A Colonialist Film? The African Queen (UK/US 1951)

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn (Blu-ray grab by DVD Beaver)

We watched this film recently as part of an event with the title ‘Colonial Africa in British Cinema’. The African Queen has recently been re-released as a restored digital print. It looks fantastic and the cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff can now be fully appreciated. The only downside is that, as with most films of this era, the back projection becomes more obvious. I was also much more aware of the use of models and body doubles in certain shots. Perhaps the clarity of the image made these more visible?

Production context

The African Queen is an adaptation of a novel by the British writer C. S. Forester first published in 1935. The film was produced by the independent producer Sam Spiegel (under his pseudonym S. P. Eagle) for Horizon Pictures (the company he had formed with John Huston) in partnership with the British company Romulus Films. John Huston and Humphrey Bogart were keen to work outside Hollywood at this time because of the fall-out over the ‘blacklisting’ caused by the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This was the first of three films that Huston made with Romulus (the others were Moulin Rouge (1952) and Beat the Devil (1953)). The film co-starred Katherine Hepburn and the adaptation was partly written by James Agee. Production took place on location in the Belgian Congo and on studio sets at Shepperton Studios outside London.


The ‘African Queen’ is a small steamboat plying its trade on behalf of a Belgian mining company on a river in Central Africa in August 1914. When the boat’s captain, the mechanic Charlie Allnut arrives in a small village in German East Africa, he surprises a British missionary and his sister Rose (Robert Morley and Katherine Hepburn) with the news that Britain is at war with Germany. After Allnut has left, German ‘native’ soldiers arrive and on the orders of their European commander, burn down the village. The British missionary dies from the shock of the event and the villagers are rounded up. Allnut returns a little later and offers Rose an escape by boat – but she wants to take action and persuades Alnutt to undertake (with her) a dangerous mission. She proposes to go down river on the Queen and enter Lake Victoria with the intention of sinking the German ship that controls the vast lake. To do so the couple must navigate rapids and pass under the guns of a German fort.


We watched the film in the context of a study of the ‘Colonialist Film’. This gave a completely different perspective on a film which has achieved classic status. Bogart won an Oscar for his portrayal and the film is now preserved by the US Library of Congress. Our discussion suggested that the film does indeed conform to many of the conventions associated with the colonialist film. On the other hand, we also noted that the film could really have been set in many other locations. Ostensibly this is the story of two people, both of whom are perhaps disappointed in how their lives have turned out. Although they appear initially to be ill-matched, in the face of adversity they ‘find’ themselves and each other. On this basis, setting is fairly immaterial. But the film is set in East Africa and in 1951 the future of European colonies in Africa was uncertain with independence movements beginning to organise.

In his book Modernity and the African Cinema (2004, Africa World Press), the Nigerian scholar Femi Okiremuete Shaka proposes eleven conventions of the colonialist film. He also offers a specific critique of The African Queen as a colonial adventure film. Here is a precis of Shaka’s eleven points:

1) Prolonged shots of the African landscape – the ‘safari shot’. The ‘wildness’ of Africa served up for the sedentary pleasures of European audiences. Such shots include river scenes as well as panoramic views of animals in landscapes.

2) Africans presented as cannibals (i.e. as ‘other’ in terms of dealing with enemies)

3) Africa as a symbolic ‘Garden of Eden’ – with diseases.

4) Binary oppositions in which Africans are characterised by the negatives of European values, e.g. Europeans are cultured, educated, sophisticated but Africans are primitive, child-like, simple etc.

5) Africans as sexually perverse with attitudes and behaviour considered only by European value systems.

6) African kings/leaders as despots.

7) The African environment viewed metaphorically as something to be overcome symbolically by heroic European adventurers/leaders.

8) Two contrasting African protagonists, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ where the ‘good’ is defined by a willingness to conform to British ways.

9) Narratives which present the heroic deeds of a European male as a key factor in ‘civilising’ the natives.

10) Depiction of pre-colonial Africans as spear-carrying and war-painted warriors.

11) The display of traditional African dances and rituals purely for the pleasure of European audiences – i.e. not as necessary for the narrative.

(Shaka, 2004, 220-223)

We applied this classification in studying several films and it proved to be very useful. I’ve picked out the four most important conventions in the case of The African Queen and discussing these certainly opened up the film for analysis. Numbers 3 and 7 should probably be merged as they refer to more or less the same urge to reduce the African location to an exotic fictional world against which the white adventurer must be tested. The ‘African Queen’ herself is a symbolic prize. As Alnutt says, the Germans would be pleased to capture the boat, just as they would to expand their African possessions. The aim is to sacrifice the Queen in order to save British East Africa (i.e. by taking out the German ship which controls Lake Victoria). The ‘Garden of Eden’ visual metaphor is apparent from the opening shot when the forest cover is parted by the camera to reveal the settlement – and by later scenes in which repeated images of the river and vegetation lead Alnutt into admitting that he hasn’t been anywhere more beautiful. But there is also the tension around the idea of the ‘Heart of Darkness’ drawing on Joseph Conrad. The Europeans who travel to the centre of Africa risk losing both their sanity and their physical health (visualised in the film by the swamps and mosquitoes/leeches).

The environment (so expensively ‘captured’ and presented through Technicolor on location) is thus presented as idealised Eden (with many ‘safari shots’) or as mythical Heart of Darkness. In both cases the Africans who live there are simply ignored – literally kept out of the picture. In fact there are just three sequences in the film where Africans feature. At the beginning of the narrative we see the congregation in the mission, singing with little regard for words or tune and completely alienated (or bored). Outside the mission, another group of painted men are lounging before being turned into a squabbling rabble when Alnutt appears and tosses his half-smoked cigar amongst them. The inference is clear. Africans are child-like and ignorant and when the Germans arrive and burn down the village, Alnutt’s African crew desert him. In the other two later sequences German native troops are shown to be either comically incompetent or simply cowardly. By contrast of course, the two European leads are brave, resolute, resourceful, heroic etc. This is the classic binary divide between coloniser and colonised. The colonised Africans can only be represented as the negative in terms of personal characteristics shown positively by the colonisers. I’ve rarely seen a story in which this is presented so simplistically. As Shaka’s list of conventions suggests, most colonialist narratives utilise a range of African characters, some characterised as evil, despotic etc. but others as potentially ‘good’ (prepared to submit to colonisation and engage with it). The absence of the ‘good’ or ‘evil’ African character raises two issues.

First, this absence makes possible the conventional romantic relationship between the European couple. In other colonialist narratives, specifically the colonial melodrama, such a relationship would be problematised by the presence of a powerful colonised character threatening the development of a taboo sexual relationship. The white female/black male pairing was the greatest taboo. Nothing like that could happen in The African Queen. Instead the emotional impact of the narrative has to be channelled into our fear that the couple will not survive their mission. The adventure/the ‘mission’ becomes the whole concern. This is why the narrative could have happened in any other setting with a dangerous environment (not necessarily colonial).

Secondly, this absence is interesting given the date of production. Attitudes towards the ‘Empire’ in 1951 were beginning to change in the UK in the post-war period. India and Pakistan had already gained independence, the term ‘Commonwealth’ was replacing ‘Empire’ and British colonial policy was adapting to the probability of eventual independence of other colonies. It’s also worth remembering that although there had been ‘Imperial’ troops fighting in the 1914-18 War, the Commonwealth servicemen who fought in the 1939-45 War were much more visible to British forces and indeed to the population in the UK. I’m not suggesting that Britain’s colonial policy was all sweetness and light, simply that mainstream cinema seemed slightly behind the times in terms of its choice of colonialist adventures. This might be something to do with Hollywood and its naïve perception of a changing Africa. In 1950 MGM had taken its two new British stars, Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, to East Africa to make a new version of King Solomon’s Mines.

Much more attuned to the times were films that looked at the question of how colonies were moving towards independence – and what white settlers/planters/mine-owners thought about this. These narratives certainly would involve African characters and Shaka refers to one such narrative type as the colonial burden film. It’s worth noting that despite the contemporary status of The African Queen as a classic film, it was matched, if not exceeded in terms of box office response by another British film set in East Africa. The Ealing production of Where No Vultures Fly (1951) was the Royal Film and opened in January 1952 before The African Queen in March. Also shot in Technicolor, Where No Vultures Fly is a contemporary story about one man’s fight to open Africa’s first game reserve in opposition to the interests of safari hunters, ivory poachers – and, of course, the local African communities who might have other ideas for their land.

Largely forgotten now, Where No Vultures Fly combined the ‘safari film’ with the ‘colonial burden’ film – and looked forward to ‘settler conflict’ narratives. Although directed by the celebrated documentary filmmaker Harry Watt, the film did not impress critics. However, audiences liked it and it offered a film which seemed to look forward when The African Queen looked back.

We’ll try to discuss more colonialist narratives in future and develop a section of the blog to ‘postcolonial film studies’.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    I agree about the differences between US and UK colonial films.
    This goes right back to the 1930s.
    Discussing colonial cinema would be a good idea. However, I do not go along with the terminology of ‘post-colonial’. We should be discussing colonial and neo-colonial films or indeed anti-colonial films.
    I suspect ‘post-colonial’ is one of those academic inventions that disguises more than it illuminates.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.