For nearly ten years, Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) has ministered beside her brother, the Reverend Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley). Deep in the African jungle, the Methodist missionaries' only contact with the outside world is the sporadic mail delivered by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a displaced Canadian who uses his boat to ferry supplies up and down the river.
During a stopover, Charlie shares rumors about the start of World War I. Confident that their tiny village is safe from the onslaught of world events, the siblings are shocked when German troops tramp into the settlement, torch the straw huts and march the natives off under heavy guard. The trauma of the attack causes the Reverend to lose his mind and die, but not before his crazed ranting divulges some negative thoughts he's harbored about his sister.
Alerted to the soldiers' intentions, the gruff, unshaven Charlie returns to the village and finds Rose sitting alone among the smoldering shelters. After burying her brother's body, he convinces the prim spinster to return to civilization with him. Outfitted in an oversized jacket, Rose boards the rickety, old, smoke-belching African Queen for a ride down river.
Two more unlikely traveling companions would be hard to find. But as the boat slowly steams down the current, Rose's curiosity with Charlie's freight sparks a patriotic fever that leaves her planning an attack on a German warship. Initially pooh-poohing her plucky proposal, it's not long before Charlie realizes his part in the scheme of the "psalm-singing, skinny, old maid." He also discovers the woman has an intriguing side that he didn't know was there. Before long the two dissimilar boat mates begin to warm to each other and their tender love story unfolds while Rose breaks out of her staid existence and Charlie mends his undisciplined ways.
Audiences will find little in the way of content issues save the repeated scenes of smoking and drinking by the steamboat operator. As well as attacking the village, German soldiers fire shots at the pair of voyagers as they make their way downstream.
Placing the movie's action into the hands of two capable actors, Director John Huston allows Bogart and Hepburn to carry the entire story for most of the film. It's a risk that appears to have worked. Voted one of the American Film Institutes 100 greatest love stories, The African Queen was nominated for four Oscars in 1952. For Bogart, his nomination as Best Actor in a Leading Role led to the only Oscar win of his career.
Following Katharine Hepburn's death in June 2003, families may find watching this film classic a great way to celebrate the life and accomplishments of America's queen of the silver screen.