The African Queen, by C. S. Forester, is one of those highly entertaining adventure stories that make great reading on a rainy afternoon. The film, with Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, has long been a favorite of mine, and I didn’t know until recently that the film was adapted from a book. So, when Callista announced her Book-to-Movie reading challenge, I knew it was time to read this one.
There’s nothing heavy about this reading; it’s just fun. It’s a river story and the adventure flows as rapidly as the current of the Ulanga River, Belgian Congo, in 1914. The main characters include Charlie Allnut, the skipper and mechanic of the African Queen. He speaks with a thick Cockney accent, is a loner, an uneducated and rough-around-the-edges kind of man, but is a great mechanic. Rose Sayer, an Englishwoman, is the sister and daughter of fanatic, puritanical missionaries, a spinster (at age 31), intelligent, and now completely alone since her brother’s death in the missionary camp. The third main character is the African Queen, a ramshackle old steamboat, with great personality, that has seen better days.
The Germans have come through the missionary camp and taken all the able-bodied help, leaving Rose and her brother, who is gravely ill and who dies almost immediately. When Charlie Allnut arrives in camp, Rose convinces him that they can take the African Queen downriver to the Lake and sink the German ship, the Königin Luise, that patrols and controls that part of the Belgian Congo. This would be an ultimate act of patriotism, and in Rose’s mind, would give meaning to her brother’s death, which she blamed on the Germans. Charlie is not so sure, being a person that always takes the path of least resistance. But Rose is a powerfully persuasive woman, and he finally agrees to make this “impossible” journey. The odds for a successful trip downriver are almost nil. No one has even mapped the area due to its rugged remoteness. The river itself takes several steep plunges, with wickedly dangerous rapids, into the Great Rift Valley. There are German snipers as they pass the only town along the route, and Nature sets itself against this venture with heat, leeches, biting flies, malaria, and all the dangers of equitorial Africa.
Charlie and Rose quickly become an efficient team against the odds. Their relationship and growth as human beings becomes the focus of the story. I loved the strong, independent, passionate woman Rose becomes now that she is free of the repressive bonds of her family and her background. And I loved reading how her growing strength and passion creates changes in Charlie–changes that bring out the best in him. Two very different people become a wonderful team and, not surprisingly, a sweetly loving couple.
The film was very much like the book, although the ending was slightly different (more Hollywood-ish in the movie). Of course there had to be some changes made when the story was translated to the big screen, but I thought those changes remained true to the story. It was filmed in Africa, and was an incredibly difficult experience for all. Katherine Hepburn wrote a book about that experience in 1987, called The Making of the African Queen: How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall, and Huston, and Almost Lost My Mind, which sounds like a very entertaining read, too!
C. S. Forester was a prolific writer, and wrote biographies, histories, and many naval adventures. A number of his books were made into movies, including:
Sink the Bismarck!, based on his book The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck;
Payment Deferred, which was Charles Laughton’s first film;
The Pride and the Passion, with Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, and Sophia Loren;
and of course, the Horatio Hornblower films and TV series!
You can also visit the African Queen herself in Key Largo, Florida! She’s on the Florida Heritage Tourism list, and is moored at the Holiday Inn Key Largo Resort marina, on display for anyone who might want to visit this wonderful old boat.