Sources claimed that everyone in the cast and crew got sick except Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, who said they avoided illness by essentially living on imported Scotch whiskey. Bogart later said, "All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead."
Lauren Bacall famously ventured along for the filming in Africa to be with husband Humphrey Bogart. She played den mother during the trip, making camp and cooking. This also marked the beginning of her life-long friendship with Katharine Hepburn.
The African Queen was actually the L.S. Livingston, which had been a working diesel boat for 40 years; the steam engine was a prop and the real diesel engine was hidden under stacked crates of gin and other cargo. It is now docked next to the Holiday Inn in Key Largo, FL, just off US Highway 1.
The boat shown going down the rapids, shot through a telephone lens, was actually a model boat about eight feet long. This miniature is now displayed inside a restaurant at a Marriott Waterfront hotel at 80 Compromise St. in Annapolis, MD. It is at the restaurant entrance.
According to cameraman Jack Cardiff, Katharine Hepburn was so sick with dysentery during shooting of the church scene that a bucket was placed off camera because she vomited constantly between takes. Cardiff called her "a real trooper." In her book "The Making of 'The African Queen'" Hepburn said she rushed for the outhouse only to find a black mamba inside, then ran to the trees.
According to Katharine Hepburn's autobiography, John Huston initially found her performance too serious-minded. One day, he visited her hut and suggested that she model her performance on Eleanor Roosevelt; putting on her "society smile" in the face of all adversity. After Huston left, Hepburn sat for a moment before deciding, "That is the best piece of direction I have ever heard."
The boat used as "The African Queen" was built in England in 1912 and used by the British East Africa Company from 1912-68 to shuttle passengers and cargo across Lake Albert (on the border between Uganda and Belgian Congo). It is now located in Key Largo, FL.
Humphrey Bogart hated Africa immediately and was miserable, but Katharine Hepburn adored it, calling it "utterly divine." Bogie complained about everything: the heat, the humidity, the dangers, the food. He recalled, "While I was griping, Katie was in her glory. She couldn't pass a fern or berry without wanting to know its pedigree, and insisted on getting the Latin name for everything she saw walking, swimming, flying or crawling. I wanted to cut our ten-week schedule, but the way she was wallowing in the stinking hole, we'd be there for years."
While filming the "leeching" scene, Humphrey Bogart insisted on using rubber leeches. John Huston refused, and brought a leech-breeder to the London studio with a tank full of them. It made Bogart queasy and nervous, qualities Huston wanted for his close-ups. Ultimately, rubber leeches were placed on Bogart, and a close-up of a real leech was shot on the breeder's chest.
In her book "The Making of 'The African Queen,' or How I Went to Africa with Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind", Katharine Hepburn described the first day of shooting. Five cars and trucks were needed to take the cast, crew and equipment 3.5 miles from Biondo to the Ruiki River. There they loaded everything onto boats and sailed another 2.5 miles to the shooting location. Press materials and contemporary articles detailed the perils of shooting on location in Africa, including dysentery, malaria, contaminated drinking water and several close brushes with wild animals and poisonous snakes. Most of the cast and crew were sick for much of the filming. In a February 1952 "New York Times" article, John Huston said he hired local natives to help the crew, but many would not show up for fear that the filmmakers were cannibals.
In a 2013 interview on the NPR program "Fresh Air," Anjelica Huston told interviewer Terry Gross about how her father, director John Huston, found out about her birth while he was at the remote jungle location for this film: "I was born at 6:29 p.m. on July 8, 1951, at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. At 8 pounds, 13 ounces, I was a big, healthy baby. The news of my arrival was cabled promptly to the post office in the township of Butaleja in Western Uganda. Two days later a barefoot runner bearing a telegram finally arrived at Murchison Falls, a waterfall on the Nile, deep in the heart of the Belgian Congo, where 'The African Queen' was being filmed. My father, John Marcellus Huston, was a director renowned for his adventurous style and audacious nature. Even though it was considered foolhardy, he'd persuaded not only Katharine Hepburn, an actress in her prime, but also Humphrey Bogart, who brought along his famously beautiful wife, the movie star Lauren Bacall, to share the hazardous journey. My mother, heavily pregnant, had stayed behind in Los Angeles with my one-year-old brother, Tony Huston. When the messenger handed the telegram to my father, he glanced at it, then put it in his pocket. Katie Hepburn exclaimed, 'for God sakes, John, what does it say,' and dad replied: 'It's a girl. Her name is Anjelica.'"
In her book "The Making of the African Queen", Katharine Hepburn details John Huston's obsession with hunting. One day he convinced Hepburn to join him, and inadvertently led her into the middle of a herd of wild animals. They barely escaped.
In Africa at that time, moving heavy film equipment and supplies was a tricky undertaking. The roads in the area were at best just narrow paths cut out between jungles. For shooting on the river, the crew built the steam-powered "African Queen" and another boat for towing the Queen with a generator, lights and reflector platforms; it was followed by a raft with heavy camera equipment and a small crew from Britain. They also built another raft with props and sound equipment; and finally a floating makeshift dressing room/toilet for Katharine Hepburn made with bamboo. Hepburn had insisted on having the privacy of a dressing room, but after having it dragged up the river several times it was clear that it was totally impractical, so she valiantly gave it up.
When you look at the map in the movie, you can find some interesting things concerning the nomenclature. There are towns like OMENA, TALVI, KONNA and HATTU. In Finnish, these names mean AN APPLE, WINTER, CROOK and A HAT respectively. Furthermore, CAMPA is nearly kampa (hair-comb) and even the German fortress, FORT SHONA is pronounced very much like Finnish sauna. Shona itself does not mean anything in German. There are Shona-people who speak Shona language, but they live about 1000 miles south from Fort Shona. The designer of the map must have either been a Finn or he/she was using a Finnish dictionary to find exotic names.
With only two days left to go on the shoot, everyone was on edge and ready to go home. When John Huston announced that he would need three additional days to film, there was a near mutiny. Humphrey Bogart was furious and so was the crew. Huston tried to appease everyone with a rousing "team spirit" speech, which was met with frustration. The cast and crew agreed to stay longer, but they believed that the schedule could be speeded up if they all pulled together. They decided on the last Friday to record all of the sound over Saturday and Sunday, while all props and electrical equipment could be shipped out Sunday night. Only the camera, a few crew members, and Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and Huston would remain until the very end. The last location shots were completed by noon on Monday, with everyone going straight to the airport. Bogart was elated to be out of there.
Production censors objected to several aspects of the original script, which included the two characters cohabiting without the formality of marriage. Some changes were made before the film was completed.
A myth has grown that the scenes in the reed-filled riverbank were filmed in Dalyan, Turkey. However, Katharine Hepburn's published book (p. 118) on the filming states, 'We were about to head . . . back to Entebbe [Uganda], but [John Huston] wanted to get shots of Bogie [Humphrey Bogart] and me in the miles of high reeds before we come out into the lake . . . ". The reeds sequence was thus shot on location in Africa (Uganda and Congo) and studios in London.
Because the boat used in the film was too small to carry cameras and equipment, portions of it were reproduced on a large raft in order to shoot close-ups of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Interior and water-tank scenes were filmed in London, as were most of the scenes containing secondary characters. Robert Morley shot all of his scenes in London, including footage of him preaching, which was edited together with shots of the natives praying, which was filmed in Africa.
Shooting was slow going. Tempers often flared and the cast and crew faced constant dangers and difficulties including torrential rains that would close down shooting, wild animals, poisonous snakes and scorpions, crocodiles, armies of ants, water so contaminated that they couldn't even brush their teeth with it, and food that was less than appetizing. Lauren Bacall recalled, "We decided first night out that it was advisable not to ask what we were eating, we didn't want to know."
Though Katharine Hepburn was having the time of her life in Africa, she was dubious about the production in the beginning. She remained alarmed at the lack of a completed screenplay from John Huston, lack of clear communication, the vagueness of the details, and the general attitude of just winging it. She didn't really know Humphrey Bogart or Huston except that they made great movies together and liked to drink--a pastime she took no pleasure in, having dealt with Spencer Tracy's alcoholism for years. To make matters worse, Huston and Bogart enjoyed having fun with the haughty Hepburn.
About half of the film was shot in England. For instance, the scenes in which Charlie and Rose are seen in the water were all shot in studio tanks at Isleworth Studios, Middlesex. These scenes were considered too dangerous to shoot in Africa. All of the foreground plates for the process shots were also done in studio.
Most of the action takes place aboard a boat--"The African Queen" of the title--and scenes on board the boat were filmed using a large raft with a mock-up of the boat on top. Sections of the boat set could be removed to make room for the large Technicolor camera. This proved hazardous on one occasion when the boat's boiler--a heavy copper replica--almost fell on Katharine Hepburn. It was not bolted down because it also had to be moved to accommodate the camera.
According to United Artists press materials and John Huston's autobiography, the director built a camp to house the cast and crew in Biondo, outside the town of Stanleyville. It included a bar, a restaurant and several one-room bungalows.
Lauren Bacall played nursemaid to the cast and crew whenever anyone got sick, which was often. There was dysentery, malaria and bites from all sorts of bugs to deal with. One night a crew member even came down with appendicitis. Bacall saved the day by being the only one who had thought to bring antibiotics, which were given to the man before he was rushed to the closest hospital--in Stanleyville--for emergency surgery. Even the stoic Katharine Hepburn finally succumbed to illness towards the end of shooting, though she had taken every precaution imaginable.
When John Huston accepted the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1983, he told the following anecdote: "I remember the Congolese soldiers appearing one day at the compound we were building, that was to lodge the company when it came. They arrested our native hunter, whose task it had been to furnish the ever-bubbling pot with meat from the forest. It was some days before we learned why. Villagers had been missing. Along with the deer, guinea-hen and monkey, we had been eating what is euphemistically called 'long pig'." A cut to Robert Mitchum in the audience shows him delightedly mouthing the last two words, as if this is an anecdote he has heard Huston tell many times. In the documentary Embracing Chaos: Making the African Queen (2010), assistant director Guy Hamilton calls the story "Absolute bullshit".
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.
There was a language barrier between the film people and the locals that led to wild misunderstandings. For instance, for the scene that called for Brother Samuel's mission to be burned by the Germans, the crew built a village for the express purpose of burning it down. John Huston asked a local leader to bring a bunch of locals to be extras in the scene. However, when the day came for filming, not one of them showed up. It turned out that a rumor had spread among them that the film people were cannibals and it was a trap--anyone who came would be eaten.
In the film Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn sail along Ulonga-Bora River to a lake. The actual Ulonga (Ulanga)-Bora River does not run to any lake but to the Indian Ocean. The river has been renamed the Rufiji and it is quite similar to the fictional counter world-river in the movie with its massive delta at the end.
The female lead was originally offered to Bette Davis in 1938, with David Niven as Charlie. It was offered to Davis again in 1947, with James Mason, as Charlie, but she had to drop out due to pregnancy. By the time Davis tried out for the role again in 1949, plans were underway for Katharine Hepburn to star.
Katharine Hepburn had insisted that John Huston use Doris Langley Moore as her costume designer, as her costumes were meticulous period recreations. The brutal heat and humidity of the area, however, made it impossible for the clothes, costumes or anything to dry completely, and mold would even grow on the fabric. Hepburn desperately wanted a full-length mirror in order to check her appearance between takes, and she got one. She lugged the cumbersome mirror all over the jungles of Africa until it broke in half. Without blinking, Hepburn carried around the larger broken half without complaint.
The German ship SMS Königin Luise (Queen Louisa) is named for one of the most beloved female role models in German history. This queen-consort of Prussia (in office 1797-1810) was a skilled stateswoman who helped her husband govern the kingdom during the perilous war against the French Empire.
Often the cumbersome raft carrying equipment behind the African Queen refused to follow the curve in the river while being transported, and the heavy scorching boiler would come close to tipping over. Cameras and lamps would get caught on overhanging shrubbery, boats would get caught on submerged logs, the boat engine would stop abruptly, or hornets would attack the cast and crew while shooting.
The film was partially financed by John Woolf and James Woolf of Romulus Films, a British company. The Woolf brothers provided £250,000 and were so pleased with the completed movie that they talked John Huston into directing their next picture, Moulin Rouge (1952).
Shortly after filming was completed, Belgian fan magazine "Cine-Revue" published an article allegedly written by Lauren Bacall--who had accompanied her husband Humphrey Bogart on location--which included behind-the-scenes photographs. According to a March 1952 "Daily Variety" article, Romulus Films protested the publication of the photos, which it said "dispelled the film's illusion" by exposing private shooting information. Bacall denied having written the story.
C.S. Forester had told John Huston that he had never been completely satisfied with the way the book ended. In the book the German gunboat Königin Luise was sunk by two small British gunboats which were carried overland in pieces and assembled on the shore of the lake much like the real war incident this part of the movie is based on. The African Queen sunk and it never reappeared in the book.
Jack Cardiff stated that he regretted turning down producer Sam Spiegel's initial offer of a reduced salary against a percentage of profits. He had lost money on a similar deal for The Magic Box (1951).
Lux Soap sponsored a radio broadcast version of the script. Humphrey Bogart reprised his Oscar-winning role as Charlie and Greer Garson played Rosie. The broadcast is included in the DVD commemorative edition and also features a commercial for Lux starring Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Jack Cardiff, director of photography, said this of the location: "We were supposed to make the film in Uganda but John Huston went on a recce [reconnaisance] and sent a message back to producer John Woolf saying that he didn't like the locations, and he disappeared for about two weeks. We then got a cable saying that he'd found a wonderful place in the Belgian Congo, It was a ghastly location in the wilds of the Congo two days drive from Stanleyville but it was what John wanted and [he] would never be talked out of anything he'd set his mind on".
The vessel used to portray the German gunboat Königin Luise in the film was the steam tug Buganda, owned and operated on Lake Victoria by East African Railways & Harbours. Although fictional, the Königin Luise was inspired by the German World War I vessel Graf Goetzen (also known as Graf von Goetzen), which operated on Lake Tanganyika until she was scuttled in 1916 during the Battle for Lake Tanganyika. The British refloated the Graf Goetzen in 1924 and placed her in service on Lake Tanganyika in 1927 as the passenger ferry MV Liemba, and she remains in active service there as of 2015.
In the 1970s Viacom, then just a television syndication company, acquired the US rights to the film. It immediately licensed video rights to Magnetic Video, which soon merged with 20th Century Fox- In 1994, Viacom purchased Paramount Pictures and the film was incorporated into Paramount's library. Fox continued to hold video rights until 1997. Paramount did not issue the film on video until 2009, when a newly-restored version was released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Originally the location filming was to be done in Kenya, but John Huston decided to film in the Belgian Congo instead. The reason was that wild game hunting, which Huston was determined to do, was illegal in Kenya, but not in the Congo.
John Huston didn't trust Sam Spiegel and instructed his agent get him out of his contract with Horizon Films--Spiegel's company--thereby surrendering his percentage of the film's progress. Huston regretted it, as withdrawing from the deal cost him millions. The same can be said for cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who opted for a straight salary rather than a percentage. Spiegel made a fortune, as the film went on to be a huge hit.
For the temporary production headquarters, John Huston set up shop in Kindu (then called Ponthierville), which was little more than a collection of tin-roofed huts at the end of a small railway line that carried river cargo to and from the nearest town, Stanleyville. Huston hired locals to clear an area and build a camp for the production within eight days. There were makeshift dorms, bungalows, offices, a storage hut, makeup hut, a dining area and, of course, a bar. With added cots, chairs and mosquito netting, the camp was ready for habitation just prior to the arrival of the rest of the cast and crew. It would prove to be an adventure of a lifetime for all involved.
There is a theory that the colonies of feral rose-ringed parakeets which are now endemic to London and the South-East of England originated with escapees from the film's Ealing Studios set in Isleworth, Middlesex.
C.S. Forester wrote two different final scenes for his book; one was published in England, the other in America. In the more widely published American version, Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnut meet British officers, who then blow up the Louisa. In the British version, the African Queen hits the Louisa and destroys it, after which Rose and Charlie walk down the beach to inform the British Army that the way is now clear. In an interview, Peter Viertel said that since he and John Huston wanted Rose and Charlie to be together at the final scene, they had to invent a way for them to be married on the German ship to avoid censorship.
James Agee suffered a serious heart attack during development of the screenplay. Uncredited writer Peter Viertel wrote the film's final scenes with John Huston because the director had changed his mind and now wanted both characters to live.