An anomaly among John Huston's movies—an unambiguously happy ending (and with the same camaraderie and laughter of his less heroic finishes). Originally set up as a vehicle for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, then for Bette Davis and David Niven, by the time it crossed Huston's path it became an excuse for Huston to visit Africa (which had just made a cinematic splash in King Solomon's Mines) and get in some hunting, in a Hemingway-esque quest to conquer new territory.*
Along for the ride were Huston's favorite actor, Humphrey Bogart (with his new bride Lauren Bacall), and the spunky, patrician Katherine Hepburn, who had never worked with Huston before, but was always up for an adventure. **
That always came working with the much-storied Huston.
But, The African Queen is a love story, one of those about the transforming nature of love, and the trip down the treacherous rapids on a craft not suited for the purpose is a metaphor for the new experience of love among the ruins—two mature people set in their ways, and for whom love has never been a part of the path. Love is an adventure, exciting but dangerous, making one vulnerable—but whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and at the end of the coasting, carousing, exploding journey, the couple are adrift but floating, no boat underneath them, but operating on their own power, swimming to an unseen shore, laughing, without a care. What might have seemed peril before is just one more momentary inconvenience, for the most important thing is the life, the love, and reveling in it. They start out, bound in dogma and disposition, but in the course of the movie the stick-up-their-butts bend like the high reeds that they must plow through to reach their destination. Change and accommodating change is all. At the end, the stodgy individuals are a very zen couple.
Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) is an African missionary when World War I breaks out, and the mission maintained by her and her brother (Robert Morley) comes under attack by German troops. The mission burned, her brother dead, Rose is taken transit by Canadian riverboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), who soon finds himself at odds with his passenger. She is disgusted by his boorish behavior and his drinking, and he is horrified at her stubborn suggestion of using his "African Queen" as a weapon in the war effort. It's a small skirmish in the world-wide conflict, but the battle of wills softens once the gin is gone and the thrill of the journey kicks in. The drama comes in the conflict and the crisis, the comedy comes in the duo's new-found dependency on each other and courtliness. They're an "odd couple," (even the Germans think so!), and the movie veers on a course from drama to high adventure to comedy to horror and even despair, before veering back to its satisfying conclusion. It's not "The Love Boat," but you'll feel like you've been through the rapids, as well.
I have never seen a version of this movie that wasn't scratched, patched, discolored or broken up. I've sat through many screenings, horrified, that such a classic (containing Bogart's only Oscar-winning performance) would be allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair. So, I am pleased to say that, finally, new generations can now see The African Queen, newly digitized and cleaned up, on DVD and Blu-Ray.
** Two books on the subject of the movie's filming are out there: Hepburn's remembrance of the episode "The Making of 'The African Queen,' or How I Went to Africa with Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind," and "White Hunter, Black Heart" by "Queen's" script doctor Peter Viertel, a roman à clef about the circumstances, much fictionalized—the names have been changed to protect the elephants.