This film is held by the BFI (ID: 22390).


Story of the sister of a missionary and a heavy-drinking engineer in Africa during the First World War, who are forced to escape from the Germans down the river in an old boat and conceive a plan to improvise torpedos to attach to the boat in order to attack a German gun-boat in a lake at the river's end.



Based on a novel by C. S. [Cecil Scott] Forester published in 1935, The African Queen was a British independent production by Sam Spiegel with financing by John Woolf. In the documentary, Embracing Chaos: Making the African Queen (2010) accompanying the UK-issue“Special Restoration Edition’ DVD, Lawrence Grobel and Theodore Bikel claim that Spiegel, later producer of On the Waterfront and Lawrence of Arabia, asked director John Huston what movie he would most like to make and was told  that this novel particularly interested him. James Agee, in his first Hollywood collaboration, wrote the script along with Huston as Spiegel convinced Humphrey Bogart, star of several of Huston’s films, including his first feature, The Maltese Falcon, and the recently successful Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), to take up the role of Charlie Allnut.

Recommended by Bogart, Katharine Hepburn agreed to co-star (Schulberg claims Spiegel asked Hepburn first). She would later write a best-selling memoir of her experiences on the film, The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogey, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind (1987) about which Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote dismissively in the New York Timesthat ‘the reference in her subtitle to almost losing her mind is hyperbole.’ While that reviewer believed that ‘nothing extraordinary happened beyond the familiar hazards of making a movie in an exotic clime’, the 36 years that had passed since the film’s 1951 opening had obviously blurred the critic’s memory. Nothing could have been less ‘familiar’ in the American cinema of 1951 than shooting on location in distant countries. In fact, several months of location scouting and two more of shooting in sparsely populated areas of what are today the Democratic Republic of Congo (then the Belgian Congo), and Uganda was a spectacular undertaking for any filmmaking team of the time, much less for an independent film company operating on a restricted budget.

While travelogues and wildlife documentaries had transported viewers from the beginnings of the cinema through the 1930s to far-flung territories such as Africa, Asia, and the Arctic (see Ruoff), feature fiction films had primarily done so in the 1930s by using backgrounds shot on location onto which studio work with the stars was projected. For most of the 1940s, even limited on-location shooting had been impossible because of the War. Huston had shot on location in Mexico for Treasure of the Sierra Madre, winning both the director and screenwriter Oscars in 1948. Only months later, the Hollywood producers of King Solomon’s Mines (1950) had deployed a record budget ($3.5 million) to transport its stars to Africa for six months of shooting (Reid, 170). As its $10 million take demonstrated (Eldridge 44), exotica had become one of the best commodities Hollywood could sell – and Africa offered a dreamworld for audiences who had seen far too much of Europe and the Pacific during the years of World War II. What’s more, its locations seemed malleable into whatever world the film marketers sought to present with little regard for historic, political, or geographic accuracy. Although in a 1985 Playboy interview, Huston described one of his film’s locations (in Uganda) as being far safer than it would be today, he also bragged about taking Katharine Hepburn on hunting expeditions that put both their lives in danger (Grobel, 155-57). Perhaps most importantly, the film producers played up the dangers to market the film. Life magazine sent reporters and photographers in summer 1951 who reported that ‘the supply line was precarious, the heat intense, and disease lurked everywhere’ (173). The gamble was a success: African Queen was the sixth biggest grossing film of the year in the US market (Reid, 32) and in the top ten in the UK (Thumim, 262).

Huston’s legendary interest in African elephant hunting (see Lovenheim; Echart, 25) became the focus of a 1953 novel by one of his collaborators on the script, Peter Viertel, and was ultimately made into a film by Clint Eastwood, White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). The aging Huston’s remarks in 1985 about his African experiences suggest his politics were as ambivalent as those of the stormy film director modelled after him: the African locals ‘were a lot better off under the English,’ he announces, though claiming to be ‘theoretically . . . against colonialism’. Elsewhere he tells an anecdote about local villagers who refused to play in the film because, said their king, ‘They are afraid you are going to eat them’. Commented Huston on his campaign to lure the Africans into low-paid appearances in his film, ‘They called it the Third World, but, my God, Africa was the ninety-seventh world! It was so far removed from our awareness, there was no basis for comparison’ (Grobel, 155-56). The journalists of the time were obsessed with this distance, with one reporter asking Bogart and Bacall about the dangers of ‘the deep, dark continent’ (newsreel interview excerpted in Embracing Chaos) and pressing them on the various wild things that could menace them there. No cannibals, reports the couple impatiently, but Bacall acknowledges the dangers of Africa’s animal population.

The 1935 British novel by a popular adventure writer marries the imperialistic ideologies of its time with anti-German British nationalism. The Agee/Huston script changes Allnut’s nationality from English to Canadian and reduces our knowledge of his past: in the film version, he is neither a convict nor already married to someone back home. It also repeatedly avoids the racist language of the novel, both the injurious language used by Allnut toward the Africans and that embraced by the narrator who goes so far as to characterize the mine workers as ‘filthy natives’. More significantly, the film makes the couple’s joint efforts at guerrilla warfare more successful than the novel had done. The English save the couple in the original British edition of the novel; their torpedoes never detonate. The Germans are also given less benefit of the doubt in the film: in the novel, the couple are spared by their German captors but are then endangered by an English attack. In a subsequent American edition of the novel, Rosie and Charlie do manage to blow up the German boat but are not married at its conclusion. Huston’s team had similar trouble deciding on an ending. Agee was ill and unable to complete the script so the final scenes were completed in Africa by Huston and Viertel. Pablo Echart reports that Huston considered having the film end with the couple being hanged (32n2), but the happy ending – unusual for Huston’s films which frequently conclude with the defeat of even his most heroic characters – was chosen during the seven-week African shoot.

The film has gained a reputation as a remarkable vehicle for its actors (see Crowther, Brill, Echart). Bogart beat Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to win an Oscar for playing the transformation of ‘a wretched little man’ into a hero. Hepburn singled it out as her most memorable film and claimed she got the best directorial advice she ever received from Huston when he told her to play Rosie with Eleanor Roosevelt’s smile (Lehmann-Haupt). Even the 1912 steamboat survived to roar up the Connecticut coastline near Hepburn’s summer home in memory of the mythical shoot (and ultimately to dock as a tourist attraction in Key Largo, Florida where it can still be visited today) (Libby).



Despite the remarkable location shooting in Africa, the film largely concentrates on the two characters in a thirty-foot steamboat. The hard-won landscapes of central Africa in 1951 seem at times to be reduced to a backlot in which these characters could be deployed. As the French film journal Positif remarked in 1952, the film was an ‘astonishing adventure film’ precisely because it stripped the on-location shooting of Africa of the traditional exoticism associated with the genre (Demeure, 89). In place of the mythical aspirations of most on-location Africana, this film limited its scope to the spaces where we see the evolution of its three characters – Rosie, Charlie, and ‘The African Queen’.

The African Queen names a film and a boat, but it also, by implication, names the allegiances of a woman. Cleopatra, Nefertiti, or Sheba, mythical or real, belongs to a long tradition of legends of alluring women hoarding ineffable wealth in their hidden kingdoms. Seductresses all, the African queens of legend tempt men to abandon their reason and power. Not surprisingly perhaps, one of the big successes of 1949 was Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah, bearing the tagline: ‘History’s Most Beautiful and Treacherous Woman’. How surprising then, for audiences of 1951, to discover that the closest this film will come to showing a temptress is an allusion to Cleopatra and Antony on their barge made by a slovenly fifty-something steamer skipper while romancing a forty-something spinster. For all of this film being about love, it shows a couple who don’t touch each other much. A clever fade-out marks the moment when they presumably consummated their relationship. When we next see Rosie, she’s making the skipper coffee and asking his first name. But he’s still sleeping on the hard floor of the boat and there’s little to suggest he’s entered her tent except her pleasure in rolling his given name around on her tongue. Even at the film’s conclusion, the ‘old married man’ is too busy treading water to nuzzle up to any women, whether queenly or just plain old heroic. Nonetheless, in the words of Charlie Allnut, the film will make its not-so-queenly Rosie into ‘a living picture of a heroine’ for generations of filmgoers to appreciate. And it is surely Rosie’s transformation – from bored sister of a missionary into a daredevil who willingly rides boats through white water rapids and over waterfalls to fulfill her mission as a guerrilla fighter – that gives this film its modernity and charm.

‘You got the map’, Allnut tells her in their first exchange on the boat, and she serves as geographer for an unnavigable river and planner of an impossible mission. It is as if this film’s rewriting of Heart of Darkness recasts Marlow as a feminist seeking her own true nature – not the dangers of the dark continent. And ultimately, this film will rewrite the Africa to which this woman will rise as royalty as a place of light and joy – and even redemption. She marries the crazy river and the crazy man (‘This river’s crazy, as I am’, says Charlie, shortly before his new queen extols him as ‘the bravest man that ever lived’). Indeed, lest the censors fret about that ending where the two share a musical number while paddling east, they will join their fates not just figuratively but literally, even going so far as to fantasise with him about future children that their ages would surely forestall: ‘What a time we’ve had, Rosie! What a time! We’ll never lack for stories to tell our grandchildren!’ As a romantic comedy, this is a film that puts a great heroine front and centre in the picture. By the end of the film, indeed, ‘The African Queen’ is as much Katharine Hepburn’s Rosie Sayers as the film itself.

But what kind of an Africa is this, the one to which the steamer ‘The African Queen’ belongs and the one its passenger seeks to transform with her wits and courage? Wild. Natural. Largely unaccompanied by the sounds of civilisation (apart from the troublesome clergyman and the evil German marksmen). Rainy. Wet.. Not surprisingly, sports an exchange from a fan asking if the Ulanga River in this film is ‘real’. Despite the existence of websites featuring ‘The African Queen Film Locations’ that trace the on-location shooting and explain in detail how local monks built the miniature model of the steamer to be sent down the nearby falls (today Kabalego Falls in Uganda), unraveling the geography of German East Africa proves daunting if not impossible. This river and its tributary are not just unnavigable; they simply do not flow toward a lake. The mine is depicted as being in Lumbasi but the closest-sounding name to that in the region is Lumbumbasi, called Elisabethville in the 1910s, which indeed had a copper mine and belonged to the Belgians – but it is nowhere near the Ulanga River. What lake are Charlie and Rosie swimming across when the film ends? Is that Tanganyika? Victoria? Nyasa? Is it even a relevant question to pose?

As Giuliana Bruno has demonstrated in Atlas of Emotion, the very principles of travel that films put at our disposition invite us to wonder about these imagined cartographies. We seek as spectators to fill in the blank spaces on the map much as the geographers of imperial Europe sought to do in the decades between the Franco-Prussian and the First World Wars. This film erases that map. If it existed at all, the space through which ‘The African Queen’ voyages is without markers. This is not nature to ‘rise above’ in the words of the missionary, but nature to sink into –  like the water, like the mud, like the sex the film hints at but won’t let us see. At the end of the novel, the characters explicitly plan a life in Africa together. Near the end of the film, Allnut twice alludes to a destination that could follow their mission: ‘I’d like to come back here some day’, he muses about the idyllic spot on the river where nature has seemed least threatening (ironically, just before the boat sails over the falls). Later, after making the torpedoes, he speaks of a later trip to Kenya. The latter, a safer bet than the river they’ve barely survived, already represented in the 1910s the land of chic British settlers, and wealth from coffee and tea. It especially implied independence from the class and gender restrictions of their origins. What life would a woman like Rosie have back in England – or for that matter Canada? Without Africa, she would not be her own boss any more than Charlie could have been. In Africa, the film tells us, they have options.

But isn’t that the wish-fulfillment fantasy speaking again? If this odd couple had no business sailing downriver much less planning torpedo missions, only in the movies do they become ‘heroines’ and ‘brave men’. Small wonder then that the film serves up even more fantasies, of an African future in which the British empire is less threatening than the German or Belgian, of grandchildren who would be just about the age of the young people in the audience of 1951 and who could be made to forget, for just a moment, that the hearts of such colonists still bore darkness down whatever rivers they navigated.

This is an Africa that is emptied of its cartography so as to make us forget everything we know about the continent in 1951. And yet, Africa is here seen as a space for political confrontation and even presented as the potential arena for crises of empire – particularly when the invading whites order the destruction of the Africans’ village and lead off dozens of men and women at gunpoint. Is The African Queen a more critical film of colonialism and racism than 1930s productions like Trader Horn or Sanders of the River – or a more politically insightful film about imperialism than King Solomon’s Mines of 1950? Huston’s own politics were somehow (mysteriously) spared the investigation of the House Un-American Activities Committee but Bogart’s and Hepburn’s testimony had led them to be treated with enough suspicion that being abroad at this time – and feted for patriotism through their characters’ heroism – was likely a professional boon (Grobel, 169-70; William Mann and others in Embracing Chaos).

The sequence at the film’s opening that shows Bogart inciting a near-riot with a discarded cigar butt seems a troubling racist moment in a film that largely sidesteps the discriminatory values informing British colonialism either in 1914 or 1950-51. The film inscribes base opportunism in Allnut’s character: he is depicted as having come to Africa to help in the construction of a bridge and works for the cruelly exploitative Belgians without showing any awareness of the implications of his choices. In fact, Allnut doesn’t seem at the outset to have any particular interest in national identity – either his own or that of the countries back in Europe about to go to war. He is depicted early in the film on board his ship waited on by servile Africans he’ll call his ‘boys’ (though he does seem to have some mastery of their language). When he returns to check on the Sayers after finding his own mine ‘in shambles’, he shows little concern for what may have befallen the people from the burned village except to speculate that the men will be made soldiers – and the film gives no idea what could have happened to their wives and children.

Similarly, Rosie and her brother seem oblivious to the Africans’ sensibilities, even after ten years in which they have presumably worked side by side with the villagers whose roofs are built from the same materials as their church. In the opening ‘ethnographic sequence’ in the church, for example, the Africans are put on display in ways that seem uncomfortably like the staging of humans in live exhibits in music hall shows and international exhibitions from the nineteenth century up to the 1930s (see Lindfors): the camera studies their faces, explores their partially clad bodies, even intrudes on their breastfeeding – offering them to the film viewer as spectacles to be studied for how ‘uncivilised’ they remain despite the trappings of protestantism with which the missionaries surround them. The Africans are depicted – for apparently comic purposes – as incapable of following the hymn that, all too ironically, recounts the voyage out of slavery through the wilderness for the chosen people of the Old Testament. While the film’s cynical view of the congregation suggests that none of these people exhibit much capacity to offer the ‘songs of praise’ evoked in their hymn, Rosie and Samuel Sayers seem unconcerned so long as they can go through the motions of Methodist practice and get back to their teatime with imported porcelain and English magazines. In short, as Echart also notes, the film’s portrait of the missionaries at the opening shows them to be remarkably insensitive to their locale (25). But will the film itself become more sensitive to its locale? Prime Minister Nehru of India seems not to have thought so, for he banned The African Queen because of its demeaning representations of Africans (Jaikumar, 256 n60).

The Africa this couple moves through is populated, ultimately, almost exclusively of baboons (whose role is to mimic), crocodiles (from whom the fragile hull of ‘The African Queen’ protects those sailing downriver), and Germans. In fact, once Rosie and Charlie have left the burned village behind in the film’s 18th minute, the only native Africans visible to us on screen (and not even to them on the river) are those trained marksmen charged by the German commanders with shooting the passing boat and those German conscripts fleeing the Luise. It is as though this Africa has already become a military base populated by dangerous black men with guns. The two early sequences that show the violence of black Africans nonetheless suggest the dangers well beyond this film. Even as the film insists explicitly on the potential horrors for the world if totalitarians like the Germans of 1914 are allowed to enslave the locals and take over the continent, it nuances this portrait with a contemptuous representation of the Africans as fratricidal over the spoils of civilisation.

If Africa remained, even decades later, ‘the 97th world’, as Huston suggested, it was distant in part because settlers like Charlie Allnut and Samuel Sayers brought commodities with which they tempted the locals without sharing anything more than songs that speak metaphorically of courageously facing danger. The violence we see in that early opening sequence, of the Africans beating each other over a pittance of tobacco, is juxtaposed minutes later with the coldblooded imprisonment of dozens of black men and women by a battalion of black askari led by white soldiers. What matter who the white men are, one might ask. While The African Queen bills its characters’ mission from the beginning of the river voyage as one to fight Germans on behalf of Britain, can this film really make us forget that Bogart’s Allnut is a white invader like the ones he seeks to explode and sink? From the character’s reported participation in Cecil Rhodes’ 1905 project of building a railway bridge over the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls – the necessity for which Allnut claims naively not to have understood – to his current work as a fix-it man at a copper mine run by a Belgian concession– the slovenly, gin-swilling, quasi-illiterate loser of the opening sequences of this film is an intruder like the Germans – except that he bears only the arms of ignorance and colonialist collaboration. The film will clean him up but it does not promise to take him out of Africa. What the film will make of him is anti-totalitarian, but only up to a point: His blasé disinterest in the political forces that have employed him are initially matched by his myopic view of the politics of the European war effort. At the conclusion to the film, he is proud to have learned courage to fight Germans on behalf of Britain, but he has not gained any awareness of the implications of colonial exploitation.

In this film, all the whites are taking land that does not belong to them. They are at large in countries to which their own nationality does not entitle them. They are all stealing resources for their own interests. Even Rosie Sayers, who has only come to Africa to cook, clean, and play the organ, is out of her realm except on a 30-foot boat full of explosives. That she learns to steer the boat through rapids and remove leeches from her partner’s back may make her less of a ‘crazy, psalm-singing skinny old maid’ than she initially seemed, but it doesn’t enable this film or its characters to assume the meaning of the space through which they travel and the equivocal geographical domination to which they have aspired since their arrival in Africa. They are, after all, on a boat called ‘The African Queen’. Like all boats and countries, this one is a territory assigned a female identity: they ride her, they sail her, they steer her, they walk on her. Indeed, Allnut even takes a perverse pleasure in keeping her running by ‘kicking her’. Like the land through which their boat steams, this is a world of territorial metaphors despoiled of bodies. The film erases all but the tropes of domination. Whatever Queen she may have been, the African is no longer there.

Jann Matlock


Works Cited

 “Life goes on location in Africa,” Life, 17 September 1951, 173-79.

 “The African Queen Film Locations,” at The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, at, consulted on 7 August 2010.

Brill, Lesley, John Huston’s Filmmaking. Cambridge: UP, 1997.

Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion. NY: Verso, 2002.

Crowther, Bosley, “The African Queen,” Review, New York Times, 21 February 1952.

Demeure, Jacques et Michel Subiéia, “African Queen: Le Bateau de Sisyphe” rpt from Positif, no.3 (July-August 1952) in Gilles Ciment, John Huston(Paris: Positif-Rivages, 1988), 89-92.

Echart, Pablo.“Strange but Close Partners: Huston, Romantic Comedy, and The African Queen,” in Tony Tracy and Roddy Flynn, ed., John Huston: Essays on a Restless Director. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 2010.

Eldridge, David. Hollywood’s History Films. London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.

Embracing Chaos: Making the African Queen. Dir. Eric Young. Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Forester, C. S. The African Queen. 1935; rpt. NY: Random House / The Modern Library, 1940.

Grobel, Lawrence, “Playboy Interview: John Huston,” in John Huston Interviews. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2001.

Hepburn, Katharine. The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogey, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Jaikumar, Priya. Cinema at the End of Empire: A Politics of Transition in Britain and India. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Duke UP, 2006.

Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. “Books of the Times” New York Times, 14 September 1987.

Lev, Peter. Transforming the Screen, 1950-51. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Libby, Sam, “The African Queen Arrives in Connecticut,” New York Times, 16 June 1996.

Lovenheim, Barbara, “Katharine Hepburn Takes the Movies’ Measure,” New York Times, 27 September 1987.

Reid, John Howard. Success in the Cinema: Money-Making Movies and Critics’ Choices. Np:, 2006.

Ruoff, Jeffrey, ed. Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006.

Schulberg, Budd, “How Are Things in Panicsville?” Life, 20 December 1963.

Strachan, Hew, The First World War in Africa. London:

Thumim, Janet, “The ‘Popular’, Cash and Culture in the Post-War British Cinema Industry,” Screen, 32: 3 (1991), 245-71.

Viertel, Peter. White Hunter, Black Heart. NY: Doubleday, 1953.

Yahoo! Answers, December 2009, question by MacQueen, consulted at, on 8 August 2010.




Technical Data

Running Time:
103 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
Colour (Technicolor)
9270 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain, USA
Camera Operator
GRAHAM, Arthur
Camera Operator
Camera Operator
Sound Recording
2nd Unit Photographer
Art Director
Assistant Art Director
Assistant Director
Assistant Director
Assistant Director
PEARL, Albert
Assistant Editor
Assistant Editor
Author of the Original Work
Boom Operator
McCLORY, Kevin
cast member
cast member
BIKEL, Theodore
cast member
BOGART, Humphrey
cast member
BULL, Peter
cast member
GOTELL, Walter
cast member
HEPBURN, Katharine
cast member
KOTZE, John von
cast member
MARNER, Richard
cast member
MORLEY, Robert
cast member
ONN, Gerald
cast member
DAVIS, Desmond
Construction Manager
Costume Designer
MOORE, Doris Langley
DE PINNA, Connie
Director of Photography
Focus Puller
KOTZE, John von
Focus Puller
BATES, Eileen
Location Manager
JOSEPH, Edward
Location Manager
FROST, George
GRAY, Allan
Music Director
DEL MAR, Norman
Music Performed by
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Production Accountant
Production Assistant
INNES, Geoffrey
Production Assistant
JONES, Myfanwy
Production Assistant
Production Assistant
SIMS, Jeanie
Production Assistant
Production Company
Horizon Pictures
Production Company
Romulus Films
Production Manager
AMAN, Leigh
Production Manager
Production Manager
STERNE, Robert
TATE, Kenneth
WILKIE, Lillana
Scenic Artist
GRESTY, George
AGEE, James
Script Supervisor
ALLEN, Angela
Sound Editor
WOOD, Eric
Special Effects
Stills Photography
LEMON, Arthur
Isleworth Studios
Unit Production Manager
MURRAY, George