When Katharine Hepburn was approached by producer Sam Spiegel about doing The African Queen she was intrigued. He sent her the book on which the film is based and then paid her a visit. They talked about possible leading men and when Humphrey Bogart was brought up, she thought that was a fine idea. Then, according to her retelling in her book, The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind she insisted to Spiegel that the picture be filmed on location in Africa. Spiegel reportedly replied “We’ll see” but the rest, as they say, is history.
The African Queen was indeed filmed in Africa—in Uganda and the Congo—and I strongly believe that without the authentic location, the film would not have nearly the same impact. Africa is a character in the film, as much as Charlie Allnut and Rosie Sayer are. And it’s not just the visual impact that’s important—in reading Hepburn’s book one comes to understand how important being on location was to the cast and crew.
Hepburn writes in great detail about her short time living in Africa. Of course, it was ludicrously difficult to film with unwieldy technicolor equipment in such a primal place as Africa, but they did it. The only parts that were not shot in Africa were a few scenes inside the house and when Charlie and Rosie are in the water—itwas much too dangerous for the actors to go into African water, due to what Hepburn called bilharzia, an intestinal infection carried by a parasitic worm. But the rest was all in Africa and the cast and crew had to deal with torrential rainfall that came out of seemingly nowhere, the sinking of the actual African Queen on which they were filming, animals, insects, a difficulty accessing enough palatable food, and, most of all, illness.
Nearly the entire cast and crew became very ill at some point or another. Hepburn claimed to have lost 20 pounds, which is a considerable amount of weight on someone already so slim. Only Bogart and Huston escaped, and they famously attributed their lack of illness to their alcohol consumption. They may have been right, as the doctor discovered the bottled water they had been drinking was infected. If Bogie and Huston were drinking bourbon and gin instead of water, it makes sense that they would avoid the illness.
There are a lot of reasons to love The African Queen, and many reasons it is considered a classic. Humphrey Bogart won his only Academy Award for his performance as Charlie Allnut. Hepburn was nominated, as was Huston for direction and adapted screenplay [along with James Agee]. That they didn’t win is a testament to the strength of the other films up for awards that year. But it’s Africa that really makes the film come alive. If it were shot on a soundstage, it would still be a good movie. But I don’t think it would be a great movie, and I don’t think Bogie would have won that Oscar. Africa gave the actors and everyone else what they needed to make the film stand out as a powerful piece of storytelling. It was difficult yes, but it was also beautiful, and an entirely new experience for nearly everyone involved. That comes through in the film, which is what makes it so fun to watch, and what has secured its place as a classic.
Here are the essays we'll have for you this week:
- A discussion on the cinematic masculinity of Huston and Bogart
- Filmography or Katharine Hepburn's post-African Queen career
- Deeper cultural context on the European colonialism at the edges of the film
- Related review of Bogart vehicle In a Lonely Place
- And more!