The African Queen (1951)


“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”

Some films, particularly in earlier Hollywood but even so today, seem to be a product of star power alone. The poster for The African Queen has Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Kepburn’s names plastered nearly as big as the film’s title. While I enjoyed The African Queen for what it was, I definitely wouldn’t say that I buy into its legacy. The film takes two cultural icons and pits them against each other in a romantic, comedic, conflict-oriented film that really just focuses on the two of them alone together. It’s a successful formula that they’re still using to pump out money today. (Passengers, anyone?) While I’d still call The African Queen a good film, I’m hesitant to call it much more than that, but perhaps this type of movie just isn’t my cup of tea.

The African Queen follows British Methodist missionary Rose (Hepburn) in East Africa during the outbreak of the First World War. Her mail is delivered by Charlie Allnut (Bogart) via his steamboat, the African Queen. Once the Germans burn down Rose’s village and her brother dies, she rows down the river with Charlie. They decide to pursue the German’s gunboat, the Queen Louise, and blow it up by converting the African Queen into a torpedo attack vessel. Over the course of their journey, the two unlikely companions end up falling in love, and the film culminates in their attack on the Queen Louise. It’s a tale of adventure, love, and triumph as our heroes make a move against the German forces.

The film is an interesting product of its time. Released just 6 years following World War II, it’s fun to see how easily the film thrusts its villain role onto the Germans. I also found it a bit strange that two civilians, one of them a very religious figure, take it upon themselves to perform a military strike on a warship when they should probably have just gone back home or something. I suppose the film needed its story to happen, but it all just seems sort of arbitrary. I wouldn’t call this a flaw with the film; this is how movies were made. It’s just something that sticks out when watching. The film is also fairly focused and low stakes when compared to today’s standards. You wouldn’t see a Hollywood movie like this today without some other characters being drawn in. It’s almost admirable how fully this film relies on Hepburn and Bogart, fully committed to the charm and talent of its stars. On another interesting point, the film had to be rewritten to avoid various Hollywood taboos at the time, such as cohabitation before marriage. This movie is really about as 1951 as it gets. (The Technicolor looks great, though. It’s always fun to see the progression of visual quality in film, and this movie makes a great mark in said category.)

While the movie still seems like a forced adventure just to jam Bogart and Hepburn together, the strategy pays off moderately well. Bogart is fun as the rough and tough sea boat captain, and it’s a nice departure from the suave roles he had previously played. I think Hepburn steals the show, however, in her convincing and entertaining portrayal of a middle-aged spinster. It’s neat to see a romance like this with an older, more dominant and bitter female character. The relationship feels genuine and realistic, and there’s a good balance of humor and excitement to pack together a fun little adventure.

The African Queen is hailed as an American classic, and I’d still agree that it probably still is, despite my lack of enthusiasm for it. It’s a great film for its time with two iconic leads giving it their full enthusiasm; I just couldn’t find a way in. There’s nothing really surprising or spectacular about it, but it also doesn’t have any flaws to drag it down, so I’d say for a modern audience it rests somewhere in the middle in terms of entertainment potential. I probably enjoyed it as a piece of history more than as a work of art, but it’s still a decent way to occupy your time. If you’re a big fan of either of these actors, the movie will probably deliver far more for you than it did for me.

Films Left to Watch: 901

About Travis

I'm a software engineer reviewing a bunch of movies.
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1 Response to The African Queen (1951)

  1. I agree that the attack on the gunboat feels unmotivated. Why on Earth would they want to do a thing like that? Yet, the dynamics between Bogart and Hepburn is so good that it goes a long way to save the movie.
    The story about making the movie is actually more interesting. Hepburn wrote a book about it and the extra material on the DVD has extensive pieces on it. It was to all accounts quite a circus.

    Liked by 1 person

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