75 YOF: “African Queen,”One Ugly-Ass Romance (1951)

Sometimes when examining film history, it’s good to shine a light on particular, popular actors. This film has two: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Better yet, Bogart won the Oscar for Best Actor in this film. That’s good enough for me!


World War I is in full swing and not even Africa is safe. The Germans move in and take entire villages, forcing their people to be soldiers. When her village is taken and her brother dies of fear and heartache, missionary Rose (Hepburn) decides it’s best to leave with seaman Charlie Allnut (Bogart) and his steamboat, the African Queen.

It’s one part romance, one part adventure through rapids, German guns, failing ship parts, vicious wildlife, and their own crazy plans to sink the biggest German boat in the area.

Mmmm…yeah, sure. It’s not quite my cup of tea, but objectively speaking, it’s a stellar film. It relies heavily on the performances of Bogart and Hepburn, considering about 90% of the movie revolves entirely around those two characters alone. Seriously, they’re pretty much the only characters with names.

And they do a great job. Bogey plays a goofy, lowbrow boatman and Hepburn an uptight yet daring woman. Their chemistry is perfect and they really convey their struggle down the river.

But if you see this movie, remember that Bogart won an Oscar for Best Actor when he’s imitating monkeys and hippos.

“This is one nasty, stinky, ugly movie.” That’s the summation of everything that went through my head while watching this. Don’t mistake me, it’s a good film…but boy is it ugly.

The weird part? This is a romance. Think of all the romances you’ve seen. How many involved mosquitoes, leeches, impure water, broken machinery, sweat, and mud? That’s right: NONE OF THEM.

Romances are, by and large, pretty affairs. Pretty actors, pretty locations, pretty scenarios. That’s because most romances are fantasies. Rolling down the river in Africa is few people’s interpretation of romance.

True, it’s also an adventure, but when people think of romantic adventures, they think of spy missions, treasure hunts, or races. But even then, the actors are more or less pretty, dealing with some relatively agreeable circumstances. Even when they aren’t, they’re still shot pretty with toned skin, good muscles, and sexy sweat (you know what I’m talking about).

African Queen will have none of that. It’s a legitimate adventure full of real peril and struggle. Throughout the movie, the actors are increasingly covered in sweat, mud, and dirty water. Their clothes are torn, but not in sexy ways that reveal skin, but haphazardly. The African scenery is not beautiful, but drab and repulsive. Dragging a boat through reedy waters with leeches sticking to you is not sexy.

AQ 2
Really puts you in the mood, doesn’t it?

But you know what? It’s realistic. According to IMDB, pretty much everybody in the cast and crew got sick. Hepburn supposedly vomited between takes. Wild animals were a real threat. And 1951 didn’t have many of our modern conveniences or medicines to make things easier for the crew.

The result? You really feel for the characters. This isn’t some Hollywood-special sexy struggle that only exists to get the main characters to make out so passionately that it stirs our carnal natures. It’s meant to convey real struggle and pain. These two characters are going through Hell together.

And, of course, they fall in love because of it.

Admittedly, those sexy movies are more fun to watch, and not all struggle is physical. Still, it’s nice to know that African Queen broke the mold long before it was a mold, and I highly doubt any modern movie would dare to make its romances ugly. That’s what makes African Queen so awesome and so timeless.

QUESTION: Have you ever seen another “ugly” romance? 

5 historic events that made 1951 significant (source):
Feb 1–First telecast of atomic explosion (Shrooooms).
Aug 11–First color baseball game (the TV, not the people group)
Oct 6–USSR leader Joseph Stalin declares USSR has atomic bomb (and America collectively crapped itself).
Oct 15–I Love Lucy premiers.
Various–Korean War in full swing.

5 more movies that made 1951 significant (source):
The Day the Earth Stood Still–The non-Keanu version.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Disney’s Alice in Wonderland
Strangers on a Train
Ace in the Hole

PREVIOUS: 1950–All About Eve

NEXT: 1952–Don’t Bother to Knock 


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