avoided ill health in true Hollywood hellraiser fashion by never drinking the water, Bogart later commenting, "All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead."
The film was worth such hardships however and it remains a firm favourite of movie lovers. On 12 May, the centenary of Hepburn’s birth, IMDb ran a poll asking users to pick their favourite from 15 of the actress’s best films and The African Queen came out on top with over 20% of the 11442 votes.