Remarkably, amazingly, incredibly, no studio until now has ever released John Huston's classic 1951 film "The African Queen" on DVD, let alone Blu-ray disc, in the U.S. (It was originally an independent Horizon-Romulus production, and maybe there were disputes about ownership.) Well, better late than never, I suppose, even if the movie is over a dozen years late to the party. People loved the Humphrey Bogart-Katharine Hepburn film when Huston made it some six decades ago, and, I daresay, people love it just as much today. Good things are worth the wait.
"The African Queen" is an adventure, a romance, and a comedy, yet it tackles none of these genres according to accepted movie tradition. The adventure takes place in German-controlled central-east Africa in 1914, at the outset of the First World War, with the main characters--a Canadian man and an English woman--initially trying to escape the Germans. They sail down the Ulonga-Bora River toward a lake in the man's dilapidated, rattrap little steamboat called the "African Queen." Once underway, however, the pair decide to blow up an important German gunboat patrolling a lake, using the "Queen" as the ramming device for a pair of homemade torpedoes.
The romance and the comedy take place aboard the "Queen" between a middle-aged, drunken sot, Charlie Allnut (Bogart), and a prim, straight-laced, middle-aged lady, Rose Sayer (Hepburn). A more unorthodox adventure story and a more unconventional romantic comedy you couldn't imagine.
Allnut travels up and down the East-African rivers delivering supplies to the colonists and missionaries there, but mostly he drinks. He's unshaven, unkempt, and usually less than sober, hardly one's image of a movie hero. Like many of Bogart's roles, it was a gamble. By 1951 Bogart was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, enabling him to take a chance in 1948 playing a thorough reprobate in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and getting away with it to public and critical approval; and, yes, he got away with it again in "The African Queen" to even greater acclaim. Although, to be fair, his character here is nothing like the greedy, dishonest scoundrel he played in "Sierra Madre."
Hepburn, well into her forties by this time and at an age when American cinema usually abandons such actresses, took a chance, too, playing the prudish, almost Puritanical spinster who eventually falls for the grubby, grizzled, thoroughly egregious Allnut. The two players perform fabulously well against type, each bringing out the best in the other, both as actors and as characters in the story. Before long, it's hard to tell the difference.
This was the fourth of five movies Huston would make with Bogart and his only one with Hepburn. Huston co-wrote the screenplay with James Agee and Peter Viertel from a novel by C.S. Forester, turning the story into a tight, productive motion picture that is remarkably concise and pointed. There isn't a wasted moment, a wasted gesture, or a wasted line. The plot, the characters, and the action move along efficiently, with the odd-couple relationship of Bogart and Hepburn keeping the boat and the movie afloat. For his part, Bogart won an Oscar for Best Actor, and the Academy nominated Hepburn, Huston, and Agee for Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Writing respectively. Look also in the cast for Robert Morley as Miss Sayer's brother, a Christian missionary, and Theodore Bikel (who at the time of this writing was still going strong on stage and screen) as the first officer aboard the German ship.
To make the movie more realistic, Huston took his cast and crew to the Congo, Uganda, and Zaire, as well as to England, Turkey, and Southern California for filming. The location shooting became the stuff of legend, and Peter Viertel chronicled some of it in his book "White Hunter Black Heart," which Clint Eastwood later made into a movie (1990).
My parents took me to see "The African Queen" when I was a kid, and two things always stuck out in my memory: the fort on the hill (really neat) and the leeches (really icky). Almost a quarter of a century after her making Huston's film, Katharine Hepburn would team up with John Wayne in "Rooster Cogburn," a movie that used virtually the same formula but to much duller effect.
Trivia: According to John Eastman in his book "Retakes" (Ballantine, New York, 1989), "Columbia Studios bought the original C.S. Forester novel for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, then, in 1939, sold it to Warner Bros. for Bette Davis and David Niven. When Davis fell out with the producer, 20th Century-Fox bought the property, and John Huston unearthed it there twelve years later. Plagued by army ants, black wasps, dysentery, and steaming jungle heat, cast and crew suffered miserably in the African location scenes. Only Huston and Bogart escaped sickness (owing, they maintained, to their daily Scotch intake.) The actual 'African Queen,' a retired riverboat, towed four rafts down the Ruiki. On one, a mock-up replica of the boat provided a stage set, while others held equipment and private quarters for Hepburn. Bogart, at first lukewarm about his role and hating any sort of location work, gradually absorbed himself in the character of Charlie Allnut, but he never ceased complaining about the jungle discomforts and Hepburn's incessant, bewildering cheerfulness.... Screenwriter James Agee, whose disabling heart attack put an end to this work on the script, intended the river journey to symbolize the act of love, and he strongly criticized the upbeat finale concocted by Huston and writer Peter Viertel."
After having suffered through a series of poorly rendered VHS tapes and import DVDs of "The African Queen," it was a pleasure finally to see the movie again in all its finery. Paramount meticulously restored the film and transferred it to high-definition Blu-ray disc using a dual-layered BD50 and an MPEG-4 codec. The results remind us that no matter what a movie's age, if it looked good to begin with, it can look good again.
And the 1.33.1 ratio, Technicolor film looks quite good in high def for a film of any vintage. The video engineers left the natural film grain intact, which you will probably only notice in vast expanses of sky or at night. After the restoration, the engineers left virtually no signs of wear or deterioration, no specks, lines, scratches, fades, or what have you. Colors are a tad dark, though, especially noticeable in skin tones, which tend to make the cast appear as though they were out in the sun too long, but I suspect that is how director Huston and photographer Jack Cardiff intended the film to look. Jungle greens are lush; some of the bluer rivers glisten, while the blacker rivers are intensely deep; and earth browns are rich. With fairly good object delineation thrown in, the film is quite lovely to look at.
The disc's soundtrack reproduces the original monaural audio via Dolby Digital 1.0, and while that might not seem like much, the sound has probably never been better. The only minor drawback beyond it's not being in surround or having a very wide frequency response is that there is a very slight background noise involved, a bit of a hiss one can notice during quieter passages if one turns the volume up too high. The lesson: Keep the volume at a normal listening level, and you won't even know the hiss is there.
Otherwise, the soundtrack displays a smooth, realistic midrange and a fine showcase for Allan Gray's musical score, played by Norman Del Mar and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This is a soundtrack easy on the ear, and, as a rainstorm proves early on, mono or no it does its job.
The only major bonus item on the disc is the superb documentary "Embracing Chaos: The Making of the African Queen." It's a new, one-hour production in high definition and stereo that features commentary from a raft of people who either worked on the film or worked with people who worked on the film. To give you an idea of the documentary's content, let me tell you who participates in it: Rudy Behlmer, film historian; Richard Schickel, film critic and historian; John Forester, son of the book's author; Nicholas Meyer, writer and director; Eric Lax, Bogart biographer; Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, biographer of Sam Spiegel, the film's co-producer; Theodore Bikel, a featured player in the film; Guy Hamilton, assistant director of the film; Martin Scorsese, who always seems to show up in these things; Norman Lloyd, actor-director-producer; Lawrence Grobel, Huston biographer; Sir John Woolf, co-producer of the film; William J. Mann, Hepburn biographer; Katharine Hepburn, John Huston, director of photography Jack Cardiff, and others in archival footage; Laurence Bergreen, Agee biographer; Angela Allan, script supervisor on the film; Steven-Charles Jaffe, producer; Desmond Davis, clapper boy on the film; Brenda Scott Royce, Lauren Bacall biographer; Warren Stevens, Bogart friend; James Ursini, film historian; Tony Huston, the director's son; Mark Rydell, producer-director; David Lewin, publicist for the film; and John Philip Dayton, Hepburn friend. Together, they offer some illuminating glimpses into the making of the movie.
In addition to the documentary, we get eighteen scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages and subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"The African Queen" is a totally delightful and entirely engrossing romance, filled with comedy, action, and adventure. That it was able to accomplish so much with essentially two mis-matched characters and a decrepit little riverboat is one of filmdom's major accomplishments, proving once again the power of pictures to move us in unexpected ways.
"By the authority vested in me by Kaiser Wilhelm II, I pronounce you man and wife. Proceed with the execution."