This story of adventure and romance, experienced by a couple in Africa just as World War I got underway, is an engrossing motion picture. Just offbeat enough in story, locale and star teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn to stimulate the imagination. It is a picture with an unassuming warmth and naturalness that can have a bright boxoffice chance through good selling and word-of-mouth.
The independent production unit took stars and cameras to Africa to film C.S. Forester’s novel, “African Queen,” against its actual background. The Technicolor hues come on the screen with the Dark Continent’s natural, soft tints and serve to sharpen the telling of a story that deals with a brave deed done by a couple completely mismatched in every way except their adventurous hearts. While strictly a novel in the way Huston has used camera, the script he did with James Agee, and his direction, the story has a documentary feel without any of the detachment usually noted in that particular technique.
Performance-wise, Bogart has never been seen to better advantage. Nor has he ever had a more knowing, talented film partner than Miss Hepburn.
The plot is a simple affair. It concerns a man and woman, completely incongruous as to coupling, who are thrown together when the war news comes to German East Africa in 1914. The man, a sloven gin-swilling, ne’er-do-well pilot of a steam-driven river launch, teams with the angular, old-maid sister of a dead English missionary to contribute a little to the cause of the Empire.
The impossible deed they plan is taking the little, decrepit 30-foot launch known as African Queen down uncharted rivers to a large Central Africa lake and then use the small boat as a torpedo to sink a German gunboat that is preventing invasion by British forces. They go about such a derrin’-do mission with normal fears and misgivings, but with a kindred spirit of adventure and an air of “it must be done,” that they actually accomplish the impossible.
African wild life passes in stately, natural procession as the little ship threads its way through such hazards as swift rapids, waterfalls, rain, mechanical difficulties, maddening insect swarms, choking, floating grass islands and attack from a German fortress passed on the way. En route, there is a change of relationship from the stand-offish, respectful mood that launched the odyssey to a warm, intimate genuine emotion between the mismatched crew.
Climax comes when the couple reaches its goal, only to meet failure in original plans when a storm swamps the doughty Queen as she charges on the gunboat with ingeniously fashioned, home-made torpedoes. Bogart and Miss Hepburn are captured by the Germans, delay a hanging ceremony long enough to be married, and just as the vows are finished the gunboat runs afoul of the waterlogged, derelict Queen, the latter thus completing her mission, despite all manner of handicap, and rescuing the romantic, middle-aged couple.
Huston’s scripting and direction, and the playing, leaven the story telling with a lot of good humor. Unfoldment has a leisureness that goes with the characters and situations, but is quickened often enough with the excitement of incredible adventure to keep the interest strong throughout its 104 minutes. Critically, there are a few slight flaws, most noticeable in the beginning, when plot establishment and the incidents it involves are a bit drawn out. What comes later, though, is engrossing enough to make the whole a worthwhile piece of screen entertainment that will be thoroughly enjoyed by most any adult.
Of interest in the production quality is the use of music, or rather its absence most of the way. Title cards are run off against a visual background of the African locale, scored only by the sounds of the animals native to the scene. Quick editing has permitted a few reprising shots during the story, but this is minor against the feeling the film creates. Jack Cardiff photographed, with second-unit lensing supplied by Ted Scaife. The score is by Alan Gray, played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Norman Del Mar.
Outside of Bogart and Miss Hepburn, cast means little in the States. Robert Morley figures at the beginning as Miss Hepburn’s missionary brother, while Peter Bull is the German captain on the gunboat finally cut under by the Queen.
1951: Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart).
Nominations: Best Director, Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Screenplay