THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

  • Director: John Huston
  • Writers: John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel, and John Collier, based on the novel by C.S. Forester
  • Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Morley, and Peter Bull
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#65), 1 Oscar (Best Actor – Humphrey Bogart), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – John Huston, Best Actress – Katherine Hepburn, Best Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla and Kanopy (library apps),, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent of Amazon Video or YouTube

Over the years, The African Queen has become one of those movies where the story of its making is as famous as the movie itself. I wonder, in fact, how many people these days have actually seen the thing. It’s likely more people are familiar with the movie’s obvious influences, including the Disneyland “Jungle Cruise” ride and the upcoming movie based on it (starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt!) that seems to be basically a remake of this movie by somebody who just watched Pirates of the Caribbean (it was originally supposed to come out last July but keeps getting delayed due to COVID). Before Indiana Jones, this was probably the closest thing we had to a definitive “adventure” movie, which makes it easy to forget that it’s essentially a story of two sweaty middle-aged people falling in love on a rickety boat.

Based on a novel by English writer C.M. Forester, The African Queen is the story of a mismatched couple trying to make it down a river in Central Africa in order to escape after World War I breaks out. Basically, some parts of Africa were British colonies and others were German colonies, a distinction that might not actually have mattered much to random European people on the ground until war broke out and they found themselves suddenly surrounded by enemy territory. Katherine Hepburn plays a prim English missionary who runs a church in a small village in what was then called “German East Africa” with her brother (Robert Morley). But then the Germans come to burn down the village and conscript the inhabitants, and when the brother protests he is struck on the head and dies.

Hepburn’s character is left with no choice but to flee in a small river boat, named, you guessed it, The African Queen, with the coarse captain who brings them their mail, Mr. Allnut (Humphrey Bogart). In the original novel the riverboat captain was English, too, just lower class, but Bogart, perhaps foreseeing the same issues Dick Van Dyke would later run into during Mary Poppins, refused to attempt an accent and the character was changed to Canadian. The latter nine-tenths of the movie is these two trying to make it down the river to British territory, past a series of obstacles that include swarms of insects, alligators, rapids, German forts shooting at them, waterfalls, hippos, torrential rain, a maze of choking papyrus and mud, and, finally, a German gunboat intent on their destruction. They get past all this through equal parts gumption and luck, all the while either bickering, falling in love, or falling in love while bickering. In the end they’re captured by the Germans, but the African Queen (which they had previously packed with explosives) conveniently drifts into the ship and blows it up after the German Captain (Peter Bull, previously mentioned as the Russian Ambassador in Dr. Strangelove) grants Bogart’s “last request” to marry the two of them but before the two of them are actually hanged. Bogart and Hepburn are left holding on the drifting nameplate of their boat, floating in the lake amid parts of the exploded German ship.

This is a movie that seems like it was essentially made because director John Huston thought it would be fun to take a working vacation to Africa, and had enough clout at this point that he could pretty much do what he wanted. He carted Bogart, Hepburn, and a full film crew to the Congo River, where much of the movie was filmed (those scenes that feasibly could be were done on a set in England, but it’s thought about half the river scenes were shot on location). The combination of the mega-stars involved and the fact that the act of shooting the movie was not so different from the dangers depicted in it has made the shoot something of a legend in Hollywood. The entire cast and crew became extremely ill during the shoot, with the sole exceptions of Huston and Bogart, a fact Bogart chalked up to the fact that the two of them were alcoholics, and therefore only drank whiskey instead of the local water. The opening scene of the movie shows Hepburn playing organ at a local church service, but she reportedly had a bucket just off-screen into which she would vomit between takes. Huston spent all of the time he could big game hunting, and hired a local cook to make “game stew” to feed everyone on set. One persistent rumor has it that at one point a local disappeared and shortly thereafter one of the crew found a human fingerbone in the stew they were eating. There not are many movies whose backstories include literal, if unwitting, cannibalism, but The African Queen has a little bit of everything.

The end product itself is, while not a personal favorite or something grabs me by the lapels, still highly watchable. Honestly it’s sort of a miracle a 1951 Hollywood movie set in Africa holds up this well, without straying into weird racist narratives. The vast majority of the movie has just the two characters, so it’s lucky that they’re cast with two of Hollywood’s most legendary actors. The fact that everyone was constantly miserable on set, thankfully, doesn’t translate onto the screen. Overall I’d say this is a just a fun movie with lots of individually fun and memorable scenes, and is well worth watching if you’ve never seen it.

Bogart was never known for his acting range, but won his only Oscar for his work on this movie. Hepburn, who continues to hold the record for most Best Actress Oscars with four, was nominated but did not win. Bogart never did “clean up” and eventually died of esophageal cancer in 1957. The movie was one of the biggest hits of its year, becoming the sort of cultural touchstone that other media would reference without always knowing that they were doing. This was not the case for Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” ride, which was a very conscious imitation, even though the movie itself has never been Disney property.

Many of those references have not just been oblique. In 1977, a TV-movie sequel was produced starring Warren Oates and Mariette Hartley (it was intended as a possible lead-in to a series that was never picked up), and in 1990 Clint Eastwood starred in White Hunter, Black Heart, in which he played a very thinly disguised version of John Huston attempting to shoot a movie in the African jungle. And now we’re getting this Jungle Cruise movie, which I’m now told is coming out in July despite the fact that I think I first saw a trailer for it over a year and a half ago. I’m going to put the trailer for both movies here, so you can see just how much it appears to be just this movie but with way more CGI. How this isn’t copyright infringement I’m honestly not sure.

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