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Preface: If you are interested in the origins of this method of screenplay analysis, you can read some background here.

Watch the film first: If you want to get the most out of this analysis, we recommend that you view The African Queen before you proceed. You can find streaming links here.

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James Agee
John Huston

In the early 1980s, The African Queen, which had been produced thirty years earlier, in 1951, had the distinction of being the most cited film on all-time-best lists of top critics. At least that’s what I was told back in graduate school. Whether it was true or not, it was entirely believable at the time and I was curious to find out what accounted for its appeal. So when I started teaching Script Analysis in 1993, I began with The African Queen.

In time, however, the film’s status began to erode, so that by 2009, the only DVD version available was a poorly produced knockoff with six chapters, no extras and Chinese characters dominating the cover. Slipping the disc into the player before class, I hoped that my younger viewers would be able to get past the film’s primitive rear screen projection, 1950s’ sexual mores, and unconscious racial stereotyping to see its greatness. But every time I showed it, I discovered that I needn’t have worried. Even students raised on fast-paced, eye-popping spectacle were thoroughly captivated by the film. Happily, in 2010, The African Queen got a boost with its first official DVD release.

The product of a fortuitous collaboration between critic and screenwriter James Agee and director John Huston, and with inspired performances by Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, this is a film that viewers continue to love, no matter how many decades pass. And I continue to find deeper layers of meaning in its seemingly straightforward narrative.

Chapter 1: Plot, Character and Theme as Equal Story Lines

The African Queen is the film that completely transformed my understanding of plot, character and theme and how they can function together in screen drama. It happened one day while preparing a lecture for my Script Analysis class. Because I had already lectured on the film several times, I was intimately familiar with its tightly constructed adventure and romance stories. These two layers alone, skillfully interwoven and equally balanced, would be enough to make this film rise above most of what’s out there. And I might never have gone any deeper than that had I not been separately studying what theme is and how it functions in dramatic structure.

It was in the midst of this unrelated exploration that I one day realized there was a theme layer in The African Queen, with its own forward progression. I immediately deduced the potential for theme to function as a separate structure, alongside plot and character, and applied the idea to a deeper study of this film. In time, I became convinced that it is the near equal balance of plot, character and theme story lines in The African Queen that has enabled the film to remain so well loved over time.

If you haven’t already seen the film, I urge you to do so now. If you have seen it but it’s been a while, here’s a two-minute recap:

Is this the story of two people stuck behind enemy lines who go down a river to blow up a German battleship?

Yes, it is.

Or is it the story about a man and woman stranded together in the jungle and, through all the hardships they face, they fall in love?

Yes, it’s that, too. But which is the “real” story?

“Real” story? Why do we want to reduce an entire film down to one dominant story? Why do we want to prioritize one through line over other equally compelling through lines? I have seen others analyze this screenplay by naming the adventure story as the main plot and subjugating the romance to the status of subplot. What are we gaining by doing that, other than succeeding at upholding our plot/subplot notion of how stories are constructed? But what if some stories are more complex than what can be contained in that model?

Chapter 2: First, a Look at the Plot and Character Story Lines

Although theories abound on the question of what constitutes a story, I like to keep things simple. My definition of a story is this: you have to go from A to B. In other words, the storyteller has to bring viewers to a different place at the end of the story than where they began. This may seem self evident, but I treat it as a postulate from which to then ask: what are the ways an A to B progression can be accomplished? I know of three: the plot-driven story, based in external conflict, in which B is the solving of a problem, the unraveling of a mystery or the triumph over an enemy; the character-driven story, in which the conflict is as much within as without and B is the main character’s internal transformation; and, finally, the theme-driven story, in which B is a new understanding of human nature, culture and society, or even the universe. (For more on A to B progression, go here.)

In any given film, it is easy to recognize at least one of these models at work. Often, we’ll find two, most commonly plot and character. On the rare occasion, we encounter a film that incorporates all three in near equal balance. Such is The African Queen. To understand how this works, we will start with a close look at how the plot and character stories interact with each other, leaving aside the theme for the moment.

The way we know the adventure and the romance are distinct stories is they each have their own A to B progression. Here’s my technique for identifying that progression: In terms of the plot, where are Rose and Charlie at the beginning and at the end?

Stuck behind enemy lines in the midst of a world war in a small boat with only a few weeks of provisions.

They have made it down a wild and dangerous river and succeeded at blowing up a German battleship.

This accomplishment represents a significant distance from where they started and is thus a clear A to B progression in the external events of the story. How about when looking at the romance?

Rose is a righteous, uptight spinster missionary with a distinctly low opinion of Charlie Allnutt.

Rose is an adventurous, vulnerable, open-minded woman happily married to the man she formerly dismissed.

Whoa! How’d that happen? In Rose, we see a very definite internal A to B progression as well, giving her a character transformation. So we have two distinct story lines with individual outcomes. Rather than existing in a hierarchy of plot and subplot, these two stories are equally balanced and inextricably intertwined. Thus, one of the first things I learned from this film is that, within a cohesive whole, there can be individual plot and character stories, each benefitting from the other, and, when done well, the overall impact of the work is the greater for it.

Imagine if The African Queen was just an adventure film with no romance:

You’d have to add a lot of stunts and special effects to keep the audience in their seats for that one. On the other hand, imagine if it was just a romance with no adventure:

You’d have to add a lot of sex to keep the audience in their seats for that one. In either case, the story only adds up to a lot of cheap thrills. This film goes beyond that.

But how does weaving these two stories together help them individually transcend? Let’s look at it from both sides. First, how is plot enhanced by character? When there is character growth, the plot gains meaning. Have you ever been confronted with a stressful circumstance such that, difficult though it was, in the end you have to admit you are a better person for it? It is that sense of having gained something that gives those events meaning.

Conversely, how is the character progression helped by the plot? It is utterly dependent on the plot to make it happen. Remember that stressful circumstance that changed you for the better? Let’s be honest: you never would have changed had that not happened to you. It is fundamental to human nature to resist change, unless, of course, there is tremendous external pressure bearing down. That’s the job of the plot in a character transformation story.

To look at how this interplay between the external action of the plot and the internal progression of the character is carried out in this film, we’ll take it through the major markers of conventional three-act structure. Part of what makes The African Queen such a good example for study is that it faithfully adheres to the three-act model while also going beyond it. This enables us to see how each structural event of the film simultaneously pushes forward both the plot and character stories. (The following analysis assumes the reader has a basic understanding of three-act structure. For a primer on screenwriting craft, go here.)

The African Queen: A Screenplay Analysis

by Jennine Lanouette

© Jennine Lanouette, 2015
Design and Layout: Jennine Lanouette
UX Design and Programming: Dan Visel
Design Consulting: Landon Elmore
Storyboard Drawings: Tom Rubalcava
Video Editing and Voice Overs: Jennine Lanouette
Sound Mixing: James LeBrecht, Berkeley Sound Artists
Cover design: Jen Wang
Film stills and video footage: The African Queen, 1951, a Horizon-Romulus Production

For more writings and videos on screenwriting, visit

A Note on Copyright: The use of photos and videos in this ebook constitutes Fair Use under US Copyright Law. The Copyright Ruling in 2012, providing exemptions from the DMCA, held that circumvention of DVD encryption is allowed when using short portions of a motion picture for the purposes of criticism or comment in nonfiction multimedia ebooks offering film analysis.


This book is a digital rendering of one of the many script analysis lectures I have given to students and film professionals in New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area for more than two decades. Only recently has it become possible to present such video-dependent content as a “screenbook,” a format that provides the same visual and media experience to a much wider audience than the classroom allows. This new technology has revolutionized what I do. In time, I will convert twenty-five of my in-depth script analysis lectures into “anytime, anywhere” screenbook form.

The foundation of my approach to script analysis can be found in the work of the late Frank Daniel, with whom I studied at the Columbia University Graduate Film Program in New York. Frank was a producer, writer and teacher who had immigrated to the United States in 1969 from what was then Czechoslovakia. He soon became one of the country’s most highly regarded teachers of screenwriting, infusing American film schools with a European sensibility about what constitutes screen drama.

Among the many writers and directors who were influenced by his work are Milos Forman, Ivan Passer, David Lynch and Terrence Malick. Sadly, Frank never wrote a book (at least not in English), and I have often wondered if part of his reason was that, like me, he could not see a way to analyze a film without being able to refer directly to the moving images on a screen. One of my hopes for these screenbooks is that they will spread his influence more widely.

Although over the years I have ventured beyond what Frank taught me, the core principles of his teaching are still firmly embedded in my work. First among them is his emphasis on the practical function of structure to create a desired effect. The story is simply a vehicle with which to create a psychological and emotional impact on the viewer. It is how the story is structured that determines what that impact will be.

Frank also advocated for principles and tools over formulas. He believed that having a thorough grasp of underlying dramatic principles and available storytelling tools frees the imagination to create and innovate(1)(1) For a thorough elucidation of the screenwriting tools Frank Daniel taught, see David Howard and Edward Mabley’s excellent The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay., whereas following overly proscriptive, point-by-point methods will stifle creativity.

But Frank was an equally ardent advocate for utilizing the undergirding strength of three-act structure. I remember my classmates and I being astonished when a rumor circulated that he could even identify a distinct three-act form in Alain Resnais’s seemingly formless Hiroshima Mon Amour. He was committed to the idea that the artist must know the historical precedents for two reasons: to avoid repeating them and, more significantly, to succeed at innovating from them.

But perhaps most important to Frank, a structure must be governed by psychological truth, which is revealed in both the character’s behavior and in the cause-and-effect logic of the unfolding events. He was also careful to distinguish between critical theory, rooted in external theory and of limited value to the artist, and analytical thinking, in which the work is examined in relation to itself and to the totality of creative work over the ages, an essential part of the creative process.

Frank’s script analysis class was a five-hour marathon, which further underscores the ease and elegance of today’s digital technology. First we would watch the film, and then he would go through it again, scene by scene, to reveal its hidden structural secrets. Video was not yet in wide use, so he would use an “analyzer,” a large 16mm projector that could laboriously project in slow motion or be slammed into a sprocket-mangling reverse to review a segment. When he stopped the projector to discuss a scene, it would throw a lead screen in front of the bulb to prevent the film from burning up, leaving only a washed-out image visible for study. Needless to say, the tension of worrying that the film might melt before our eyes just the same was a bit distracting.

By the time I got around to teaching script analysis, I had videotape allowing me to zip through the film and stop and start at will with a magic wand-like remote control. Then came the DVD, with which I could jump to the end and then right back to the beginning again. The first time I watched a DVD on my laptop, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Since then, I have spent many hours sitting in a café preparing my lecture with just earbuds and two small windows on my screen—viewing, typing, viewing, typing. Nowadays, there is no excuse for not doing this kind of close analysis of films.

I started with the films that I had seen Frank analyze, but soon began adding new films each term. This led to noticing structural patterns that he had not discussed. After a few years, I went back to school for a more thorough grounding in the history and theory of drama from the Greeks to the 20th century. I became an admirer of Euripides for his intricate structures and iconoclastic themes. I discovered the influence of the medieval morality play in the work of Shakespeare. I was awed by the psychological complexity of the characters drawn by Strindberg. And I traced the beginnings of three-act structure in the work of Henrik Ibsen. These studies have greatly informed my investigations of how filmed drama has evolved in the last hundred years.

I view a film’s screenplay not so much as the bunch of words that appears on the page, but, rather, as the scenes, characters, and dramatic structure that we finally see on screen. Thus, I analyze not from the script but from the finished film. I operate under the assumption that (at least with the great films) what ended up on screen is what was deemed in the end to work best, whether by the writer on paper, the director on set and in the editing room, or the viewers who vote with their feet.

Although I sympathize with the screenwriter’s resentment of the auteur theory, in which the director is considered the “author” of the film, I have also found, in my background research, instances in which the director did, indeed, have the greater hand in what the filmgoer sees. On occasion, I have even found that the producer or lead actor deserves more credit than he or she has been given. This is why, for me, the point is to acknowledge what ultimately worked on screen and then to learn from it.

The films I choose to analyze are those that are widely considered to qualify as “great.” Such a designation can be debated at length, of course. But I have come up with three criteria that have worked for me. The first and most important is whether a film has staying power, which is to say, if, many years after its release, people are still watching it and talking about it. I take this level of enduring appeal as an indication that there is something in how the film is constructed that creates a deep resonance in people’s consciousness.

My second criterion is whether the film had a significant cultural impact when it was released, which is not to be mistaken for box-office success. What I’m interested in is if people talked about it and wrote about it, if it received a number of awards, if it turned up on the top ten lists of respected critics, and if its title or snatches of its dialogue became part of everyday speech.

Finally, I look for a diversity of form among the films I analyze in order to explore different ways that structure can be applied. I like to challenge myself with films that are generally considered to be unconventional in their narrative style.

Given that a film fulfills these criteria, I am then curious to find out what makes it tick. However, my methods are driven as much by instinct as they are by rational thought.

My first step is to break down the film into outline form, playing each scene and writing a one or two-sentence summary of its most basic dramatic elements, to get an overall view of the structure. This exercise allows me to get a look at the forest rather than being stuck among the trees. Although this process is laborious and can be time-consuming, it delivers a great payoff in enriching one’s understanding of story structure. I recommend it highly as a way to study the films you admire and want to emulate.

When I’ve finished the outline, I print it out and “meditate” on it, literally staring at it to spark a free association process. I read the outline through and then read it again, looking for patterns, connections and layers to emerge. When I have filled up the margins with notes, I grab a blank sheet of paper and begin charting the structure on a timeline.

The benefit of studying time-tested, cultural-impact films is that you know, going in, that it is a cohesive whole that has crossed generations and withstood repeated viewings. The question is, how does it achieve that breadth and depth? To answer this, I look for a thematic cohesion and then try to find how the story’s structure creates and supports that overarching meaning. Sometimes I will draw multiple timelines to chart interweaving structures. Other times I use color coding to represent different time frames or story lines. If it is a nonlinear story, I might chart it in chronological order to gain some insight into what the writer hoped to achieve by jumbling the events in time.

Looking at a film through the lens of three-act structure is a convenient jumping-off point. It provides a template that you can lay on top of the outline to see how it matches up to the most commonly recognized model. “Let’s see if this story launches with a point of attack. Wow! There it is! Plain as day.” But you don’t want to be satisfied with simply naming it. You want to look at how that component—in this case, the point of attack—is functioning. First, you determine how it is being used in common with other films and then you look at how it is being used differently. The goal is to see how the film has taken the conventional structural components and used them in service to that particular story.

That is where you will begin to see the art emerge.