You sit down before The African Queen with mild expectations for what you’ll get. Two well-known actors share a boat for most of the film. Inevitably, they will fall in love, probably with a lot of playful bickering thrown in for good measure.
In a sense, that is what happens. Humphrey Bogart’s surly, low-class boat captain and Katharine Hepburn’s pious spinster do bicker and they do fall in love. The secret to The African Queen’s enduring quality isn’t that it plays to the inevitable, but rather the way it defies expectations at nearly every other turn.
At first glance, Charlie Allnut and Rose Sayer are an awful match. He’s all dirt and booze, while she’s all bible verses and proper grammar. Their worlds unite unexpectedly when German soldiers injure her brother, contributing to his death. Rose finds herself all alone and in need of passage out of a dangerous area. Charlie has a boat and heart enough to give her aid.
But Rose isn’t some damsel in distress. Upon learning of a nearby German gunboat, the Queen Louisa, Rose immediately begin plotting a way to turn The African Queen into a guided missile to take the boat out. We find ourselves just as shocked as Allnut to hear so violent and extreme a plot come out of this stuffy schoolmarm. Her plan isn’t necessary. She sees it as an act of patriotism, but it’s one that puts the two travelers before multiple forms of mortal danger. Charlie hesitantly agrees, simply because he assumes Rose will abandon the idea once she sees how dangerous it really is.
He reads her incorrectly, though. As do we. In one of the film’s most entertaining reveals, Charlie looks to Rose after a trip through some dangerous rapids expecting to find a quivering, cowered lady, her resolve broken by such proximity to real danger. Instead, he finds an awoken spirit, emboldened by the experience to press forward even harder than before.
And in the most adorable, chaste way, the two begin falling for each other as well. From a modern perspective, this is a real curiosity as these are no youngsters. Both characters have lived a formative chunk of their lives already. That, combined with the speed at which they go from fighting to flirting to proudly approaching the gallows so long as they can die at each other’s side, makes the film’s center romance seem one born out of and exclusively designed for the stress of their adventure together.
That’s how it reads on paper, anyway. And yet the film manages to escape that trap, carrying us into a deep and full relationship we can scarcely believe with the same strident assertiveness Rose uses to push Charlie toward that German gunboat. By the time The African Queen ends, we somehow believe in this late pairing almost as a fateful inevitability. Charlie and Rose seem like they’ve been waiting their whole lives to meet without knowing it, and there’s little doubt they’ll split up just after the credits roll.
The two characters fit together like puzzle pieces, but we can’t see that until the film illustrates it. Her pushiness wouldn’t work if he weren’t so good-hearted and malleable. His know-how and real-life experiences make her aggressive plot possible. As shit really starts hitting the fan, they work together as a team. He never talks down to her or treats her like a delicate flower that needs protecting. And she never gives him reason to. Meanwhile, she brings out the best in Charlie, constantly pushing him to his full potential.
Great movie romances aren’t easy to accomplish, and the best ones tend to think outside of the box. Here we have two relatively older people from opposite walks of life falling for each other in a surprisingly short amount of time. It shouldn’t work, but it does. And as time goes on, The African Queen’s many breaks from typical romances only make it seem more modern and fresh, which is a quality shared by many Humphrey Bogart-John Huston films.