Released in 1951, The African Queen is often considered the crowning achievement of director John Huston and finally brought star Humphrey Bogart his long-overdue Oscar for Best Actor. The film is an adaptation of the 1935 novel by noted writer C. S. Forester and is a gritty World War II adventure set mostly on the vessel of the same name. Aboard the vessel is the gruff captain, the daughter of a missionary and foolhardy plan to attack a German warship that is just crazy enough to work.
Quite unusual for a film made during the Hollywood studio system—even during those unsteady days as it was starting to collapse—The African Queen was shot almost entirely on location in the continent that gives the movie its title. The captain of the Queen was written as a Cockney Englishman, but Bogart couldn’t nail the idiosyncratic accent so he was changed to a Canadian national. Although you would be hard-pressed to identify that particular fact from Bogart’s performance.
The African Queen was nominated in four of the Big Five Oscar categories. Curiously, though nominated for direction and screenwriting, its slot for Best Picture was taken instead by the now-relatively obscure Decision before Dawn. Even more curious is that Decision before Dawn features a plot roughly parallel to that of The African Queen except that the secret mission to beat back German aggression takes place during World War II. The film was equally popular with audiences. Most reliable sources situate its place among the top ten box office draws of the year at or around the sixth place, squarely between two different Martin & Lewis comedies.
The future does not look quite so bright for the film. When the American Film Institute released its first list of the best 100 Hollywood movies ever, The African Queen ranked at number 17. Just ten years later when a revised list was announced, it had slipped all the way down to 65. Bleaker still: while The African Queen is nowhere to be found on the IMDB top 250, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is.
The African Queen was the first feature film to be shot in East Africa, and it was the first major motion picture to shoot on the continent since King Solomon's Mines in 1937. The film was shot on the banks of the Ulanga River in present-day Tanzania, with the river representing the fictional Ulonga River of the novel, and the surrounding terrain standing in for the Congo. The production was a difficult one, with the cast and crew having to cope with the extreme heat and humidity, as well as the presence of potentially dangerous wild animals. The production team also had to cope with the presence of local tribesmen, who had never seen a movie camera before, and the language barrier made communication difficult. Despite these difficulties, however, the film was completed without any major incidents. The African Queen was a success both critically and commercially, garnering 5 Oscar nominations and a Best Actor win for Humphrey Bogart. It is considered one of the best films to come out of the 1950s, and it continues to be a popular favorite to this day.