By Kim Hollis
February 25, 2010
The African Queen teams Bogart with director John Huston (they made six films together) and Katharine Hepburn (though Bogie was close friends with both her and Spencer Tracy, this would be their only onscreen collaboration). Set in the wilds of German-controlled East Africa during World War I, the story throws two disparate personalities together and lets their relationship develop as they head out onto winding rivers and dangerous lakes for an adventure. There's a degree of political intrigue, too, as the duo's ultimate goal is to destroy a German gunboat that is patrolling a lake and blocking Great Britain from making any counter-attacks.
We meet both Rose Sayer (Hepburn) and Charlie Allnutt (Bogart) within the first five minutes of the film. Rose has accompanied her minister brother to the continent to serve as a Christian missionary to the indigenous people, while Charlie is a rough, crude boat captain from Canada who delivers their supplies and mail. When we first see him, Charlie warns Rose and her brother that war has broken out and tells them their situation is volatile, but they choose to stay on. Rose's brother is beaten down by a German soldier and his condition quickly degenerates. He develops a fever and dies.
This leaves Rose alone, but Charlie arrives on the scene and helps Rose to bury her brother and takes her with him on his boat, the African Queen. When Charlie tells Rose about the German gunboat patrolling the lake, she becomes determined to torpedo it - just the two of them, on their own. He tells her that this task is all but impossible, as they'll have to pass a German fort and impassable rapids, not to mention crocodiles and other dangerous animals, but Rose will not be deterred. She steamrolls her will over Charlie and they set off to try to carry out her plan.
The movie then becomes a masterful study of how two people from very different backgrounds interact with each other when thrown together in an unexpected way. Rose is a prim and proper sort, strong in her convictions and formidable in her resolve. Underneath that exterior toughness, though, is a woman who is obviously lonely and perhaps even sad. Missionary work has its rewards, but Rose has a greater heat that burns within her heart.
Charlie, on the other hand, is crude and coarse. Although he knows his way around a boat, he's less attuned to successful human interactions and lacks manners and subtlety. His lackadaisical attitude seems to be a bit of a shell that he uses to shield himself from pain and heartache, and as a result he's tough and useful in a tight spot.
These two characters come to life courtesy of Hepburn and Bogart. I'm not sure anyone other than Hepburn could have played the role with the same combination of force and delicacy. She's domineering and strong when it comes to convincing Charlie (and others) to do what she wants, but she also has moments of vulnerability that are quite touching. The death of her brother leaves her in a slight state of shock, and she's clearly shaken when Charlie yells at her during a disagreement, saying, "I ain't sorry no more, you crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!" No classic (read: boring) Hollywood beauty would have been appropriate to portray Rose, and Hepburn gives the character depth and complexity that could easily have been one-dimensional in less-skilled hands.