During WWI, in East Africa, cranky steamboat captain Charlie Allnut is asked to ferry forthright missionary Rose back to civilisation. Along the way they will form an unlikely alliance against the German enemy.
The first, and only, time Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart shared a screen — despite being arguably the most talented stars of their generation — is more charming curio than Hollywood event. Perhaps, that’s what drew them in — the cut against the grain that John Huston’s adaptation of C.S. “Hornblower” Forester’s story clearly offered.
Bogart, who was awarded with an Oscar for his transformation, shakes off the scowling loner, for a boozy old salt quick to prickle but deep down a decent cove. It’s clichéd in concept, but Bogart fills him with a weathered charm, a man unable to drink away his innate morality. For Hepburn, Rose’s chatterbox spinster with religious convictions as deep as Lake Victoria, was a closer match, but given they were shooting on location in Africa, she sure seems out of place in the sweaty equatorial soup that lends the film an authentic sickly gleam. It’s admirable to note how willing they are to rough up their lustrous images.
Huston is on good form here. Excited by the fierce light of Africa, his film works as road movie (by river) as the mismatched duo negotiate German patrols, rapids and swarms of flies; as romance with the mismatched duo slowly come to love one another; as comedy as the mismatched duo really rile one another; and thriller, as the mismatched duo concoct a plan to blow a hole in a German gunboat at the head of the river. A plan that could prove to be suicide. That the film succeeds on so many counts, primarily as a character piece, is down to a simple equation: a great story enlivened by great actors sparking off one another and a director keen enough to just let it flow.
A perfect ensemble of cast, photography and screenplay are all subtly handled through Huston's direction, bringing out Bogart and Hepburn's performances beautifully.