The African Queen (film)

The African Queen is a 1951 British-American adventure film adapted from the 1935 novel of the same name by C. S. Forester.[5] The film was directed by John Huston and produced by Sam Spiegel[6] and John Woolf. The screenplay was adapted by James Agee, John Huston, John Collier and Peter Viertel. It was photographed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff and has a music score by Allan Gray. The film stars Humphrey Bogart (who won the Academy Award for Best Actor – his only Oscar), and Katharine Hepburn with Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Walter Gotell, Richard Marner and Theodore Bikel.[7]

The African Queen
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Huston
Produced bySam Spiegel
John Woolf (uncredited)
Screenplay byJohn Huston
James Agee
Peter Viertel
John Collier
Based onThe African Queen (novel)
1935 novel
by C. S. Forester
StarringHumphrey Bogart
Katharine Hepburn
Robert Morley
Music byAllan Gray
CinematographyJack Cardiff
Edited byRalph Kemplen
Horizon Pictures
Romulus Films Ltd[1]
Distributed byUnited Artists (US)
Independent Film Distributors (UK)
Release date
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
United Kingdom
Budget$1 million[3]
Box office$10,750,000[4]

The African Queen was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1994, with the Library of Congress deeming it "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant". The film holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 41 reviews.[8]


Samuel Sayer and his sister Rose are British Methodist missionaries in the village of Kungdu in German East Africa at the beginning of World War I in September 1914. Their mail and supplies are delivered by a small steam launch named the African Queen, helmed by the rough-and-ready Canadian mechanic Charlie Allnut, whose coarse behavior they stiffly tolerate.

When Charlie warns the Sayers that war has broken out between Germany and Britain, they choose to remain in Kungdu, only to witness German colonial troops burn down the village and herd the villagers away to be forcibly recruited. When Samuel protests, he is beaten by an officer, and becomes delirious with fever and soon dies. Charlie returns shortly afterward after having found his mine to have been destroyed by the Germans and being chased due to his supply of gelatin explosives. He helps Rose bury her brother, and they set off in the African Queen.

While planning their escape, Charlie mentions to Rose that the British are unable to attack the Germans due to the presence of a large gunboat, the Königin Luise, patrolling a large lake downriver. Rose comes up with a plan to convert the African Queen into a torpedo boat and sink the Königin Luise. Charlie points out that navigating the Ulanga River to get to the lake would be suicidal: they would have to pass a German fort and negotiate several dangerous rapids. But Rose is insistent and eventually persuades him to go along with the plan. Eventually Charlie becomes inebriated and drunkenly insults Rose and her plan, who retaliates by dumping his supply of gin into the river.

Charlie allows Rose to navigate the river by rudder while he tends the engine, and she is emboldened after they get through the first set of rapids with minimal flooding in the boat. But when they pass the fortress and the soldiers begin shooting at them, the bullets damage the boiler, although they are unable to shoot the boat severely due to the Sun getting in their eyes. Charlie manages to reattach a pressure hose just as they are about to enter the second set of rapids. The boat rolls and pitches as it goes down the rapids, leading to more severe flooding in the boat. However, they make it through.

While celebrating their success, the two find themselves in an embrace. Embarrassed, they break off, but eventually succumb and become lovers. The third set of rapids damages the propeller shaft. Rigging up a simple forge on shore, Charlie straightens the shaft, welds a new blade onto the prop, and they are off again.

All appears lost when the boat becomes mired in the mud and dense reeds near the mouth of the river. They try to tow the boat through the muck, only to have Charlie come out of the water covered with leeches. With no supplies left and short of potable water, Rose and a feverish Charlie turn in. Rose, believing they will die soon, says a quiet prayer. As they sleep, exhausted and beaten, torrential rains far upstream gently raise the river's level and float the African Queen off of the mud and into the lake. Once on the lake, they narrowly avoid being spotted by the Königin Luise.

Over the next two days, Charlie and Rose convert some oxygen cylinders into torpedoes using gelatin explosives and improvised detonators. They push the torpedoes through holes cut in the bow of the African Queen as improvised spar torpedoes. The Königin Luise returns, and Charlie and Rose steam the African Queen out onto the lake in darkness, intending to set her on a collision course. A strong storm strikes which causes water to pour into the African Queen through the torpedo holes. Eventually the African Queen capsizes, throwing them both into the water. Charlie loses sight of Rose in the storm.

Charlie is captured and taken aboard the Königin Luise, where he is interrogated by the captain. Believing that Rose has drowned, he makes no attempt to defend himself against accusations of spying, and the German captain sentences him to death by hanging. However, Rose is captured and brought to the Königin Luise just after Charlie's sentence is pronounced. The captain questions her, and Rose confesses the whole plot proudly, deciding they have nothing to lose. The captain sentences her to be executed as a spy.[9] Charlie asks the German captain to marry them before executing them. After a brief marriage ceremony, there is an explosion and the Königin Luise quickly capsizes. The Königin Luise has struck the overturned hull of the African Queen and detonated the torpedoes. The newly married couple happily swims to safety.



Production censors objected to several aspects of the original script, which included the two characters cohabiting without the formality of marriage (as in the book). Some changes were made before the film was completed.[10] Another change followed the casting of Bogart; his character's lines in the original screenplay were rendered with a thick Cockney dialect but the script had to be completely rewritten because the actor was unable to reproduce it. The rewrite made the character Canadian.

The film was partially financed by John and James Woolf of Romulus Films, a British company. Michael Balcon, Honorary Adviser to the National Film Finance Corporation, advised the NFFC to refuse a loan to John Woolf’s The African Queen (1951) unless it starred John McCallum and Googie Withers, rather than Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as the Woolfs wanted. This was clearly partial as he was favouring his former Ealing Studio actors. It was only due to the Woolfs' personal intervention that they persuaded the chairman of the NFFC, Lord Reith, to overrule Balcon and the film went ahead.[11] The Woolf brothers provided £250,000[12] and were so pleased with the completed movie that they talked John Huston into directing their next picture, Moulin Rouge (1952).

Much of the film was shot on location in Uganda and the Congo in Africa. This was rather novel for the time, especially for a Technicolor picture which utilized large unwieldy cameras. The cast and crew endured sickness and spartan living conditions during their time on location. In one scene, Hepburn was playing an organ but had a bucket nearby because she was often sick between takes. Bogart later bragged that he and Huston were the only ones to escape illness, which he credited to not drinking any water on location, but instead fortifying themselves from the large supply of whiskey they had brought along.[13][14]

About half of the film was shot in Britain. For instance, the scenes in which Bogart and Hepburn are seen in the water were all shot in studio tanks at Isleworth Studios, Middlesex. These scenes were considered too dangerous to shoot in Africa. All of the foreground plates for the process shots were also done in studio.[15]

A myth has grown that the scenes in the reed-filled riverbank were filmed in Dalyan, Turkey.[16] But Katharine Hepburn's published book (p. 118) on the filming states 'We were about to head... back to Entebbe, but John [Huston] wanted to get shots of Bogie and me in the miles of high reeds before we come out into the lake...". The reeds sequence was thus shot on location in Africa (Uganda and Congo) and London studios.

Most of the action takes place aboard a boat – the African Queen of the title – and scenes on board the boat were filmed using a large raft with a mockup of the boat on top. Sections of the boat set could be removed to make room for the large Technicolor camera. This proved hazardous on one occasion when the boat's boiler – a heavy copper replica – almost fell on Hepburn. It was not bolted down because it also had to be moved to accommodate the camera. The small steam-boat used in the film to depict the African Queen was built in 1912, in Britain, for service in Africa. At one time it was owned by actor Fess Parker.[17] In December 2011, plans were announced to restore the boat.[18] Restoration was completed by the following April and the African Queen is now on display as a tourist attraction at Key Largo, Florida.[19]

Because of the dangers involved with shooting the rapids scenes, a small-scale model was used in the studio tank in London.

The vessel used to portray the German gunboat Königin Luise in the film was the steam tug Buganda, owned and operated on Lake Victoria by the East African Railways and Harbours Corporation. Although fictional, the Königin Luise was inspired by the German First World War vessel Graf Goetzen (also known as Graf von Goetzen),[20] which operated on Lake Tanganyika until she was scuttled in 1916 during the Battle for Lake Tanganyika. The British refloated the Graf Goetzen in 1924 and placed her in service on Lake Tanganyika in 1927 as the passenger ferry MV Liemba, and she remains in active service there as of 2015.

The name 'SS Königin Luise' was taken from a German steam ferry which operated from Hamburg, before being taken over by the Kaiserliche Marine on the outbreak of the First World War. She was used as an auxiliary minelayer off Harwich before being sunk on 5 August 1914 by the cruiser HMS Amphion.[21]

A persistent rumour regarding London's population of feral Ring Necked Parakeets is that they originated from birds escaped or released from the filming of this movie. This claim was initially considered dubious[22] though it was given more credence when a zoologist admitted her grandparents fed them.[23]


The African Queen opened on December 26, 1951 at the Fox Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills,[2] in order to qualify for the 1951 Oscars. Its New York City opening was on February 20, 1952 at the Capitol Theatre.[24]

Reception and box office

Contemporary reviews from critics were mostly positive. Upon the film's premiere, Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times wrote that it "should impress for its novelty both in casting and scenically," and found the ending "rather contrived and even incredible, but melodramatic enough, with almost a western accent, to be popularly effective."[25] Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called the film "a slick job of movie hoodwinking with a thoroughly implausible romance, set in a frame of wild adventure that is as whopping as its tale of off-beat love ... This is not noted with disfavor." Crowther added that "Mr. Huston merits credit for putting this fantastic tale on a level of sly, polite kidding and generally keeping it there, while going about the happy business of engineering excitement and visual thrills."[24]

Variety called it "an engrossing motion picture ... Performance-wise, Bogart has never been seen to better advantage. Nor has he ever had a more knowing, talented film partner than Miss Hepburn."[26] John McCarten of The New Yorker declared that "Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart come up with a couple of remarkable performances, and it's fortunate that they do, for the movie concentrates on them so single-mindedly that any conspicuous uncertainty in their acting would have left the whole thing high and dry."[27] Richard L. Coe wrote in the March 8, 1952 edition of The Washington Post that "Huston has tried a risky trick and most of the time pulls it off in delicious style. And from both his stars he has drawn performances which have rightly been nominated for those Academy Awards on the [20th]."[28]

Harrison's Reports printed a negative review, writing that the film "has its moments of comedy and excitement, but on the whole the dialogue is childish, the action silly, and the story bereft of human appeal. The characters act as childishly as they talk, and discriminating picture-goers will, no doubt, laugh at them. There is nothing romantic about either Katharine Hepburn or Humphrey Bogart, for both look bedraggled throughout."[29] The Monthly Film Bulletin was also negative, writing: "Huston seems to have been aiming at a measured, quiet, almost digressive tempo, but the material does not support it, and would have benefited by the incisiveness his previous films have shown. In spite of Hepburn's wonderful playing, and some engaging scenes, the film must be accounted a misfire."[30]

The film earned an estimated £256,267 at UK cinemas in 1952,[31] making it the 11th most popular movie of the year.[32] It earned an estimated $4 million in US and Canadian theatrical rentals.[33]

Awards and honours

Academy Awards

Category Nominee Result
Best Actor Humphrey Bogart Won
Best Actress Katharine Hepburn Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay James Agee
John Huston
Best Director John Huston


American Film Institute recognition

Rose Sayer: "'Nature,' Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above." – Nominated

AFI has also honored both Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as the greatest American screen legends.

Subsequent releases

The film has been released on Region 2 DVD in the United Kingdom, Germany and Scandinavia.

The British DVD includes a theatrical trailer and an audio commentary by cinematographer Cardiff in which he details many of the hardships and challenges involved in filming in Africa.

Prior to 2010, the film had been released in the United States on VHS video, laserdisc and as a region 1 DVD. Region 1 and Region All DVDs are available and distributed by The Castaways Pictures, and have English and Chinese subtitles available with no other features. It is not clear if these are authorized or not.

2009 digital restoration

In 2009, Paramount Pictures (the current owner of the US rights) completed restoration work for region 1 and a 4K digitally restored version was issued on DVD and Blu-ray March 23, 2010. The film was restored in its original mono soundtrack from original UK film elements under the sole supervision of Paramount, and had as an extra a documentary on the film's production, Embracing Chaos: The Making of The African Queen. According to Ron Smith, vice president of restoration for Paramount Pictures, the major factor that led to the holdup were difficulties locating the original negative.[34] Romulus Films and international rights holder ITV Studios were acknowledged in the restoration credits.

ITV released the restoration in Region 2 on June 14, 2010.

Adaptations to other media

The African Queen was adapted as a one-hour radio play on the December 15, 1952 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with Humphrey Bogart reprising his film role and joined by Greer Garson.[35] This broadcast is included as a bonus CD in the Commemorative Box Set version of the Paramount DVD.

On 26 March 1962 The Dick Powell Theater aired episode 27 of its first season called Safari which was based on the story with James Coburn and Glynis Johns as Charlie Allnut and Rose Sayer.

A 1977 television film continued the adventures of Allnut and Sayer, with Warren Oates and Mariette Hartley in the lead roles. Though intended as the pilot for a series, it was not picked up.

An elliptic commentary on the making of The African Queen can be found in the 1990 film White Hunter Black Heart, directed by Clint Eastwood.

The African Queen was part of the inspiration for the Jungle Cruise attraction at Disneyland in California. Imagineer Harper Goff referenced The African Queen frequently in his ideas; even his designs of the ride vehicles were inspired by the steamer used in the film.[36]

The African Queen

The boat used as the African Queen is actually the L.S. Livingston which had been a working diesel boat for 40 years; the steam engine was a prop and the real diesel engine was hidden under stacked crates of gin and other cargo. Florida attorney and Humphrey Bogart enthusiast, Jim Hendricks Sr. came to own the boat in 1982 in Key Largo, Florida. After falling into a state of disrepair following the death of Hendricks Sr. in 2001, the vessel was spotted gathering rust in a Florida marina in 2012 by Suzanne Holmquist and her engineer husband, Lance. The couple have since repaired the ailing ship and opened it up to tourists and film enthusiasts, providing cruises around the Florida Keys aboard the famous vessel.[37]



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  2. "The African Queen (advertisement)". Los Angeles Times: Part III, p. 8. December 23, 1951. First world showing – Wednesday, December 26
  3. Rudy Behlmer, Behind the Scenes, Samuel French, 1990 p. 239
  4. Box Office Information for The African Queen. The Numbers. Retrieved November 11, 2012.
  5. "The African Queen Let's Repatriate(1951)". Reel Classics. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  6. Spiegel was billed as "S.P. Eagle".
  7. "'The African Queen' – Bogart, Hepburn and the Little Boat That Could". Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  8. "The African Queen (1951)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved August 1, 2018.
  9. Strictly, as civilians engaging in military activity without being members of an armed force, the two should have been considered to be francs-tireurs rather than spies. That, too, would have made them liable to execution under the then prevailing legal situation; at the time, the Imperial German Army executed numerous francs-tireurs in Belgium and France.
  10. "University of Virginia Library Online Exhibits – CENSORED: Wielding the Red Pen".
  11. Sue Harper & Vincent Porter, British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference, OUP, 2007, p.12
  12. Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, University of Wisconsin Press, 1987 p. 46
  13. Web Designer Express and Web Design Enterprise. "History of the African Queen". The African Queen.
  14. Ben Cosgrove. "Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn Filming 'The African Queen,' 1951".
  15. Embracing Chaos: Making ‘The African Queen' a documentary film
  16. Light Sword Of The Protector (20 February 1952). "The African Queen (1951)". IMDb.
  17. " -- Interviews: Fess Parker".
  18. "African Queen boat to be restored". BBC News. December 9, 2011.
  19. "The African Queen sets sail again". CBS News. April 13, 2012. Retrieved April 13, 2012.
  20. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-08-08. Retrieved 2013-08-25.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  21. Details on the Königin Luise
  23. Sarah Knapton (9 June 2018). "Britain's parakeets really did come from set of The African Queen, says zoologist, after admitting her grandparents fed them". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 10 June 2018.
  24. Crowther, Bosley (February 21, 1951). "' The African Queen,' Starring Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, at the Capitol". The New York Times: 24.
  25. Schallert, Edwin (December 27, 1951). "Star Duo in Unique Joust with Jungle". Los Angeles Times: B6.
  26. "The African Queen". Variety: 6. December 26, 1951.
  27. McCarten, John (February 23, 1952). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker: 85.
  28. Coe, Richard L. (March 8, 1952). "Hepburn-Bogart Team Is A Honey". The Washington Post: B5.
  29. "'The African Queen' with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn". Harrison's Reports: 207. December 29, 1951.
  30. "The African Queen". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 19 (217): 15. February 1952.
  31. Vincent Porter, 'The Robert Clark Account', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 20 No 4, 2000 p495
  32. "COMEDIAN TOPS FILM POLL". The Sunday Herald. Sydney. 28 December 1952. p. 4. Retrieved 9 July 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  33. 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, 7 January 1953.
  34. Chaney, Jen (March 26, 2010). "'The African Queen' new on DVD after more than 50 years". The Washington Post.
  35. Kirby, Walter (December 14, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 54.
  36. Imagineers, The. Walt Disney Imagineering – A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real. Disney Editions, 1996. p. 112
  37. Macguire, Eoghan (May 2, 2012). "Humphrey Bogart's boat 'African Queen' saved from scrapheap". CNN.


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