John Huston’s classic Oscar-winning film The African Queen (Humphrey Bogart’s performance won him his only Oscar while Katherine Hepburn was pipped by Vivien Leigh) is a tough comedy adventure set in Africa during the First World War. Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking, woman-hating owner of The African Queen, a decrepit steamer that trades up and down the river, and Hepburn is Rose Sayer, the sister of missionary Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley in one of his most delightful performances).
When troops destroy the village, an assault that leads to the reverend’s death, Allnut agrees to take Rose back to civilisation. But she becomes fixated on revenge and persuades him that if they journey down the dangerous river to the massive lake, they can sink the armed German ship moored there. And so begins one of the most enduring cinematic relationships ever portrayed as the strait-laced spinster and the boozed-up captain set sail.
The script is actually a straightforward thriller, but the two stars play their roles with such tongue-in-cheek relish that the dialogue literally crackles off the screen. Although much of the film is studio-based, Huston insisted on filming in Africa (providing the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart), where he and Bogart merrily boozed away. Hepburn disapproved, pointedly drinking water until she realised that the drink was keeping them free of illness while she fell prey to disease (as did Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall, who accompanied the shoot).
She also came up with one of the great comeback lines: she and Bogart had to film a scene in the river and Hepburn was worried about crocodiles. “Don’t worry,” said Huston, “I’ll have the prop men fire a few rounds of ammunition into the water – they’ll be scared by the noise.” “But what,” asked Hepburn, “about the deaf ones?” She later wrote a book of the experience, entitled The Making of The African Queen (Or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind ).
USA / 1952
Director: John Huston
Writer: James Agee, from C S Forester’s novel
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull