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The African Queen: A classic jungle adventure


To shoot a film on location in a remote area was extremely rare for 1951. Movies in need of exotic locations were usually shot in the studios with painted backdrops and therefore, ‘The African Queen’ (1951) based on a novel of the same name by C S Forester and shot on location in the Belgian Congo in deepest Africa was not only illustrious director, John Huston’s achievement, but also a pioneering step in motion picture making.

Furthermore, ‘The African Queen’ marked one of the few times acclaimed novelist and film critic, James Agee collaborated with a director on a screenplay. When he became too ill to travel to the African locations to complete the screenplay, screenwriter Peter Viertel was brought in to complete it and help Huston devise a satisfactory climax to the film. The movie was a uniquely personal project for Huston, who indulged in one of his favourite pastimes – hunting – during down time on location. Originally the location filming was to be done in Kenya, but Huston decided to film in the Belgian Congo instead. The reason was that wild game hunting, which Huston was determined to do, was illegal in Kenya but not in the Congo. This later served as the inspiration for Viertel’s novel, ‘White Hunter Black Heart’, which in turn was made into a motion picture in 1990, with Clint Eastwood directing and casting himself as the surrogate John Huston protagonist.

The initial choices for the lead roles in ‘The African Queen’ were John Mills and Bette Davis, while an earlier Warner Bros version considered in 1938 was to star David Niven with Bette Davis. Interestingly, Columbia had originally bought the novel as a vehicle for Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester; instead, it made ‘The Beachcomber’ (1938), which was based on the same story, but was a failure at the box office.

Once Humphrey Bogart was signed for the role, his part was written as a Cockney riverman. However, he couldn’t do a Cockney accent, and it was later changed to a Canadian. Katharine Hepburn was doubtful about the production in the beginning. She remained alarmed at the absence of a completed screenplay from Huston, lack of clear communication, and the vagueness of the details. Incidentally, ‘The African Queen’ was Hepburn’s first colour film.

Everyone in the cast and crew of the film got sick on African locations except Bogart and Huston, who said they avoided illness by essentially living on imported Scotch. Bogart later said: “All I had were baked beans, canned asparagus, and Scotch whisky. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.” To show her disgust with the amount of alcohol that Bogart and Huston consumed during filming, Hepburn drank only water. As a result, she suffered a severe bout of dysentery. Cameraman, Jack Cardiff revealed that Hepburn was so sick with dysentery during shooting of the church scene that a bucket was placed off camera because she vomited constantly between takes.

According to Hepburn’s autobiography, John Huston initially found her performance too serious-minded. One day, he visited her hut and suggested that she model her performance on Eleanor, the wife of the former US president, Franklin Roosevelt by putting on her “society smile” in the face of all adversity. After Huston left, Hepburn sat for a moment before deciding, “That is the best piece of direction I have ever heard.”

During early 1950s, moving heavy film equipment and supplies in Africa was a tricky undertaking. The roads in the area were at best just narrow paths cut out between jungles. As the boat – African Queen – used in the film was too small to carry cameras and equipment, some portion of the boat had to be reproduced on a large raft, in order to shoot close-ups of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn had insisted on having the privacy of a dressing room, but after having it dragged up the river along with the main boat several times, it was clear that this was totally impractical, so she valiantly gave it up. Interior and water-tank scenes in the film were filmed in London, as were most of the scenes containing secondary characters. Robert Morley shot all of his scenes in London, including footage of him preaching, which was edited together with shots of the natives praying as filmed in Africa.

Hepburn had insisted that Huston use Doris Langley Moore as her costume designer, since her costumes were meticulous period recreations. The brutal heat and humidity of the area, however, made it impossible for the clothes, costumes or anything to dry completely, and mould would even grow on the fabric. Hepburn desperately wanted a full-length mirror in order to check her appearance between takes, and she found one. She lugged the cumbersome mirror all over the jungles of Africa until it broke into half. Hepburn continued carrying around the larger broken half without complaint.

The shooting of the film proceeded slowly. The cast and crew faced constant dangers and difficulties including torrential rains that would close down shooting, wild animals, poisonous snakes and scorpions, crocodiles, armies of ants, and water so contaminated that no one could even brush their teeth with it. And the food of course, was less than appetising.

During filming of the scene with leeches, Bogart insisted on using rubber leeches while Huston refused, and brought a leech-breeder to the London studio with a tank full of them. It made Bogart queasy and nervous, just the qualities Huston wanted for his close-ups. Ultimately, rubber leeches were placed on Bogart, and a close-up of a real leech was shot on the breeder’s chest.

The production censors objected to several aspects of the original script, which included the two characters cohabiting without the formality of marriage. Some changes were made before the film was completed.

‘The African Queen’ opened on December 23, 1951 in Los Angeles, in order to qualify for the 1951 Oscars and on February 20, 1952 at the Capitol Theatre in New York City. It was a big box office as well as critical success, and honoured with four Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. It also provided a major career boost for Huston and his two stars. In fact, Bogart achieved biggest triumph with his role winning his only Academy Award as Best Actor, scoring over Marlon Brando, who was nominated for ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1951), in the same category.

‘The African Queen’ earned an estimated £256,267 at UK cinemas in 1952, making it the 11th most popular movie of the year. Produced at a budget of $1 million, it earned an estimated $4 million at the US and Canadian box office.

‘The African Queen’ was adapted as a one-hour radio play on the December 15, 1952 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with Humphrey Bogart reprising his film role, joined by Greer Garson. ‘The African Queen’, a television movie starring Warren Oates and Mariette Hartley in the lead roles was produced for CBS television broadcasting company and aired on March 18, 1977, but was not picked up.

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