Never say die: African Queen to be restored

The 1912-built African Queen sits tied up in Key Largo, patiently awaiting refurbishment
The 1912-built African Queen sits tied up in Key Largo, patiently awaiting refurbishment
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SIX decades after Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn trod its planks, the African Queen – the most legendary riverboat in movie history – is to be restored to its former glory.

Owners of the 28ft vessel have had the faded film star moved from dry dock in the Florida Keys, where for years she has sat in a state of disrepair, to a boatyard where she will undergo months of refurbishments to bring her back to life.

Built of wood and powered by steam, the boat will then be returned to the water for the first time in a decade, taking nostalgic movie fans on trips down Memory Lane – minus the African jungle, leeches and trigger-happy German troops it encountered during its big screen career.

“I’m looking forward to seeing people’s reactions when that little steam engine starts up again and we hear that old ‘ker-chunk, ker-chunk’,” said Jim Hendricks, a Florida Keys hotelier and owner of the African Queen.

“The boat will be getting her voice back when the whistle sounds once again. It means a lot,” he added.

Originally named the S/L Livingston, the open-hulled steam launch was constructed in Britain in 1912 and pressed into service by the British East Africa Railway Company, ferrying cargo and passengers in Uganda and the Belgian Congo.

When American film director John Huston and producer Sam Spiegel came across it in Uganda while preparing to shoot a film version of CS Forester’s 1935 novel, the African Queen, it was idle and in disrepair. The film’s release in 1951 earned world renown for the little boat, won Bogart his only Academy Award, and went down in entertainment history as an all-time classic.

Set in German East Africa at the start of the First World War in 1914, it told the story of Charlie Allnutt, a fictional Canadian riverboat captain played by Bogart, and Rose Sayer, an American missionary played by Hepburn.

When German troops burn down the jungle village in which Sayer lives and works, beating her brother Samuel, who later dies, Allnutt rescues her and takes her down river, setting the scene for several clashes between his coarse behaviour and her prim manners before their relationship blossoms into romance.

Adventures, mishaps and brushes with death ensue as the pair set up a plan to convert the African Queen into a torpedo boat, rigging it with explosives and intending to set it on a collision course with the Queen Louisa, a German gunboat that patrols Lake Victoria to block British attacks.

The plan appears to fail when the boat, laden with gelignite, takes in water and sinks and the couple are captured and sentenced to execution. Their captors allow them to wed before hauling them off to the gallows, but just as they are pronounced man and wife on the deck of the Louisa, the ship strikes the submerged hull of the African Queen and explodes.

Location filming of the drama proved something of a life-or-death challenge in itself, with the cast and crew encountering dysentery and malaria, venomous snakes and jungle fauna.

Several of Hepburn’s scenes were shot with a bucket on standby, because she was so frequently sick.

Bogart and Huston, however, came through unscathed, boasting that their supply of Scotch kept sickness at bay.

“All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whisky,” Bogart once told an interviewer following the film’s release, joking: “Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead”.

After filming, the vessel changed hands several times and, at one point, was used as a judging stand at a polo competition field in Florida before it was purchased by Mr Hendricks’ late father, a lawyer who had money left over from a bank loan that he was using to build an extension to the Holiday Inn hotel in Key Largo, Florida.

“The bank said ‘Go and do something sensible with the $65,000 you have left over’ and to my father, spending $65,000 buying the African Queen counted as ‘something sensible’,” said Mr Hendricks, explaining how his father enjoyed taking the boat out on the Florida Keys waterways before his death in 2002, since when it has been on display in dry dock at a marina beside the hotel.

“We’ll make her pretty again, just like Bogie and Katharine Hepburn once knew her,” said Mr Hendricks. “You take a grumpy old guy and put him on that boat and watch his whole persona change. That’s what that old boat does to people.”