While staying at Cindy’s house during my trip, she and I rewatched the 1951 classic THE AFRICAN QUEEN. It’s a great film but it’s also a great example of an unconventional romance and a very well done “strong female protagonist.” (All rights to image remain with current holder. Source here)
As the movie opens it’s 1914 and the Great War has just broken out. Katherine Hepburn plays Rose, a spinster working in her brother’s (Robert Morley) African mission to convert the natives. Seeing them as an unwanted English intrusion, the Germans show up and torch the place. Morley collapses in shock and dies. Rose might have died too but she’s dragged away by Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a gin-swilling engineer who skippers the African Queen, a mail boat traversing the local rivers. He figures on getting Rose to safety; she over-rules him. Rose insists on heading down river to find the German steamer that dominates the local waters and use some explosives on the Queen to blow it to hell and back. Over the course of the film, Charlie and Rose (surprise!) fall in love.
It’s a remarkable film, not least because more than 75 percent of the time the two stars are the only ones on screen. While finding someone obnoxious and irritating is a classic romance trope, both Bogart and Hepburn are restrained, only occasionally losing their temper. Instead, Charlie cajoles and suggests; Rose issues decrees in the way of strong-minded British spinsters, at least in fiction. Her sheer force of will begins to impress Charlie, as does her excitement when they go over the first in multiple rapids (“I see, Mr. Allnut, why you enjoy boating so much.”). Everything is underplayed, but no less effective for that.
From a writing perspective, Rose’s character is really interesting. Her kind of spinster is a stock type, but Hepburn infuses her with tremendous energy and character. When they make it through the rapids, it’s possibly the first time Rose has ever done anything risky or exciting in her life, and she comes alive. When she falls for Charlie, she doesn’t hold back or make prudish protests, she follows her heart. When the going gets tough, she’s willing to hack at the water weeds or help repair the boat, getting as dirty as she has to. Charlie never argues that it’s not a woman’s place, or tells her she can’t do it. Rose transcends the gender norms, but without any Holy Shit, She’s Transcending Gender Norms—she just does it. And she’d probably insist there’s no big deal, she’s just doing what has to be done.
I’m not sure it would have worked as well with anyone but Hepburn in the role, but she was, and it does.