The film stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in Technicolor. It is an adaptation of the 1935 novel by C. S. Forester. Produced on location in Uganda and the Congo and in British studios such as Isleworth. The budget was moderate for the time, at $1 million. At a running time of 105 minutes, is it worth a watch?
The opening scene is a gathering of African villagers in a British church. An upright English minister and his schoolmarm-type sister are leading the native congregation in an English hymn.
These stereotypes are at first alarming. However, they are merely trying to depict a traditional part of the world, which is then very quickly disrupted and destroyed. The three western characters are also merely caricatures at the beginning. We have the upstanding, uptight vicar, his unworldly and proper sister and the roguish type.
Robert Morley plays the minister, killed by shock when the village is burned down by the Germans. This is their confirmation that their roguish friend Mr Allnut (Bogart) was right: the First World War has broken out between Britain and Germany. Katharine Hepburn plays Rose Sayer, the vulnerable but strong-willed woman who accepts her enforced exit from the village and her missionary work.
Miss Sayer and Mr Charlie Allnut set out together on his steam launch, the African Queen of the title. This film then becomes basically a two-hander. The two characters naturally clash. As obstacles and disasters make their journey downriver ever more challenging, they grow to understand one another and co-operate. Slowly this develops into something more. We would now think this somewhat cliche.
However, this relationship is portrayed by two such skilled actors that it feels nothing of the kind. The nuance and truth they bring to their roles and the story are so strong. They completely drew me in and kept me with them through every high and low.
From modern cinema, we are so used to plot points being laboured and milked until we, the audience, feel almost bored. But films of this era are so different. Many of the scenarios in The African Queen will be familiar as they have become conventions in subsequent films. Here, though, they are fresh and perfectly balanced. There is no unnecessary elongation. Multiple scenes depicting the same character trait are unnecessary. We know who they are, and with each scene the character changes and develops. This change is perfectly clear by the sometimes subtle, sometimes simple, plot devices.
Visually this release is stunning. Everything is so clear and vibrant, both aurally and visually. The cinematography, which makes everything feel so warm and conveys the humid, punishing environment so well, is shown off wonderfully here.
The types are familiar, but the direction keeps every moment compelling and fresh. Some films are a labour of love and persistence to watch. The African Queen is simply a delight. The film richly deserved the praise and recognition of its Oscar nominations; even more than its one win, Bogart’s Best Actor.
When watching this film, I kept expecting more prolonged and laboured scenes. But master director John Huston has crafted such perfect moments here. Nothing felt underdone, and nothing outstayed its welcome. There was no moment when I wondered what was going on. When the closing scene played out, I felt satisfied in a way I rarely do at the end of a film. The African Queen is well worth a fresh viewing.
This edition of The African Queen includes an abundant collection of bonus material, including:
- English subtitles
- Audio commentary with cinematographer Jack Cardiff
- 59-minute feature Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen
- Theatrical Trailer
- Lux Radio Theater adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Greer Garson