“Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put on this earth to rise above.”
In the classic era of cinema, female characters had an interesting but disappointing trait: they relied on the male characters to move the plot along. Though there were some strong female characters in the 30s and 40s, they were usually portrayed as less capable than the males, and the plot usually didn’t go anywhere until the males got involved. In most movies of that era, the females were also very dependent on the males. (I know there will undoubtedly be some exceptions, but this was the norm.) This era started to die off in the 50s (although traces of it can still be seen today), and for that, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 1951 movie The African Queen. Directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, this is a movie that not only defined the romantic adventure genre (Romancing the Stone and Pirates of the Caribbean are modern derivatives), but it also showed that a female lead who is in every way her male co-star’s equal can make for a successful film.
The movie is set in a remote village in Africa where Rose and her brother Samuel are running a small church for the native villagers. Charlie, a steamboat captain who delivers mail and packages to these remote villages, stops by as he does regularly, but this time with news that a war (WWI) has broken out between Germany and England (where Rose and her brother are from). When German soldiers show up to burn the village, conscript the locals, and kill her brother, Rose knows she has to do something. Charlie rescues her and plans to escape, but Rose has different plans that will change the tide of the war in Africa. The two then set out on an impossible journey toward an impossible task that’s riveting to watch.
But Rosie, I’m not one bit sorry I came. What I mean is, it was worth it.
The plot in The African Queen is great, but it’s the characters and their relationship that really make this movie amazing. Humphrey Bogart’s Oscar-winning performance is charming as always, and Katherine Hepburn was nominated for an Oscar as well. The chemistry between the two leads is fun and natural and they make a great pair. The writing also deserves a nod for giving these great actors some great material to work with. Watching these two characters on-screen together is magical—I don’t believe there’s a person alive who won’t like them.
Like all great adventure movies, there’s a mixture of feelings that come across while watching this: fun as the adventure unfolds, anxiety as the dangers present themselves, and hope as we see the characters want their goal more than anything else. This is a funny movie, but there were times when everything seemed hopeless. There’s also a well-executed romance that truly brings out the best in both characters without overshadowing their very important goal. It’s a great mixture of emotions and the movie is fun to watch without being too light on tension.
The African Queen is one of the finest specimens of the adventure genre and may be the defining movie for the romantic adventure sub-genre. The movie holds up very well, although some of the primitive blue screen effects are painfully obvious today. If you feel like going on a little adventure or just want to see a sweet comedy play out, this movie definitely fits the bill.
Director: John Huston
Genres: adventure, romance