There’s really nothing else quite like The African Queen. Set (and filmed!) in Africa, it tells the story of a missionary’s sister Rose Sayer (Hepburn) fleeing the region after Germany deemed her brother a “hostile foreigner”. His hut is burned down and he is beaten so badly that he remains addled for the few days it takes him to die of fever. With nothing left for her at the village she worked in, she decided to leave on the only transport she could, the titular river-boat captained by hard-drinking grump-meister Charlie Allnut (Bogart).
The pair learns of a rather nasty German submarine sitting in a lake nearby, blocking off access to this part of the region. Not content with merely escaping, Rose decides to do her part for the war effort and blow it up with a home-made torpedo or two. At first Charlie isn’t having any of it, but as the pair travels down the river together they grow closer in mind and spirit. They fight over just about everything, even still, but they look past those differences towards the bond that being in such a terrible situation gives you.
It’s the bond between the characters and the wonderful chemistry between the actors who play them that gives the movie it’s charm. Bogart is really in his element here as Allnut, a crude riverboat captain who’s really only looking to do his job and drink a lot. Hepburn channels her steel spine well into Rose, the high-minded religious woman who seeks to drive Charlie to a higher purpose. And through her uncompromising yet mostly genial nature, she herds him there through the distraction of the bottle and “meager” self-preservation.
When she’s able to channel him into a place where their interests align and things flow smoothly, the effect is electric. It’s like sailing a ship into the current, or channeling base instinct towards a constructive purpose. You’re always shocked by how swiftly and efficiently things get done. That’s the magic between these two at work; you see how well they fit together because of their differences, and it makes you believe in the idea of two opposing yet complementary forces. The id and the super-ego joining to propel the individual towards impossible achievements.
They sure do have to suffer a lot to learn that, though. Not only do they have to navigate each other’s personalities, but they have to deal with the very real dangers of the river as well. Swarms of flies, the tricky rapids and currents that lead the Queen into dead spots that must then be dragged through. The scenes of Rose and Charlie dealing with the elements are incredible, shot with a realism that makes you feel terrible for them and horrified at just some of the many delights the African wilderness can inflict on unsuspecting travelers. Knowing that director John Huston and his stars also had to deal with a lot of tough conditions to film on location only adds to that reaction; Hepburn was sick with dysentery for much of the movie, and they used real leeches for a particularly awful scene.
Another interesting thing about The African Queen — and one of the things that makes it a bit more timeless than other films of its type — is it really gives you a sense of the unique geography of Africa without diving into the thorny socio-political and racial issues of the time. You don’t see too many African jungle adventures that don’t need to come with the disclaimer of “Some racist things happen in this movie, but that’s just the way people thought at the time.” It was nice to have that.
The final set-piece — when the Queen and her crew finally reach the lake where the German sub is positioned — skews things in a distinctly Hollywood direction, but it’s still quite well done. The tonal shift isn’t so jarring it negates the realism of what’s come before, and both Hepburn and Bogart are so charming they pull it off with a minimum of questioning. The African Queen represents old-school filmmaking at its finest while still offering something unique to this day. It’s a great adventure worth getting wrapped up in.