Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449
Whether C. S. Forester had his salty British tongue in his cheek when he wrote his extravagant story of romance and adventure, "The African Queen," we wouldn't be able to tell you. But it is obvious—to us, at least—that Director John Huston was larking when he turned the novel into a film….
[The movie] is a slick job of … hoodwinking with a thoroughly implausible romance, set in a frame of wild adventure that is as whopping as its tale of off-beat love. And the main tone and character of it are in the area of the well-disguised spoof.
This is not noted with disfavor. Considering the nature of the yarn, it is hard to conceive its presentation in any other way—that is in the realistic channels of the motion-picture screen. For Mr. Forester's fable of love suddenly taking bloom in the hearts of a lady missionary and a Cockney rumpot while they're trying to escape down a German East African river in a wheezy steam-launch during World War I is so personally preposterous and socially bizarre that it would take a lot of doing to be made convincing in the cold, clear light of day. In the brilliance of Technicolor and with adventure intruding at every turn, any attempt at serious portrayal would be not only incongruous but absurd.
And so Mr. Huston merits credit for putting this fantastic tale on a level of sly, polite kidding and generally keeping it there, while going about the happy business of engineering excitement and visual thrills….
[Mr. Huston and his writer, James Agee,] have let the yarn slide onto the mud flats of heavy drama that Mr. Forester laid down, and while it is in that situation, they have let it become soggy in plot and mood. After running impossible rapids, eluding a German fort and keeping the romance skipping nimbly on the surface of sly absurdity, they have grounded their picture on a barrier of sudden solemnity and sanded it in with emotions that are neither buoyant nor credible. No wonder the fantastic climax that is abruptly and sentimentally contrived appears the most fulsome melodrama, unworthy of Mr. Huston and this film.
However, while it is skipping—and that is most of the time—there is rollicking fun and gentle humor in this outlandish "African Queen." There's nothing subtle or moralistic, mind you, outside of the jesting display that nature's most formidable creature is a serene and self-righteous dame.
Bosley Crowther, "'The African Queen'," in The New York Times (© 1952 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 21, 1952 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1949–1958, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1970, p. 2591).