Film opens with a noisy and rowdy church service at 1st Methodist Church, Kingdom town, Kenya in East Africa. This is a makeshift church structure built with local palm leaves and jungle bamboo sticks. Major characters are Humphrey Bogart (a white man) as Charlie, Katharine Hepburn (white woman) as Rosie, and Robert Morley (white Missionary) as The Brother, leader of the Church. Rosie plays the organ and assists as probably a co-Missionary.
According to the producers themselves, this is the story of two people bonding together against their will and against any logical expectation. It is a film described in the very words of the producers thus: “Never before have we seen talent and artistry combined in one great motion picture” – (S.P. Eagle). Here, Charlie (Mr. Bogart, as addressed by Rosie) and Rosie (Miss, as addressed by Charlie) were brought and bonded together by circumstances under their understanding and control. Hence, “I never dreamt that such an experience could be so stimulating” by Rosie herself.
Some strange honking sound is heard in a close distance to the church, causing momentary distractions. Charlie is sighted in his 16th century loco-engine boat, puffing off cigarette smokes and speaking Kiswahili with a native African young man. Boat approaches with overhead smokes, Charlie is seen on land amidst natives near the church. His romance with the African people and culture, and his seeming mastery of the native language were immediately focused as he flows freely therein.
Ujambo! … Aborigine (native greetings) … Muzuri! (native response).
The arrival of Charlie created more distraction in the congregation as many began to run out to see what was new. Next scene opened with the introduction of the arrival of a white stranger (Charlie) in church by Brother and Katharine. Charlie comes with his own bad news about wars in Europe involving Germany, Great Britain, France and the African question; mail disruptions and so on. Charlie has dinner with the duo, allowing some strange and embarrassing stomach noises.
A disagreement arises after dinner. Rosie tries to calm nerves. Charlie leaves and the duo goes into a dialogue, children playing outside the compound. The duo enters into prayer. Prayer is disrupted by a curious alarm from one native man. The entire village is on fire. German soldiers with their African adherents take over the village. Brother and Rosie rush out. Brother stands out with fury against the approaching soldiers, speaks out angrily at the presence of the soldiers and whatever their mission was: “How dare you?” He is forced down with a gun and badly wounded in the mouth. He bleeds… in the mouth ‘and heart’ at the seeming invasion of the village where he apparently has labored so hard to help the people.
He did not survive the shock, but deteriorated by the day. A deep love and commitment is herewith displayed, even with Rosie who almost also succumbed to her own shock, were it not for her encounter with Charlie. After the death of Robert Morley, Rosie sits lonely in the veranda, sights a distant figure. That is Charlie. Charlie is seen surveying the ruins of the old church house. He approaches, stands outside the veranda and speaks to Rosie in reflection, bemoaning the tragic situation.
In his own words, “the way I look at it.... soldiers take over the whole of Africa.” Charlie’s anger at the people’s ugly situations, his identity with the ordinary man and natives is again highlighted here. Charlie makes his first mention of the African Queen to Rosie and departs. The two are seen again at the tomb site of The Brother near a river in a remote part of the village. Both walk a lonely part away to Charlie’s boat – The African Queen. Charlie helps Rosie onto the boat, ignites boat and they both sail away.
Charlie offers the steer handle to Rosie who he addresses simply as ‘Miss’. Rosie hesitates, citing lack of skill. “No…..Come on…….Come on,” reassured Charlie. A sign of saying, ‘Listen, we can do it together.’ And that is what the two will eventually make of themselves. Hence the sail with Charlie begins on a jolly note.
Next scene shows Charlie and Rosie alone in an obscure forest island, with Rosie holding a map which also served as a fan for her. Charlie speaks, still smoking. Both begin to survey the map and discuss strategies. They discuss British invasion of Africa. Both, though British, are ready to scheme against their own nation for their new found friends in Africa and the romance that is gathering momentum.
At this very point, Rosie sights some boxes in the boat, asks what they were and how safe they were traveling with such items on board. Here was the first mention of torpedoes. “You don’t know what you’re asking about. There is really nothing so complicated like the inside of a torpedo” says Charlie. But at the end, they will make the torpedoes that would save and unify their love forever. That is the power of love and erotic commitment.
Rosie suggests building torpedoes into the African Queen. Charlie picks some holes in that suggestion. Dialogue continues. In another scene, Charlie is seen feeding more wood into the loco as sailing continues. Both chart heartily on top of their voices because of the sound of the engine and the waves. Suddenly, the engine develops some problems! Charlie has a ready answer. He hits the engine cabin with both feet.
As Charlie berths for a drink, Rosie gets nervous and frightened as she sights the bottle of dry gin in his hand. Rosie, now perspiring for fright, gives a quick response on being offered some by Charlie: “No please!” was her alarm. “What’s the matter, Miss?” – Charlie’s asks. “Nothing,” her response! I guess Rosie at this point suddenly discovers the strangeness of her new company and figures that something should be done or else she would lose her focus. For this, she offered to take tea, instead.
Charlie initiates a chat, each expressing their days and vocation. Charlie announces the presence of crocodiles in the river for the first time. Rosie is startled. Bath time: each to bath at opposite end of boat. Rosie was unable to get back into the boat. She calls out to Charlie who comes to the rescue. An intimate encounter, paving ways for Charlie’s advances, which have so far gone unnoticed. At sleep time, little privacy is provided for Rosie while Charlie clears up stuff on one end of the boat and lays down.
The sudden rainstorm causes Charlie to sneak into Rosie’s corner for shelter. “Mr. Bogart, what are you doing? ...Get out.” On weighing her tender woman nature of compassion and sympathy, her tone changes almost immediately: “Mr. Bogart, you may come in out of the rain.” “Thank you Miss” was Charlie’s humble submission. After apologizing for the embarrassment, both exchanged, ‘Good Night’.
The next scene opens as sailing continues. The strong smell of the river is highlighted and described as ‘like marigold’. Both have started to share such intimate feelings as weariness, hunger, smell, etc. The first danger is averted as they sail into the second one. And the third! Charlie steers as they battling with rough waters and dangerous rocks. Rosie is badly frightened and is perspiring. All of a sudden, supernatural energy surges in. New feelings for the mission ahead surge right in her soul.
She explains that she never felt this way before except when her ‘dear Brother’ preached those great words when filled with the Spirit from on high. Charlie is angry that she is still talking about continuing. Makes reference to the dangers they just averted. Rosie reminds him that it was all because she prayed. Here, divine intervention in the affairs of man, and the idea parallel with natural causes, is implied. Charlie tunes off from her and begins to act weird, drinking and singing himself away. Rosie reminds him of his earlier promise and he threatens to withdraw, under the circumstance. Rosie calls him a liar and a coward.
The moral lesson here is that real love should withstand all kinds of adversities. Charles returns with a counter charge that he is no coward. Instead Rosie was one. He said. As Charlie falls asleep, Rosie spots the boxes of dry gins and begins to empty them into the flowing river. “Oh Miss, you don’t know what you’re doing. Miss, ‘I can’t carry on a day without those things …they aren’t your property,” was his protest as he woke up to the most daring act of love for a stranger – taking away a bad substance, replacing or preparing to replace it with love so pure and so free.
This is also highlighted by Charlie’s shaving and sudden attention to personal hygiene, which he even used as a challenge to her when Rosie fails to pay attention to him as she reads and meditates on the good book. Somehow, Charles is still sad about the ‘wasted drinks’ – “you didn’t leave me even a drop.” Thus, to gain real love, we must be ready to let go our old self-centered life and its tonics. No matter how it hurts. Here, Rosie reminds him, ‘you promised………….,’ but he says ‘Well, but I’m taking my promise back’. Still angry and protesting. But true love will bend him real good forever as we are about to see.
In the next scene Rosie spots danger on overhead rocks from German soldiers on surveillance. Both take cover inside boat while still steering with one hand. Boat is demobilized by gun fire. Charlie tries to keep it running till danger is averted. They celebrate victory. The low-angler camera focus on those German soldiers and their African cohorts is a great feature of classical Hollywood film genius. Creation of fright and courage, as African Queen hits one storm and the order, is great technical element that make this film outstanding. In the next dangerous storm, Rosie steers while Charlie kicks.
The two are badly drenched at the end, totally battered by the waves and fright “We made. We made it” Celebration, hugging and kissing! Hip, Hip, Hurray! A momentary felling of guilt for perhaps kissing and hugging a strange man suddenly came over Rosie. Moods changed on both Rosie’s and Charlie’s faces. In the next seen, both are seen working together to provide fire. Charlie is coaching and romanticizing Rosie with subtle moves. But Rosie as yet keeps her elusive form and approach.
“Darling, ..Give me a kiss” And he got it. Right there after breakfast! He begins to romanticize about their voyage in Africa. Next Scene, we see Charlie displaying great skills as he plays sea lions and monkeys, makes their peculiar sounds to ward them off from attacking them and their boat. Great skills indeed! And great fun for Rosie too. At this point the worst danger is right ahead as both Charlie and Rosie are swept off balance in the boat and thrown flat on the floor by rampaging storms. He reached down and picked Rosie up.
As the boat develops another mechanical problem both work out plans to bring a solution. Love and unity of purpose will always take us through the worst of storms. They fought swarms of bees or mosquitoes together; they fought gun fires, storms, hunger, and other elements together. At this time, both are getting lost in their romance and essence of life together in the island of many challenges. Charlie addresses Rosie as his ‘heroine’. He reflects on his first sight of her where he saw in her “the living picture of a heroine.” Both now address each other as Darling, as against Miss and Mr. Bogart.
Many days of sailing and many encounters with wicked storms have sent them completely off course. They are literally lost inside massive sea weeds. Rosie’s prayer brings down a late night downpour that floods the riverbanks and the lakes, bringing them on course again. But before that, still working against all elemental odds, they fine-tune the idea of torpedoes on the African Queen. That’s eventually what saves them from being hanged as spies by officers of the Royal British Navy who fish them out of the water.
Talent and artistry are indeed combined in this one great film to maximize our pleasure as the viewing public. Charles is not only a master at sea but also at the inside and outside of the boat. Besides, he had a good mastery of interpersonal skills as he flowed with the native Africans. He knows how to win a woman’s love. Rosie too is a fighter in her own ranks. She fought against frightening and discouraging circumstances to emerge the heroine of a great film.
In fact the title, African Queen suits her more than the mechanical boat. She fought for what she believed. And that was to save and help the native African people, even against her own home government amidst untold consequences.