African Queen (1951)




Director:     John Huston.

Starring:     Humphrey Bogart (Charlie Allnut),  Katharine Hepburn (Rose Sayer),  Robert Morley (Rev. Samuel Sayer),  Peter Bull (Captain of Louisa),  Theodore Bikel (First Officer),  Walter Gotell (Second Officer),  Peter Swanwick (First Officer of Shona),  Richard Marner (Second Officer of Shona).

Filmed in the Belgian Congo, Bogart as the river boat captain clashes with Hepburn as the Christian missionary as they head downriver in Africa during World War I on a decrepit boat. 



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

German East Africa. September 1914. First Methodist Church, Kung Du. At the church the English Reverend Samuel and his sister are singing psalms. Most of the natives donít know English so they just make various sounds as if they were singing along.

Coming down the river is the steam boat the African Queen. Mr. Charles Allnut is the Canadian captain and crew on the boat. He gets off at Kung Du and speaks with the Reverend and his sister Rosie. They invite him to lunch. His stomach keeps growling until he gets enough food in it to quiet it down. Allnut says he has to go back up to the Belgian mines. He says that he may not be back with any mail for quite some time. His hosts want to know why. Allnut tells them that the Germans are sure to hold the mail up. He tells the two that they say thereís a war on. The Reverend and Rosie have heard nothing about it. They ask Allnut a lot of questions, but he himself knows so little. He does know that England and France are fighting Germany, but thatís about it. Allnut leaves.

On another day a native comes up to the Reverend and Rosie to tell them that a troop of armed warriors are coming their way. The Germans arrive with quite a few black troops. They roust everyone out of their homes and then they burn the houses. They also burn the church down. When the Reverend objects to this he is hit with a rifle butt.

After the Germans leave, it is quite apparent that the Reverend has had some brain damage. He cannot remember things. Rosie is right by him, but he calls out for her. And then he rants on and on to no purpose.

Mr. Allnut returns to Kung Du. He sees the place burned down except for the Reverendís house. He comes over and talks to the sister. She tells him that her brother died this morning. Allnut will bury the Reverend and then they will leave. Allnut figures the Germans will be coming back. The captain says that the Germans are grabbing the black males to serve in the German army. What else the Germans want is the African Queen. It has a great deal of equipment aboard that would be helpful to the Germans.

On the river the sister talks with Mr. Allnut about the military situation. Allnut tells her that there is a large steamer on the huge lake southwest of them called the Luisa. No British ship can cross the lake because of the Luisa. The ship has a six-pounder, the biggest gun in Central Africa.

Then Rosie talks about ways to get down to the large lake where the Luisa is. They would have to go down the Luanga River and past the German Fort Shona which overlooks the river. There are then 100 miles of travel with several rapids along the way. At some point beyond that the River changes names to the Bora River.

Rosie asks Allnut if he could make a torpedo. Allnut is curious why this woman with him wants to know how to make torpedoes. Rosie says that she wants to torpedo the Luisa to open up the lake to the British. Allnut cannot believe his ears. He says that they probably couldnít even make it passed Fort Shona and the rapids and if they did the Luisa would sink the much smaller African Queen. But Rosie will not give up. And she wants Mr. Allnut to tell her that he will make the voyage with her to the lake. Allnut finally agrees. He then starts drinking some of the many bottles of gin on the boat.

Towards evening they take a bath in the river, one at the front and the other at the rear of the boat. The next day they go through some rough rapids with lots of white water. After they get through Allnut does not sound as if he is going to the large lake. Rosie confronts him saying: "You are a liar, Mr. Allnut." And a coward. He gets mad at this and calls her a psalm-singing, skinny old maid.

The next morning Allnut awakens to the sight of the Reverendís sister pouring out the last of his gin into the river. He is very upset. He tries to do something about it, but his head hurts him too much to allow him to get up from the deck.

Rosie is mad at Allnut and refuses to speak to him. Alllnut keeps talking to her, but she never answers him. He finally gets upset and asks her why she is being so mean? She says nothing, so he says heís sorry and he apologizes to her. He waits a bit and then tells Rosie: "You got to say something."

Rosie breaks her silence to scold Allnut. She says he promised her he would go all the way down river to the big lake. Allnut says heís taking back his promise. So it will be some more silent treatment for Mr. Allnut.

They suddenly realize they are at the German Fort Shona. They move the boat to the other side of the river. The Germans are watching the boat. They canít see anyone on the boat because the two are sitting on the floor hiding. The Germans tell their black soldiers to fire. When the boat keeps going the German officer orders all the black troops to fire on the boat. The boatís hose to the steam engine is knocked loose and the system loses power. Now the boat can be shot at easily since it just drifts along.

Finally Allnut gets up and repairs the hose connection and the steam engine goes back to work again. The boat is going at a good pace now and they successfully bypass the German fort. The British and Canadian couple shout" "We made it!" and "Hip, hip, hoorah!" Then suddenly Allnut just plants a kiss on Rosie. Itís a little awkward because Rosie is so shocked. She wasnít expecting that and is a bit speechless.

After clearing the fort, they do some work on the ship. Rosie starts pumping the water out of the boat. Allnut gets some more wood for fuel for his steam engine. He gets a thorn stuck in his foot that went all the way through the rubber soles of one of his shoes. Rosie volunteers to get it out for him and she does. Allnut puts his hand on her shoulder. Rosie responds by putting her hand on his hand. The couple then kiss.

The next morning Rosie calls Allnut "dear". She serves him a small breakfast in bed so to speak. And now she asks him for his first name. Itís Charlie. Then the reverendís sister tells Charlie that her first name is Rosie or Rose.

Now they suddenly hear the boat approaching some really huge rapids. The boat really takes a beating this time. Charlie has to go underneath the boat to check out any possible damage. He discovers that the shaft is bent and pieces of the propeller have fallen off. The couple works together to make a miniature blacksmith operation and straighten out the shaft and fix the propeller.

They reach the point where the Ulanga River changes its name to the Bora River. And here they run into swarms of terrible biting creatures that nearly drive them crazy. Charlie puts a tarp over the hovering Rosie. He then gets the boat out into the middle of the river where the flies do not go.

Now they reach a delta system with myriads of small channels running down to the huge lake. They donít know which channel to take. They keep trying different channels. The couple finally find a more promising channel. It takes them quite far but then the channel narrows and the vegetation makes it very difficult for the boat to keep moving. Charlie has to get into the water and get in front of the boat. He pulls the boat by a rope tied to the boat. Rosie helps out by using a long pole to push the boat through the channel. When Charlie comes up for a rest, he has leeches all over his body. Rosie gets some salt and pours it on the leeches. Now they can be knocked off the body relatively easily.

All the exertion and sweating and the heat and the cold make Charlie very sick. He has to stay down for awhile. They currently are stuck on some mud and cannot get the boat free. The couple is very discouraged and donít know how they are going to get out of this situation. Then up river, unbeknownst to our couple, the rains start really coming down. Now the water flows down into the delta and lifts their boat out of the mud and pushes the boat into the lake. When Charlie realizes that the boat is floating again, he gets up and finds that they are already in the huge lake He wakes up Rosie.

After a short while on the big lake, the couple realizes that the Luisa is headed straight for them. They hurry and return to the channel and hide there. The Luisa doesnít even see them. Charlie and Rosie are both very relieved.

Now they set to work on constructing the torpedoes. The hardest part was to come up with a detonator that would explode the explosives placed in the torpedo. Charlie is able to construct one that will detonate on contact with the Luisa.

At night they bring the boat out into the lake and head for the Luisa. Just then a storm breaks out and the African Queen sinks. It turns upside down with the two torpedoes sticking out on either side of the hull.

Rosie and Charlie get separated during the storm. The Germans on the Luisa pick up Charlie. Charlie wonít tell them anything. The Germans tell him that he is a spy in the British armed forces and as such will face death by hanging. The sentence will be carried out immediately. But just then it is announced that a white woman has been found on the lake. Itís Rosie. The couple are sure glad to see each other again.

Charlie wouldnít talk but Rose tells them everything about what they did and what they planned to do. She is very proud that Charlie made two torpedoes. And she is also proud of the fact that they came all the way down river from northeast of Fort Shona. The Germans say that is an impossible journey. The river is unnavigable. Rosie says, nevertheless, they made it.

Both Rosie and Charlie will now be hanged. Charlie asks for one last request. He wants the Captain to marry them. The Captain has a quick marriage ceremony and then the ropes are placed around the necks of the couple.

Just as the couple is about to be hoisted off the shipís deck and strangled to death by the rope, the ship hits a torpedo from the African Queen. A big explosion goes up with lots of fire and smoke. The couple is able to jump over the side. A minute or less later, the other torpedo explodes. And now the German sailors have to abandon their sinking ship.

The very happy British and Canadian couple have got a good head start on everyone. With huge smiles on their faces, they scream to each other: "We did it!"


Famous, classic movie.  Great acting and a different, but very interesting love story, between the characters played by Bogart and Hepburn.  Naturally, my wife and I both enjoyed the movie.  She commented that the love story was "nice".   There's not a lot of history here per se, but it provides the opportunity to discuss some of the World War I action on the continent of 'Africa. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


In Africa, German East Africa was composed of modern Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda and contained both the Rift Valley and Lake Victoria.  British Kenya was to its north. 

1914  --  start of World War I. 

In Africa, German colony administrator von Schnee ordered that no hostile action be taken.  For his part, the British Governor of Kenya stated that Kenya "had no interest in the present war".

But the commander of the tiny German army in East Africa, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck,  ignored von Schnee and prepared his forces of some 2,500 African troops for battle.  

1914 (September)  --  the Germans raided into neighboring Kenya and Uganda. 

Lettow-Vorbek also created a tiny German navy and his boats sailed on Lake Victoria.  The British, in turn, built some gun-boats in England and sent them in pieces via railroad to Lake Victoria to take control over the lake. In addition, the British sent two brigades from India to handle the German army.

1914 (November 2)  --the British tried to land the troops at Tanga, but the Germans completely disrupted the landing.

1915 (November 5)  -- the British had to evacuate Tanga. 

1916  --  General  Jan Smuts with a relatively large army (largely South African) attacked the forces of Letow-Vorbeck from Kenya in the north, while other forces, one from the Belgian Congo in the west, and over Lake Nyasa (modern-day Lake Malawi) from the south-east, also attacked. The Germans kept retreating without much fighting. 

1916 --  the British controlled the German railway from the coast at Dar-es-Salaam to Ujiji. 

1917 (January)  --  Smuts left the area to join the Imperial War Cabinet in London. 

1917 (July)  --  South African General van Deventer launched an offensive, forcing some 5,000 men under Tafel to surrender.

1917 (October)  --  the Germans beat the British at a battle near Mahiwa with the Germans losing 500 and the British 1600 men.

1917 (November 23)  --  Lettow-Vorbeck crossed south into Portuguese Mozambique in hopes of getting supplies by capturing small Portuguese garrisons.

1919 (August)  --  the German army crossed into northern Rhodesia. 

1919 (November 13)  --   the German army won its last victory at the city of Kasama, two days after the armistice was signed.

1919 (November 23)  --  Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered his undefeated army at Abercorn in present-day Zambia. 


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