African Queen, The (1951): John Huston’s Cult Movie Starring Bogart and Katharine Hepburn

One of the most admired pictures in American film history, The African Queen boasts great performances by Humphrey Bogart (who won his only Best Actor Oscar for this film) and Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated, but didn’t win.

The chemistry between the two formidable stars equals (if not surpasses) that which prevailed between Hepburn and his frequent onscreen (and off) partner, Spencer Tracy.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The African Queen
The African Queen (1952 US poster).jpg

US theatrical release poster

Though many critics admire this 1951 John Huston picture, which continues to make best lists, it’s not one of my favorite Huston, Bogart, or Hepburn works.

Mixing adventure, romance, humor, and awesome imagery of exotic locales, “The African Queen” is admittedly entertaining, due to critic James Agee’s sharply intelligent scenario, based on the novel by C.S. Forester, and superlatively iconic performances of the two stars, teaming in their only picture together.

The reviewer of Time magazine put it best, when he noted: “The movie is not great art, but it is great fun, essentially one long, exciting old-fashioned movie chase.”

Put in perspective, Bogart needed in 1951 a well-made, potentially commercial film like The African Queen, since his previous six films were not particularly successful.

In East Africa, during the early days of the First World War, German soldiers burn a native village, destroying the church and causing the death of Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley).  The missionary sister, Rose (Hepburn) is offered a sanctuary by Charlie Allnut (Bogart), a gin-swilling riverboat pilot, who proposes to sit out the war in the backwaters.  But Rose suggests a more audacious plan, namely, to go downriver and try to sink a German gunboat commanding the area, which block British invasion.  Allnut’s initial reaction to Rose’s bold if not crazy scheme: “Lady, you got ten absurd ideas for my one.”

Rose handles the tiller of the riverboat, named the African Queen, and helps take it down the perilous rapids, past a well-armed German fort at Shona into a peaceful cove.  For three days, they hide in reeds. Allnut creates two torpedoes from oxygen cylinders and blasting gelatin, and then attaches them to the launch.

The African Queen is swamped in a gale and the couple are hauled aboard the gunboat and sentenced to hang.  Allnut asks the Captain (Peter Bull) to marry them first.  “I shall hang you twice, I think,” the Captain of the Louisa says, exasperated with Allnut.

As the ceremony ends, the ship runs into the launch and blows up. Thrown together into the water, Rose and Allnut begin a long swim to the shore.

Shot in the Belgian Congo and Uganda, the movie was rich in pictorial beauty, accentuated by Technicolor. The critics marveled at the notion of an adult romance about mature characters, disregarding the fact that for most of the narrative there are only two individuals on screen.

In the first scenes, Hepburn is quite funny as Rose is fluttery and airy, and you have to giggle when this old maid shows anxiety about bathing in front of an outlandish man like Allnut.  Bogart, in what became his Oscar-winning role, excelled as the badgered Canadian, an initially dirty but amiable ne’er-do-well who becomes a man and a lover against his will—almost despite himself.

Revisiting the film, I think the scenario favors Bogart with many witty lines of dialogue and humorous, self-referential monologues.  Drunk and having lost his temper, he charges at Rose: “I asked you on board ’cause’ I was sorry for you on account of your losing your brother and all.  That’s what you get for feeling sorry for someone.  Well, I ain’t sorry no more, you crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!”

The movie was hugely popular at the box-office, earning more than $10 million at the box-office, against a modest budget of $1 million.

It did not escape the attention of Bogart’s–or the critics–that Bogart won the Oscar for playing an eccentric, but more conventional role than the films that are associated with his screen image.  Bogart appeared as the unshaven, skinny, cigar-puffing captain of a small river boat, but the question remained: Did he really discard his more characteristic grim and dark screen persona?  Did he consciously go “straight” in order to get the Academy voters’ recognition, after having been snubbed in 1943, when he was nominated for Casablanca?

Oscar Nominations: 4

Actor: Humphrey Bogart

Actress: Katharine Hepburn

Director: John Huston

Screenplay: John Agee and John Huston


Oscar Awards: 1




Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart)

Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn)

Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley)

Captain of the Louisa (Peter Bull)

First Officer of the Louisa (Theodore Bikel)

Second Officer (Walter Gotell)

Petty Officer (Gerlad Onn)

First Officer of the Shona (Peter Swanwick)

Second Officer (Richard Marner)



Directed by John Huston
Produced by Sam Spiegel, John Woolf (uncredited)
Screenplay by John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel, John Collier, based on The African Queen by C. S. Forester
Music by Allan Gray
Cinematography Jack Cardiff
Edited by Ralph Kemplen

Production companies: Horizon Pictures; Romulus Films

Distributed by United Artists (US)
Independent Film Distributors (UK)

Release date: December 26, 1951 (Fox Wilshire Theatre)

Running time: 105 minutes
Budget $1 million
Box office $10,750,000