1 Year, 100 Movies #65 The African Queen (1951)

by Trey Hock on October 23, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

There are some films that, in spite of all of their flaws, maintain a charm and ease about them that makes them hard to criticize. These films are fun, cute, usually have at least a couple of thoroughly likable characters and tell a well-structured story. John Huston’s “The African Queen” is just such a film. It is definitely showing its age. It’s woefully out of date, and sometimes stiff, but it still has a quality that makes this film likable.

It is the story of Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) an irascible riverboat captain in central Africa. He distributes goods and mail from the deck of his small rickety steamboat, The African Queen. Two of his mail recipients are British missionaries, Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) and her brother, Rev. Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley). In 1914 when German forces move across central Africa, the small village, where the sibling missionaries live and work, is burnt to the ground, and all villagers are forcibly recruited.

Samuel falls ill and eventually succumbs to his fever. Charlie, on the run from the Germans, finds Rose alone. He helps to bury Charlie and takes Rose aboard the African Queen. Charlie plans to hide from the German forces on a small mid-river island until the war is over or help finds them, but Rose comes up with a more ambitious plan.

You can see that the characters of Rose and Charlie are great. Her polite civilized manner next to Charlie’s rough approachability sparkles. Bogart and Hepburn both work well together, and it is fascinating to watch two solid actors over 40 verbally spar. Rose wins the argument and the plan moves ahead.

On their journey down the river, they encounter their first set of rapids, and it gets Rose’s blood moving more than this 40ish, unmarried, missionary is used to. (Sound starts at 9 seconds.)

The compositing and visual effects are pretty transparent by today’s standards. They can often be distracting and pull you out of the moment. Luckily the story itself doesn’t rely too heavily on the special effects.

Taken over with excitement that is now tied to their journey and the river, this restrained, stiff, yet adorable middle-aged romance begins to develop. Both actors were past their primes as far as looks. Both were pretty distinct, if not weird looking to begin with. I’m a huge fan of nontraditional beauty, and the fact that that Bogart and Hepburn are not young and sexy gives “The African Queen” some of it’s appeal. This isn’t a romance that one encounters very often.

It does however lead to one of the most awkward on screen kisses of all time, which takes place just after they have made it past a German river base and through some nasty rapids. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

Wow. That’s a tough one to watch.

The journey continues and as the river widens and approaches the lake, the water flattens into a marsh. The African Queen eventually gets stuck, which strands Rose and Charlie. Rose in a quiet moment prays not for help, but absolution. (Sound starts at 9 seconds.)

The exchange is sweet and the prayer sincere and strong. We see that the Queen is very near to the lake, and when the rains come, she is able to gain enough depth to make their destination.

Now Charlie and Rose put their plan of torpedoing the Louisa into action. They fashion the African Queen with her makeshift torpedoes and set off in pursuit of the German ship, but the weather is rough and overturns the Queen before they are able to fulfill their mission.

Rose and Charlie are captured by the Germans and sentenced to death, but before they are hanged, Charlie has one last request. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

“I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution.”

Dry, understated and hilarious. Just when you think you can write off “The African Queen” she gets ya.

We can see the African Queen overturned but still floating on the lake. The outcome is inevitable, and it is no surprise when the Louisa runs into the Queen and detonates the torpedoes. The Louisa sinks and Charlie and Rose swim to safety.

“The African Queen” is probably not worthy of the AFI 100 Years, 100 Movies list. It was filmed largely on location in Africa, and for a film shot in the 1950′s, that is impressive. It still dropped 48 spots on the AFI list from 1998 to 2007. The direction sometimes seems stiff, as does the romance between Hepburn and Bogart, and the special effects are distracting. John Huston was a pillar of American Cinema, but he has two better films further up the list. Even though I would encourage people to check it out and think it’s likable, it may be time to let “The African Queen” go.

Next up #64 “Network” (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #66 Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

1 Year, 100 Movies #67 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

1 Year, 100 Movies #68 Unforgiven (1992)

1 Year, 100 Movies #69 Tootsie (1982)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

Facebook Twitter Google+ 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin October 23, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I agree, Trey. Well put. I just watched this the other day on TCM and it is a looooooong and obvious film. There have been too many odd couple adventures since, but Hepburn and Bogart are 90% of the movie’s charm, so it gets by on that.

Huston has way better movies–I think this one will probably not be on 2017′s list.


2 Nick October 23, 2010 at 5:16 pm

I agree with a lot of your criticism and your overall conclusion, but I feel like you still gave it a tad too much credit. I watched it fairly recently and it’s moments of charm were overshadowed by it’s flaws. I agree that it probably won’t survive the next list. I was excited about the two actors, the premise, and the fact that it was filmed on location, but was pretty disappointed.

I’m excited to see what you have in store for Network. I absolutely love that film.


Leave a Comment


Previous post:

Next post: