Friday, January 24, 2020

The African Queen (1951)

This post is part of the Wedding Bells Blogathon, hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood:

More posts can be found at

When you think about weddings in classic films, probably one of the last people you would think about is John Huston. Best known for his crime films, The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle, or his adventures, Across the Pacific, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Man Who Would Be King, you don't really think matrimony when you think of John Huston. He makes movies about men, and often, the women serve as foils for the actions of the men.

Normally when I write about old films, I try to avoid spoilers. I can't seem to do this post without doing spoilers. If you haven't seen The African Queen and would be upset by knowing details of the plot, stop reading right now. 

Just the fact that I'm doing a post in a Wedding Bells Blogathon is something of a spoiler right there. Katharine Hepburn is the only woman in the cast. If this is about weddings, obviously Katharine Hepburn gets married, and you don't have to be Stephen Hawking to figure out whom she marries. It's not Robert Morley, who plays her brother. Eewww.

In fact, if you haven't seen the film in a while, you might have forgotten that there was a wedding in it at all. So why did I pick this film? Well, mostly, it's unique in that the audience is privy to the entire relationship of bride and groom. Their whole relationship takes place on screen. Also, one of the funniest lines in the movie and one of my favorite quotes about weddings relates directly to the ceremony.

The African Queen is not a romance, it's an adventure. And the two characters falling in love don't fall in love because of looks or romance, but because of their shared experiences on this adventure. Set in German East Africa at the outbreak of World War I, Katharine Hepburn is a missionary who lives with her brother trying to convert the natives in a small village. Their only contact with the outside world is Humphrey Bogart who delivers the mail in his boat, the African Queen, one of the only boats that can navigate that part of the Ulanga River.

Katharine Hepburn is something of a spinster, having lived a sheltered life with her missionary brother. When war breaks out, the German army burns the village and forces all the men into their army. When Katharine Hepburn's brother protests, they hit him not killing him outright, but he dies shortly thereafter from fever and possibly the injury.

With nowhere else to go, Katharine Hepburn leaves the village with Humphrey Bogart, a man she hardly knows. As British subjects, Katharine Hepburn, English, and Humphrey Bogart, Canadian, they are in a bad spot. The British forces are being held off by a German gunboat, the Königin Luise, that patrols a large lake downstream. To make matters worse, the Germans would want the cargo that the African Queen carries, a large amount a blasting gelatin

Katharine Hepburn comes up with the wonderful plan of turning the African Queen into a torpedo and using it to sink the German ship. Bogart thinks the idea is suicide and decides that the best way to dissuade Katharine Hepburn of her plan would be to take her down some rapids in the African Queen, a boat definitely not made for rough water. To his surprise, she's not frightened but exhilarated by the experience. Not only has he not dissuaded her, he has strengthened her resolve. Frustrated, he gets drunk and tells her that there's no way he's taking the African Queen down river. While Bogart is drunk and incapacitated, Katharine Hepburn, deeply offended by demon booze,  pours out his supply of gin, at least a dozen bottles.

Stuck in this little backwater and on the Ulanga River, Katharine Hepburn refuses to speak to Humphrey Bogart. Guilt-ridden, Bogart agrees to go along with her plan, even though he knows it is virtually suicide. The voyage will take them past the German fort, where surely they will be fired on. Beyond the fort, are more rapids much worse than the ones they'd already gone through.

Fortunately, luck is on their side. The sun is the German sniper's eyes, and he can't get a clear shot. The native soldiers shooting more or less randomly at African Queen manage to not hit their explosive cargo. Almost immediately after clearing the fort, they hit the rapids, and through providence, come through unscathed, So excited from surviving the ordeal the German fort and the rapids, they embrace and kiss for the first time. I always got the impression that this was the first time Katherine Hepburn's had kissed any man.

On their trip, they encounter swarms of mosquitoes, crocodile infested waters, and more rapids, damaging the African Queen's propeller, which they have to repair working underwater and using only simple tools. Eventually, the river becomes clogged with reeds, and they must pull the African Queen along with a rope through the reeds, the mud, and the muck. I won't mention the leeches. Oops, I guess I already did.

Humphrey Bogart becomes sick with fever. He knows they will never have the energy to move the African Queen off the mud. Katharine Hepburn fears they have failed and will probably die soon. She prays that God will be merciful to them on the Judgment and will judge them not on on their but their love. Just then the rainy season hits, and the Ulanga River swells with water lifting them off the mud and reeds, and onto the lake. They had only been a few hundred yards away.

They proceed with their plan to sink the German ship. Unfortunately, a storm hits, and the African Queen is lost. Humphrey Bogart is separated from Katharine Hepburn, and he assumes she has drowned. Captured by the Germans and heart-broken, he doesn't protest when the German Captain, sentences him to death as a spy. Just then, more Germans appear with Katherine Hepburn, whom they also accuse of being a spy. When Bogart tells her that he is to be executed, Katharine Hepburn says they should at least have the pleasure of telling the German captain of their plan to sink the Königin Luise.

Sentenced to death as spies, Humphrey Bogart asks the German captain if he will marry them. "It would mean a such lot of the lady."

I won't tell the rest of the story. I'm sure anyone who has read this far already knows the end of the movie. And that line, the one I said was probably the funniest in the entire movie. It's spoken by Peter Bull, the German Captain, "By the authority vested in me by Kaiser Wilhelm the Second, I pronounce you man and wife — Proceed with the execution."