Blog 01/11/2021 - The African Queen

MHT Blog January 11, 2021 - MHT Movie Review – “World War I in the Movies”

“The African Queen”

MHT Movie Reviews of WWI in Africa with the African Queen: We meet two English Missionaries in German East Africa Rose (Katharine Hepburn) and Reverend Sayer (Robert Morley) whose remote African village with grass huts and a little wooden church is burned in our first encounter with Imperial German colonial troops led by German Officers. The Reverend dies of a broken heart and Rose has to team up with Canadian Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart who brought movie star wife Lauren Bacall with him. He claimed he and Director John Huston never drank the water in Africa surviving on Scotch) a scruffy boat captain who delivers mail and supplies on the Ulanga River.

The river leads to Lake Victoria and possible freedom in British East Africa except for a few obstacles the first, the river has only been navigated once by a map maker named Spangler a hundred years ago and no one since has repeated the feat. Bogie’s 30-foot steamboat is named the African Queen and will face three white-water rapids each bigger than the last, some inhospitable crocodiles, plus an armed German Fort, a muddy shallow river delta filled with leeches and mosquitoes and the final danger, which is the SMS Louisa, a German Navy gunboat with a six pounder (57mm) that patrols Lake Victoria keeping the British at bay.


Hepburn annoys Bogie until he agrees to her impossible plan to sink the Louisa using home-made, well ship-made torpedoes. After foiling the German marksmen at Fort Shona and surviving the final huge rapids they become mired in the marshy shallows before the lake where they have to pull the Queen through the tall reeds. Their opposites attract love story (so convincingly developed by the two stars) looks like it will end as they are disheartened and about to accept their doomed fate as they hold each other in exhaustion waiting to die.

When it begins to rain, the river rises, freeing the African Queen to float the final few yards onto the lake. They spy the Louisa for the first time as it makes its routine patrol. The two lovers are alive with new hope and determination convinced they can now sink the Louisa. Neither will stay behind afraid of losing the other and head onto the lake as the German gunboat returns on patrol. They have fixed and fastened two homemade torpedoes to the bow of the African Queen but on the night, they steam towards the enemy the lake becomes rough. The Queen founders throwing both Bogie and Hepburn into the water. The morning is calm and sunny and it appears the German ship won’t be attacked and the protagonists lost in the storm. Watch the film to see what happens to Rosie and Charlie.

I can tell you what happened to the African Queen, there were in fact three in the movie. The original boat built of riveted sheet iron in 1912 by Lytham Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in the Lancashire, England for service in Africa on the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert. Originally named the Livingstone, she was built for the British East Africa Railway and served from 1912 to 1968 operating in the waters of the Ruki River in the northern Belgium Congo (then Republic of the Congo, before Zaire and now Democratic Republic of Congo) where she was used to transport hunters, mercenaries and cargo. For the movie, it was filmed in the Belgian Congo on a tributary of the Congo River and sank once during filming. The boat was found in Cairo, Egypt in the 1970s, with coal still in its bilges. It was purchased and shipped to the United States, where it was refurbished in 2012, including installation of an interior steel hull frame and new boiler so it could be used as a tourist boat in Key Largo, FL.

The second African Queen was built in 1950 for the film and used in the filming on the Nile in the Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. It was rediscovered by Yank Evans, a Patagonian mechanical engineer who'd come across what was left of the vessel while working on the roads in Uganda in 1984. He found a carcass of a steel boat, in the bushes that the locals identified as the African Queen. So, he bought it from the National Parks for $1. Evans, began rebuilding the boat before putting it on a trailer and moving it with him to Kenya where it sat until Evans sold it to a New Zealander, Cam McLeay, who purchased her after hearing her story and set about finishing the restorations back in Uganda. McLeay and his team rebuilt this African Queen's with a Brady steam engine and replating the hull and replacing over 100 pipes, sourcing parts mostly from the UK but also from within Uganda. It is now on the water an attraction at the exclusive Lemala Wildwaters Lodge on the Victoria Nile.

The third African Queen is the one shown going down the intense rapids in Uganda. It was shot through a telephoto lens but was actually only a model boat that is about eight feet long. This miniature Queen is now displayed at Pusser’s Dockside Restaurant in the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Annapolis, MD. MHT gives the African Queen 5-Stars as Charlie says to Rose after the first rapids: “I don't blame you for being scared - not one bit. Nobody with good sense ain't scared of white water.” Rose: “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” It is still early in the movie.