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The African Queen

The African Queen is a drama film directed by John Huston and produced by Sam Spiegel (billed as "S.P. Eagle") and John Woolf. The screenplay was adapted by James Agee, John Huston, John Collier and Peter Viertel from the 1935 novel by C. S. Forester. It was photographed in Technicolor by Jack Cardiff and had 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.

The African film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry and multiple other countries around the world.

Plot

Robert Morley and Katharine Hepburn play Samuel and Rose Sayer, brother and sister British missionaries in a village in German East Africa in 1914. Their mail and supplies are delivered by the rough-and-ready Canadian boat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) of the African Queen, whose coarse behavior they tolerate in a rather stiff manner.

When Charlie warns them that German troops will soon invade, the Sayers choose to stay on, only to witness the Germans burning down the local village and herding the villagers away to serve in the war. When Samuel protests, he is beaten by a German soldier. After the Germans leave, Samuel becomes delirious and dies.

Soon afterward, Charlie returns. He helps Rose bury her brother, and they set off in the African Queen. Charlie tells Rose that the Germans have a gunboat, the Empress Louisa, which patrols a large lake downriver, effectively blocking any British counterattacks. Rose still wants Charlie to pilot the boat down to the lake.

Charlie points out that navigating the river would be suicidal: to reach the lake 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. Charlie is furious when the teetotaler Rose throws away all of his gin, but she insists that he needs to be sober for the task at hand.

Charlie hoped after passing the first obstacle that Rose would be discouraged, but she is confident they can handle what is yet to come, and argues that Charlie promised to go all the way.

During their journey down the river, Charlie, Rose and the African Queen encounter many obstacles, including a German fortress perched on a hilltop near the river (with the drafted native villagers shooting at them) and three sets of rapids. The first set of rapids is rather easy; they get through with minimal flooding in the boat. But Rose and Charlie have to duck down when they pass the fortress and the soldiers begin shooting at them, blowing two bullet holes in the top of the boiler and causing one of the steam pressure hoses to disconnect from the boiler, which in turn, causes the boat's engine to stop running. Luckily, Charlie manages to reattach the hose to the boiler just as they are about to enter the second set of rapids. The boat rolls and pitches crazily as it goes down the rapids, leading to more severe flooding in the boat and also collapsing the stern canopy.

While celebrating their success, the two find themselves in an embrace. Embarrassed, they break off, but soon afterwards they appear to have a sexual encounter, after which Rose asks "What is your first name, dear?" He tells her and she calls him "Charlie", rather than "Mr. Allnut" afterwards. He begins calling her "Rosie" rather than "Miss."

Later on, the couple decide to take a pit stop to gather more fuel and drain the boat. Back on the river, Charlie and Rose watch crocodiles frolick on the nearby river bank when the third set of rapids comes up. This time, there is a loud metallic clattering noise as the boat goes over the falls. Once again, the couple dock on the river bank to check for damage. When Charlie dives under the boat, he finds the propeller shaft bent sideways and a blade missing from the propeller. Luckily, with some expert skill using suggestions from Rose, Charlie manages to straighten the shaft and weld a new blade on to the propeller, and they are off again.

All appears lost when Charlie and Rose "lose the channel" and the African Queen becomes mired in the mud amid dense reeds. First, they try to tow the boat through the muck, only to have Charlie come out of the water covered with leeches. In the end, Rose and Charlie go to sleep. As they sleep, exhausted and beaten, heavy rains raise the river's level and float the Queen off of the mud and into the lake which, it turns out, is just a short distance from their location. Once on the lake, they narrowly avoid being spotted by the Louisa.

Rose comes up with a plan to convert the Queen into a torpedo boat and sink the Louisa. That night, they set about converting some oxygen cylinders into torpedoes using gelatin explosives and improvised detonators that use nails as the firing pins for rifle cartridges. They then attach the torpedoes through the bow of the Queen.

At the height of a storm they push the Queen out onto the lake, intending to set it on a collision course with the Louisa. Unfortunately, the holes in the bow in which the torpedoes were pushed through are not sealed, allowing water to pour into the boat, causing it to sink lower and eventually the Queen tips over.

Charlie is captured and taken aboard the Louisa, and after being questioned, Rose is captured and Charlie hollers her name, then pretends not to know her. The captain questions her, and Rose says they planned to sink the German boat and encourages Charlie to describe his torpedoes. The captain sentences them to be executed as spies; Charlie asks the German captain to marry them before executing them. After a brief marriage ceremony, the Germans prepare to hang them, when there is a sudden explosion and the Louisa starts to sink. The Louisa has struck the overturned hull of the African Queen and detonated the torpedoes. Rose's plan has worked, if a little belatedly, and the newly-married couple swim to safety.

Production

Scenes in which Bogart and Hepburn are seen in the water were all shot in studio tanks in England (at Isleworth Studios, Middlesex) because of health concerns. Almost all of the other scenes were filmed in central Africa, causing considerable hardship for the cast and crew, but the result was a critical and commercial success.

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 over onto Hepburn. It was not bolted down since it also had to be moved to accommodate the camera. The small boat used in the film was made in a boatyard in Lytham St Annes, England.

The film also features a German gunboat, the Empress Luisa, which is based on the former World War I vessel MV Liemba (known until 1924 as the Graf von Götzen), which sank in Lake Tanganyika in 1916, but was subsequently refloated by the British and continues to operate as a passenger ferry to this day.

Premiere

The film opened on December 23, 1951 in Los Angeles and February 20, 1952 at Capitol Theatre in New York City.

Academy Awards

Award Person
Best Actor in a Leading Role Humphrey Bogart
Nominated:
Best Actress in a Leading Role Katharine Hepburn
Best Adapted Screenplay James Agee
John Huston
Best Director John Huston

American Film Institute recognition

Script changes

Although Bogart won an Academy Award for the performance, his entire part had to be rewritten after casting. The original screenplay depicted his character in thick Cockney dialect but Bogart was incapable of the accent.

Subsequent releases and rights issues

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 a movie in Africa. The picture quality is somewhat grainy and suffers from colour shifts; the sound lacks bass response and suffers from clicks and pops.

The film has been released in the United States on VHS video, but not region 1 DVD. However, a region 1 DVD is available and distributed by The Castaways Pictures and has English and Chinese subtitles available with no other features. It is not clear if this is authorized or not. While Granada International holds international rights, the underlying U.S. rights are held by CBS (whose Viacom predecessor acquired the rights from copyright holder Horizon Film Management in the 1970s, and for a time in the 1980s, 20th Century Fox had the U.S. rights until Viacom re-acquired the film in 1997).

Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures (acting on behalf of CBS, the former parent - and later a subsidiary - of Viacom) currently handles U.S. theatrical distribution rights. It can often be found on either Turner Classic Movies or pay-per-view.

Historical context

C.S. Forester's novel The African Queen provides a fairly accurate illustration of the fierce levels of tension and competition which existed between the rival British and German Empires' colonial interests in Central Africa prior to, and through, World War I. With the conclusion of World War I, in 1918, the previously existing colonial rivalry was resolved when former German African colonies were ceded to the victorious Allied Powers, Britain and France. As a result, the British Empire was able to fulfill a long-held aspiration to fill a gap between their Central and East African colonial holdings, with the result that British territory would form an uninterrupted belt from Egypt to South Africa.

That such was the case was a source of British national pride, which is to some extent reflected in the later 1935 publication of The African Queen. One purpose of the book, along with content and intent, was to serve as a veritable reminder of a situation when the British Empire overcame, at great cost, the German Empire during a time of national crisis in an obscure part of the world. The novel is set in 1914 German East Africa, the current day nation of Tanzania, which was surrounded, in 1914, by the overseas possessions of other European powers—British East Africa, Uganda, the Congo, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Mozambique (Henderson 50). The colonial frontiers of German East Africa, especially the rivers, played an important role within the overall plot of the novel. The borders of German East Africa consisted of many rivers, the Umba and Ruvuma, and lakes, Victoria and Tanganyika (Henderson 50-51). Rivers and lakes located on the western, northern, and southern borders of German East Africa, were the quintessential points where German, British, and Belgian spheres of influence and colonial interest met and conflicted. The resulting implication of nations relying on natural features as boundaries meant that there was the potential for military conflicts to occur on, or near, rivers and lakes as was depicted within The African Queen.

Consequently, the deployment of naval assets, such as gunboats and steamers, was entirely appropriate due to the need of colonial powers to maintain control over very remote and isolated areas of their colonies. This is particularly true where rivers and lakes are the only effective means of travel when conducting military patrols and commerce. Due to the conflict which these realities created, a colonial rivalry, the British aspiration to unite their African colonial holdings from Egypt to South Africa was effectively blocked. Thus once World War I broke out, the British would most certainly attempt to occupy this particular area very aggressively.

Colonial rivalry in Central Africa began after the 1871 unification of German states that led to the creation of the German Empire, a rivalry intensified with the ascension of Wilhelm II, as Kaiser of Germany, in 1888. The rivalry was sustained by the situation of German East Africa, as it was at the center of their respective territorial, economic, and political interests in Central Africa. The book represents the British interests and aspirations through the occupations of the main characters. A British missionary presence, such as Rosie and Samuels, within German East Africa would certainly ruffle German pride, and would be skeptically viewed as an encroachment on German sovereignty. Charlie and his ship operating within the colonies' territorial waters, the lake and river, represent British economic interests and aspirations. Therefore, the main characters' occupations and British interests would both be viewed as a competing and conflicting foreign influence in Germany's most productive colony.

As World War I erupted in August and September of 1914, the Allied Powers set forth plans to occupy Germany's colonial possessions around the world. In Africa, the German colonies of Togoland, Cameroon, and German Southwest Africa were occupied quite easily due to naval blockades and logistical issues, both of which hindered the chances of German retention. However, the relative ease the Allied Powers enjoyed in the other three campaigns was not replicated in the campaign to seize German East Africa. This particular campaign was arduous for the British Army and Royal Navy, and therefore it is important to note their respective contributions during the real campaign against that which is detailed in the book.

German Army assets in German East Africa, under the command of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, exacted an unexpected defeat upon the British Army at the Battle of Tanga in November 1914 (Farwell). It was from this battle that General von Lettow-Vorbeck gained a reputation as an outstanding commander whose leadership was characterized by boldness, initiative, and ingenuity (Henderson 127). It might be speculated that personality characteristic parallels exist between Rosie and General von Lettow-Vorbeck. Her patriotic feelings and need for revenge, as portrayed in the book, are due to the humiliating British defeat at the Battle of Tanga. Also, the personality characteristics of boldness, initiative, and ingenuity that she consistently displays are also equated with General von Lettow-Vorbeck's own personality, and she attempts to utilize them in order to sink the Louisa.

As for Charlie's role and personality characteristics, his early reluctance to participate in the revenge and patriotic aspects of the plot symbolizes Britain's initial reluctance to deploy satisfactory military assets and supplies to the East African campaign. Also, Charlie's yearning to avoid contact with superior German forces is similar to von Lettow-Vorbeck's tactic of wandering around German East Africa and Northern Rhodesia, in order to avoid contact with superior British military forces (Henderson 125).

Against all odds, the German Army in East Africa was able to hold out for the duration of the war, a total of four years. Obviously, in order to survive, General von Lettow-Vorbeck had to pilfer supplies from local sources, and also had to impress the native African population of males as supplementary soldiers. Both of these situations are presented early in the book, thus it is plausible to assume that C. S. Forester relied on accurate accounts and realistic personalities traits, in order to give The African Queen a basis rooted in fact, rather than one based upon pure speculation. An interesting side note is that General von Lettow-Vorbeck and the main characters both struggled to survive in the remote countryside of the colony.

The historical naval component of the campaign is featured quite prominently within the book, however, it comes in the form of an Allied and German role reversal. In both circumstances, gunboats and technological obsolescence assume important roles within the conclusion of a military operation. Historically, in 1914 the three German gunboats on Lake Tanganyika were faster and better armed than the vessels at the disposal of the Allies. To remedy this situation Britain sent two motor launches under Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simson to the lake; (See Giles Foden and his novel Mimi and Toutou Go Forth. The Bizarre Battle for Lake Tanganyika for a brilliant description of what really happened in the battles) , which quickly disposed of the German ships (Henderson 127).

In an apparent role reversal, which is reflected towards the conclusion of the African Queen book, it was the Allies who possessed more advanced ships that dealt the final death blow to the Louisa. According to Henderson, there was also a British vessel, the Toutou, which sank due to storm. Charlie and Rosie's vessel, The African Queen, is subjected to a storm and, subsequently, sinks while on a mission to defeat German naval ships (Henderson 127). The ending in both cases is the same; the Allies gained control over an important lake and defeated the German menace, thus notions of military dominance were realized by the Allies.

The timeframe when The African Queen was published, in 1935, plays an important role within the meaning of the story and historical events which had already occurred. It can be maintained that the book is essentially preaching for a revival, or remembrance, of the time where the Empire successfully overcame the challenges presented by World War I. This revival is being advocated during a time when the condition of Britain's national pride, economy, military, and empire were all in a state of decline or stagnation.

Great Britain in 1935 was facing economic decline because of the Great Depression and the burden of maintaining such as large empire. Colonies had been traditionally associated with economic growth and stability, and military victories in Central Africa during World War I led to such an acquisition. It was at this same time that Germany was initiating efforts to reclaim lost military power, international influence and prestige, and economic strength. The timing of the book's publication along with a resurgent Germany was a reminder that they were still capable of being a threat, and that war was possible even if it were an unexpected long shot. When considering these aspects together, it is plausible to believe that the author, C.S. Forester, was simply warning the nation about Germany, and advocated for a resurgent, and more powerful, British Empire. In conclusion, the historical roles of both nations are mostly reversed during the course of The African Queen. Historically positive associations, events, and personality characteristics which Germany enjoyed during the German East African campaign are applied to British or other Allied interests and persons, such as the Belgians and Rosie, while most of the negative associations are applied to German interests and people. The book served a twofold purpose. It was another attempt to banish German-British tensions and conflicts which lingered on after the conclusion of World War I. And it reminded the British of a time where they were stronger, and that they had to always remain vigilant against any potential threat, unexpected or not.

Miscellany

  • The boat used in the picture, "The African Queen," is on public display behind the glass bottom boat on an ocean access canal adjoining The Key Largo Holiday Inn in Key Largo, Florida.
  • The film White Hunter, Black Heart starring and directed by Clint Eastwood is loosely based on the film's production.

References

Notes

Bibliography

  • Farwell, Byron. The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918. 2nd ed. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.
  • Hagberg Wright, C.T. "German Methods of Development in Africa." Journal of the Royal African Society 1.1 (1901): 23-38. Historical. J-Stor. Golden Library, ENMU. 18 April. 2005.
  • Henderson, William Otto. The German Colonial Empire. Portland: International Specialized Book Services, Inc, 1993.
  • Werner, A, and R Dilthey. "German and British Colonisation in Africa." Journal of the Royal African Society 4.14 (1905): 238-41. Historical. J-Stor. Golden Library, ENMU. 18 April. 2005.
  • Foden, Giles (2005). "Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika". Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 0-14-100984-5

External links

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