It was a problematic story, even when author C.S. Forrester was writing it, with its publication coming in 1935. He was not satisfied with the ending, either of them, as the American ending had one outcome, and the English edition having another.
The film rights had been optioned twice before, with Columbia wanting it as a vehicle for husband and wife Charles Laughton and Elsa Lancaster and Warner Bros. considering it for David Niven and Bette Davis. No film was made on either occasion.
Producer Alexandra Korda said of it, ‘a story of two old people going up and down an African river?’ he scoffed, ‘who’s going to be interested in that?’
As it happened, producer Sam Spiegel and director John Huston were very interested. Spiegel convinced Katherine Hepburn to sign on and Huston called his old friend Bogie and it was third time lucky.
The issues that had plagued the story from the beginning, however, would only get worse through the production. Yet, if anyone was crazy enough to undertake the film, it was Spiegel, and in particular, Huston.
Huston worked with writer and film critic James Agee on the original screenplay, yet shortly after it was completed, Agee would suffer a heart attack. A few years later he would die from another.
Writer Peter Viertel was brought in for the second draft to be completed in Africa, although he would ultimately leave the project, telling Spiegel he ‘didn’t give a damn whether he received a screen credit or not’ and promptly left.
His concerns were not so much with the screenplay, but with Huston himself, who he had noted was ‘more eccentric than ever.’
Shooting a motion picture was not the only shooting Huston was interested in while in Africa, but also big game hunting, with his eye on one elephant in particular.
Five years later Huston would make Moby Dick, and his obsession with the elephant would bear more than a passing resemblance to Captain Ahab’s quest for the white whale.
Problems were rife in the screenplay and on location, where shooting would start in December 1950 on the Ruiki River in the Belgian Congo, a slow-moving tributary choked with decaying vegetation. It was a Tsetse fly area, there were crocodiles, hippopotamuses, a hornets’ nest, snakes, scorpions, spiders, mosquitoes, flies, army ants and a plethora of other deadly animals and insects.
There was a range of tropical diseases, including malaria, dysentery, amoebic dysentery, sunstroke and some which went un-diagnosed. During the shoot, nine members of the crew had to be sent home with dysentery, malaria, or both. The local help were lepers who spoke Swahili.
They then moved to the Lualaba River, a black river, coloured due to the tannic acid from the surrounding vegetation.
The colour of the water wasn’t the only peculiar fact about the location. It was also a branch on the Congo River so remote that it wasn’t marked on most atlases. There were temperatures of up to 85- degrees and high humidity, which caused clothing to droop and need re-starching, as well as mold.
The film itself is set in German East Africa, September 1914, starting out at the 1st Methodist Church, Kungdu, where Hepburn’s Rosie Sayer and her brother Reverend Samuel Sayer, played by Robert Morley, run the Methodist missionary. It isn’t long before Bogie’s Charlie Allnut, the Gordon’s Gin swilling skipper of the African Queen, brings the news of war, to be followed shortly after by the arrival of German Imperial soldiers who burn down the missionary and beat the Reverend, where he later dies of fever.
After burying her brother, Rosie joins Charlie on board, only to become a guerrilla on a suicide mission, to Charlie’s initial reluctance, to destroy a German gunship to help the war effort.
If there were problems off screen, they were matched on. At one point in the film, where Charlie wades through the river, pulling the Queen behind him, he worries about the currents, which should be the least of his problems. He mixes his gin with river water before drinking it, which, if not bad enough, then goes into the river and declares, ‘I swallowed half the river that time’, would that not of killed him in all seriousness!?
Charlie and Rosie then decide to bathe in the river, with no second thought of the crocodiles, hippopotamuses and diseases.
The locale and river were mirrored by the verbal sparring of Bogie and Hepburn, serving as the redeeming feature of the picture.
These were two of American cinema’s most prestigious and respected actors, and both here are at their best, clearly relishing their roles. Off screen, Hepburn’s cheeriness irked Bogie something chronic, she in return deemed him, as well as Huston, as nothing but reprobates. Bogie and Huston were more than happy to play the roles they had been assigned and not let her assumptions down.
Charlie and Rosie are polar opposites, coming from very different backgrounds, with Charlie in particular aware of a class divide. However, it is the gradual acceptance and respect that grows between them that earns our fondness for them and the picture.
They are two halves that make an eventual whole, each bringing to the table what the other lacks. Each give as good as they get, but this is by no means a simple man-meets-woman love story, but as rocky a ride as they are experiencing on the dilapidated steamer itself.
Huston would later say of the shoot, ‘the things that happened would make a book in itself.’
In fact, there were to be two books written about the shoot. The first was by Viertel, who wrote White Hunter, Black Heart, published in 1953, and was a very thinly disguised account of, not just the making of the picture, but of other stories from Huston’s past, including a hilarious anecdote about a fist fight with Errol Flynn at a party hosted by David O. Selznick.
In 1987 Katherine Hepburn’s The Making of The African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and almost lost my mind, was published.
With four Academy Award nominations, for Best Director and Best Screenplay (with James Agee) for Huston, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Hepburn, and Bogie for Best Actor in a Leading Role, not to mention success at the box office, it seemed the ordeal of the production had paid off.
On the night of the Academy Awards, A Streetcar Named Desire was already the big winner, collecting three of the four acting honours, with just the Best Actor in a Leading Role award left, with Brando up against Bogie amongst others.
Bogie would walk away with the award, his second nomination, after Casablanca, twelve years before. He would be nominated once again for The Caine Mutiny in 1954. He would lose out to Brando for On the Waterfront.
No elephants were harmed during the making of the picture.