Rose Sayer and her brother Samuel are English missionaries in 1914 German East Africa. Their rare contact with the outside world is through Charlie Allnut, who delivers their occasional mail on his steam- powered boat, The African Queen. The Germans destroy their village. Samuel is injured and dies, broken-hearted. Charlie offers to take Rose with him.
At first, they are stiffly polite to each other. He respectfully calls her “Miss,” and she calls him “Mr. Allnut.” She decides that they must help fight the Germans by using their explosives to blow up the powerful German gunboat, the Louisa. He becomes angry and frustrated by her insistence on what he sees as a dangerously reckless idea, and she becomes disgusted and furious when he gets drunk. He calls her a “crazy psalm-singing skinny old maid.” She pours all his liquor overboard.
He decides that she will change her mind when she sees how dangerous the river is, and takes her over the rapids. She is thrilled, telling him that she is “filled with admiration” for his skill, and that “I never dreamed any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” Charmed by her enthusiasm and praise, he still insists that they cannot possibly attack the Louisa. The river is all but impossible to navigate, and a German fort blocks their path. She insists, and as they face challenges together they learn to respect, rely on, and finally love each other. After a tender night together, she asks him, “Mr. Allnut, dear. There’s something I must know. What’s your first name?”
They make it past the fort and survive bugs, rapids, leeches, and the reeds that strangle the river, finally approaching the Louisa. But they are captured and sentenced to death by the captain. Charlie asks for a last request — that they be executed as husband and wife. The captain quickly marries them, and just as they are about to be hung, Charlie’s torpedo strapped to the African Queen hits the Louisa, and Mr. and Mrs. Allnut swim to shore together.
This is one of the finest and most satisfying of the “two diverse characters must take a journey together and learn to like and respect each other along the way” genre. Rose and Charlie are opposites. And yet they are perfectly suited to each other.
We first see Charlie hideously out of place sipping tea with Rose and Samuel and trying to hide his growling stomach. “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise above,” she tells him later. And yet, in another sense, Rose and Samuel were out of place in Africa. Ultimately, Rose is not comfortable “rising above” nature, and indeed grows to love it, as she gives up some of the strictures of civilization and appreciates the beauty and “stimulation” of the natural world. Charlie learns to appreciate some of the beauties of civilization; to take the challenge and the responsibility of participating in the fight against the Germans, to have a relationship of trust and tenderness.
Humphrey Bogart won a well-deserved Oscar for this performance. Katharine Hepburn, who was also nominated, said that her performance was based on director John Huston’s suggestion that she play Rose as Eleanor Roosevelt. Compare this performance to her appearance in “Pat and Mike” a year later, in which she played a world-class athlete.
The movie is based on a novel of the same name by C.S. Forester, but the romance was added by screenwriters James Agee and John Huston. Adults who enjoy this movie might like to see “White Hunter, Black Heart,” a backstage look at the making of this film, concentrating on John Huston’s elephant hunting.
Look at a map of Africa to see where this took place.