The films of auteur director John Huston have always held a sense of brawling masculinity to me: there is a sort of anti-hero swagger to them with the protagonist knocking back a bourbon and spouting off a sarcastic one-liner right in the face of looming danger, putting on a brave sneer in the face of impossible odds and getting out of trouble by diving in head first.

Part of this image I have of Huston’s films comes from the films themselves, or more specifically, the roles of actor Humphrey Bogart in those films: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Fred Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Frank McCloud in Key Largo. The other part comes from my image of John Huston himself: a loud, cigar smoking, bourbon drinking big-game hunter; like some bawdy combination of Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Roosevelt put together and filmed in Technicolor.

The African Queen has always stood out to me for not just its sense of adventure, but for the heat and sweat that’s captured on camera coming off of both Bogart and Hepburn, and for the knowledge that just off-camera, Huston is smoking a stogie and waiting to yell “Cut!” so that he can drag Hepburn off to try their hand at hunting elephants [a true behind-the-scenes story that almost resulted in Hepburn being caught in a stampede]. In many ways, Huston’s filming of the picture mirrors its great adventure: a crew dives into Africa for a trip up river, hauling a broken-down boat and heavy equipment along with them.

Many of Huston’s films feature a common theme: the doomed quest. In The African Queen, Bogart’s Charlie Allnut and Hepburn’s Rose Sayer are on a quest doomed for failure: ram the small boat of the film’s title into a German gunboat in the name of both patriotism and good old fashioned revenge. But the doomed quest against impossible odds is not all Huston is concerned about.

Indeed, it is more about the suffering those anti-heroic underdogs must undergo that concerns Huston in his films. The masculinity I had picked up on from his other films carries over into this film in a broader and more complicated sense—bravery comes along in the face of suffering, and with The African Queen, a good amount of heroic suffering extended to his actors as well.

A major part of what makes The African Queen stand out is Huston’s devotion to engaging the audience in the suffering of his film’s protagonists through realism. The film was largely shot on location in Africa, and that opening shot is pure transportation: we are drifting along under African trees, the sound of wildlife buzzing around us, as we enter into Huston’s world.

It was a world Huston loved: his exploits in Africa, both while filming and hunting, were covered not only in Katherine Hepburn’s book on making the film, but were also fictionalized in a novel titled White Hunter Black Heart which would later be filmed by another icon of masculine Hollywood, Clint Eastwood. Huston’s identification with underdogs on a heroic quest of adventure extended into his own life in that regard.

Famously, Humphrey Bogart would hate this detour from civilization Huston got him into, while Hepburn came to share Huston’s love of Africa. Coincidentally, this struck a parallel within the film. In it, Rose is the one who spurs the reluctant Allnut into action. She is struck by the immense pleasure she gets from an exhilarating ride down the rapids, while Allnut requires gin for his satisfaction.

Bogart would also find relief from his troubles in this off-screen—while most of the other crew suffered from illness born from contaminated water during the shoot, Bogart and Huston remained healthy due to a consistent diet of booze during production.

Illness was not the only obstacle to filming; there was also the headaches of constantly having to keep the actual African Queen boat working, lugging the expensive and heavy camera equipment around, and having to deal with torrential downpours, wild animals, poisonous snakes, and armies of ants. But the suffering was all part of the adventure to Huston, and it was all essential to the adventure that would be captured on film.

Many filmmakers may strive for realism through lighting or location, but Huston aimed to capture it through living as well. In the end, this devotion to on-location shooting is something that helps make The African Queen an essential film. Perhaps the idea of masculinity I had always attributed to Huston was something more extensive and human—it was the thirst for the quest itself.

At the end of the shoot, Bogart’s misery was at least met with one significant reward: his first Oscar for acting. He is not the only actor to have received an award after an intensive shoot—many argued it helped Leonard DiCaprio secure the same honor for himself for The Revenant.

As an additional reward, Katherine Hepburn presented Humphrey Bogart with a model replica of the Queen on Oscar night.  It bore an inscription taken from one of her lines in the film: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” In Huston’s films, it is the quest to endure suffering and rise above nature, both human and otherwise, which grants his heroes a form of satisfaction—maybe Bogie even understood this in the end.

What I had previously seen as being a masculine construct within Huston’s films may be something far deeper and more enduring—it is the struggle against impossible odds that defines the director’s bravado. And that is something far more universal and difficult than simply knocking back a scotch and firing off a pithy one-liner.