It would take something as drastic as being stuck on a boat together for days on end for Katharine Hepburn’s pushy missionary and Humphrey Bogart’s boozy captain to find romance, and so that’s what director John Huston did in The African Queen. And it still doesn’t work.
The African Queen enjoys a good reputation – Bogart took home an Oscar – but it strikes me as a classic folly. Take two of Hollywood’s biggest stars and head to Africa to shoot on location in dazzling Technicolor. The result would surely be magic or…this.
Of all the artifice on the screen – the awkward insertion of location footage, Allan Gray’s intrusive music – the fatal falsehood is the relationship between Hepburn’s Rose Sayer and Bogart’s Charlie Allnut, who find themselves fleeing downriver after Germans have razed the village where she was serving (it’s 1914). It’s not just that they’re an odd couple, given her primness and his unshaven manner. It’s that they’re oil and water. Which would be fine if the movie played this for tension or laughs, but instead it’s sold as romance.
You know those forced Hollywood kisses that are so unconvincing that your own lips hurt while watching them? Hepburn and Bogart share a doozy here. Even more embarrassing is his lengthy animal-impression routine, punctuated by her painfully uproarious laughter. The problem with The African Queen is that it simultaneously undermines Hepburn’s greatest quality (her intelligence) and Bogart’s (his dangerousness) and then asks us to fall for them falling for each other. They both go down with the ship.