September 1914, news reaches the colony German Eastern Africa that Germany is at war, so Reverend Samuel Sayer became a hostile foreigner. German imperial troops burn down his mission; he is beaten and dies of fever. His well-educated, snobbish sister Rose Sayer buries him and leaves by the only available transport, the dilapidated river steamboat 'African Queen' of grumpy Charlie Allnut. As if a long difficult journey without any comfort weren't bad enough for such odd companions, she is determined to find a way to do their bit for the British war effort (and revenge her brother) and aims high as God is obviously on their side: construct their own equipment, a torpedo and the converted steamboat, to take out a huge German warship, the Louisa, which is hard to find on the giant lake and first of all to reach, in fact as daunting an expedition as anyone attempted since the late adventurous explorer John Speakes, but she presses till Charlie accepts to steam up the Ulana, about to brave... Written by
The ship "Königin Luise" in the script (called "Louisa" by the English-speaking characters, but by its full name by the German crew) was inspired by the "Liemba", initially a German steam gunboat patrolling Lake Tanganyika. Originally it was called the "Graf Goetzen". The ship, almost 70 meters long, had been built at the Meyer Shipyard in Germany (now maker of some of the world's largest cruise ships), but assembled on-site. The "Graf Goetzen" was sunk in June 1916 by its own crew to avoid capture, then raised by the Belgians, sunk again in a 1920 storm and was raised once more by the British in 1927, who renamed it "Liemba". It is still in service on Lake Tanganyika. The ship actually used in the film was the steam-tug Buganda, which was operating on Lake Victoria. See more »
When arguing about who is going to steer the torpedoes, a cigar suddenly appears in Charlie's mouth. See more »
The African Queen is a significant historical film in two respects. Along with King Solomon's Mines it was the first American film to show the real Africa to the American public. Previously our ideas about Africa were gleaned from studio backlot jungles created for Tarzan films and the like. The African Queen changed all that, no cheap studio sets would do any more.
But also, The African Queen dealt with romance among mature adults in their forties. A ne'er do well river pilot on a ramshackle boat and the spinster sister of a missionary, thrown together by the circumstance of war.
Humphrey Bogart, our intrepid river pilot, makes a scheduled stop to deliver mail to the mission run by Robert Morley and Katharine Hepburn. And he breaks the news to them that World War I has started. Almost as soon as he leaves them, German troops from East Africa come to call. Bogie comes back and he finds Kate with her dead brother. They bury him and skedaddle. And while skedaddling they conceive of a cockeyed plan to help in the war effort.
To say what it is and what happens would spoil the story, but let me say this. The original opening of the film with Bogart coming in as church services are being conducted for a few hundred uncomprehending native Africans is Director John Huston's comment on the usefulness of the lives Morley and Hepburn have led up to that point. What Hepburn and Bogart accomplish by the end of the film makes up for the waste that was Hepburn's life.
But The African Queen is a great romance as well. Bogart became a great romantic star in Casablanca and he upholds the tradition here, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor. Katie Hepburn doesn't seem to miss her usual partner Spencer Tracy not a bit, the part of Rose Sayer is a perfect fit. As was remarked, they're going to have stories to tell their grandkids.
When I watch The African Queen I'm reminded of what Bogart's friend Frank Sinatra sang in one of his best ballads about how Love Isn't Just For the Young. Kate and Bogie sure prove it here.
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