The African Queen (1951)—Hope Aims Downriver

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Charlie Allnut was doing all right. The character portrayed by Humphrey Bogart owned the boat after which the movie takes its name, The African Queen. We find him at the beginning of the film contentedly making a life for himself by delivering mail and supplies up and down the Ulanga River in German East Africa (now Tanzania). He was always sweaty, his clothes were always dirty, but life was good. Then along came a woman: Methodist missionary Rose Sayer, portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. She watched as German soldiers destroyed the village and drove away the villagers to whom she and her brother had ministered. She watched later as this act led to her brother dying in despair. Whereas Allnut wanted to flee on his boat and hide from the German soldiers now moving aggressively among them (that is, he wanted to wait out World War I), Miss Sayer had a different idea. She aimed to strike a blow against this enemy. And she lured Allnut into this aim, first playing on his politeness, then winning his full commitment to her and to her costly and perilous plan.

In that plot synopsis that filled the preceding paragraph, we can readily see the turning point. “Along came a woman.” How many stories go this way? In the Bible, in Genesis, the very first story involving human beings seemed to go this way. How many lives of would-be Charlie Allnuts go this way as well? Or, more accurately, seem to do so? Because in fact there is something more than this going on.

Sayer’s plan was to use Allnut’s boat to liberate a downriver lake from German control, by ramming the gunboat patrolling the lake with explosive charges mounted on The African Queen’s hull. In short, her plan involved taking the very means and context of Allnut’s comfort and consuming it to achieve her ends. The story becomes even more familiar still! Allnut/Bogart went along with the plan at first only because it was a direction in which to head, a way to placate her. He thought the apparent impossibility of navigating the river and its rapids to reach the gunboat-patrolled lake would dissuade her. Significantly, though, it did not. So as they progressed, as they survived and made it through rapids, he began to be moved by the power of what they were able to do together. And just as significantly, he knew something about that former life of contentment. He was aware of something about that life, even if he didn’t admit it to himself.

Hepburn and Bogart as Sayer and Allnut
What he knew was this: That life he formerly enjoyed was going to be lost anyway. Eventually, the rickety boat would fail. Eventually, he would become too old to keep on doing battle with its steam engine to keep it moving. The engine might explode. And before all of that, the Germans might discover him and seize him. As he made clear in his argument for hiding, the soldiers coveted his boat for what it contained, the supplies and hardware that their commanders far away would be slow in sending them. In short, what we have is not ours indefinitely—and frequently, it is not even ours for very long.

Meanwhile, Sayer/Hepburn began to show Allnut the way to overcome seemingly insurmountable failures. That is, she began to show him his capacity to overcome them. The boat’s shaft and propeller were damaged in a collision. Deep in the jungle, with no access to a forge or machine tools, repair of these items seemed impossible. But was it? She helped him challenge his doubts and fear, bringing him to the realization that, for forging, all he really needed was a bellows. He could combine this with local fire-making methods he had seen. And after forging—heating the shaft and straightening it—he was able to passably weld the blade. All of this took time given the poor resources in the wilds, but through encouragement, she kept him patiently at it, a bellows for the flame of his own flickering courage.

It is striking that she is presented to us a missionary, as one led by faith. Her hope makes no sense otherwise. Allnut/Bogart is of this world, and thus caught in the world’s futility. Since this world is entirely finite, it is no wonder that he, or any of us, succumb to expecting that its successes will prove too scant and our aims will fail us. But Sayer/Hepburn is aware of something larger. Her outlook reminds me of a quote I once copied into my notebook out of a far different story, the science fiction novel Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright. In this book, the character Raina speaking to her love Montrose says:

“Our options are to act as if the unknown will bring us evil, which is the response called fear; or to act as if the unknown will bring us good, which is the response called hope. The first response is certainly self-fulfilling; the second may be.”

We all know the real-life vessel for which The African Queen is a symbol. In a million different real-life stories, the quest two people have been caught up in, the rickety boat they are steering together, is a shared life, a life of mutual devotion, possibly with children and most certainly with unexpected problems, the aim and the challenge being to see it all through into the children’s adulthood and into the trials of old age.

Hepburn and Bogart’s plan fails in the end, sort of. Their boat doesn’t make it all the way. The veiled analogy of the film has its veil torn off at the end of the story when the two, now lovers, appeal to the German ship captain to pronounce them husband and wife just before he places the nooses on their neck to execute them.

They do not die. The movie gives us an improbable happy ending. I am OK with that. The story arc of the Bible delivers an improbable happy ending as well.

And these two characters deserve to have their story vindicated. After all, the story began so simply, so unassumingly. The story began with the heroine asking her hero, essentially, “Can’t we just go downriver and do the impossible?”

[PS. It didn’t make it into the post you just read, but I also thought of something else about The African Queen.]