In 1951, a time when making films on location was not the norm for Hollywood, director John Huston decided to shoot an independent movie in Uganda and the Congo. These were probably the most un-Hollywood locations for making a movie, but John Huston, along with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, managed to create a celebrated classic in The African Queen.
The movie was released in 1951, and 36 years later Katharine Hepburn published a book titled The Making of The African Queen, or, How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. This pretty much sums up everything you need to know about the seven weeks they spent filming The African Queen.
When one considers the circumstances under which The African Queen was made, it is safe to say that this movie is an improbable cinematic triumph. After nearly 66 years, many of us would agree that The African Queen still reigns. However, the stories about what happened behind the camera tell us how difficult it was to get the final product.
The African Queen is a WWI romantic comedy and adventure. Trying to escape the Hollywood jungle of the big studios, director John Huston chose to go to a real jungle after filming terrific movies such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Asphalt Jungle.
Huston had some experience with filming outside of the United States as he had previously made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, but The African Queen was something completely different. It was a grueling experience for every member of the crew.
Deadly snakes, crocodiles, tons of mosquitoes, and filthy water were just a few of the difficulties to endure. There were no serious problems while the movie was being filmed in Uganda, but things got worse as soon as they arrived in the Congo.
Angela Allen, who worked as continuity checker on The African Queen, told the Guardian about the difficulties faced while filming. Allen said that the crew lived in a camp hacked out of the jungle and added that they had to leap into bed at night before the mosquitoes could get them. Every morning the crew had to shake their boots out just to make sure that there were no centipedes in them, and washing with red water from the river was a standard procedure.
Contaminated water was perhaps enemy number one, and at one point everyone except for Humphrey Bogart and director John Huston suffered from dysentery. Just like his character, Captain Allnut, Bogart liked drinking, so he and his drinking buddy, director Huston, apparently drank more whiskey than water. Perhaps because of that, they managed to remain dysentery free throughout the shoot.
Stomach problems tormented most of the cast. Hepburn plays the prim sister of a missionary who helps him with his congregation, including playing the organ. The actress had to have a bucket kept nearby because between takes she might be sick.
Bogart later said, “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus, and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.”
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It all worked brilliantly on screen. Both Bogart and Hepburn gave winning performances, and the movie was a total success. Hepburn received her fifth Best Actress Oscar nomination and Bogart’s performance earned him the only Academy Award of his career.