Whether by intention or not, the story encapsulates the journey of women in the first half of the twentieth century. It is at once both an old-fashioned tale and a modern one. The way in which Rosie, determined to stick to her modest Christian virtues, redeems the drunken lout, Charley, is the hoary Victorian narrative of hundreds of melodramas about the positive moral influence of women -- particularly women who have been set apart, protected from the harsh realities of everyday life.
Parallel to this is a quite different story, in which a prim and somewhat self-righteous spinster, suddenly cast from her cosseted existence and forced to confront the challenges and dangers of the larger world, not only rises to the occasion, but discovers her hidden strengths and, ultimately, her long-repressed sexuality. This second narrative gives the first an unexpected twist, and turns The African Queen into one of the great feminist movies.
Rosie is a very complex character, and there was probably no one but Katharine Hepburn who could have brought her to such vivid life. Hepburn herself being a woman who had been born into the Edwardian world in which members of her sex were still inferior to men in power and position, she undoubtedly understood both Rosie's struggle to adjust to her sudden change in circumstances and her delight in discovering that she had abilities and potential far beyond what she had been taught to believe. I see not a single false note in Hepburn's performance. Though through her long career she played a great variety of characters with a great diversity of traits, it is still those qualities of courageous determination and an ever-youthful joy in life which she brought to Rosie that I think of when I remember Katharine Hepburn.