The African Queen
Studio: Paramount Pictures
US Rating: Not Rated
Film Length: 105 Minutes
Video: Color / 1080P High Definition 16X9 - 1.33:1
Audio: English, French, Spanish Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
“What an absurd idea! What an absurd idea! Lady, I may be a born fool, but you got ten absurd ideas to my one, an' don't you forget it!”
The Film: 4.5 out of 5
John Huston’s historied, and mercurial production of 1951’s The African Queen remains one of the most alluring and fascinating of the 20th century. Heralded as one of the greats in all of cinema, The African Queen is a simple, but tempting tale of a boat captain and a missionary following the Ulanga downriver to carry out a brave act against the Germans during World War I. The simplicity of the tale belies the arduous shoot undertaken by Huston, his outstanding cast, and capable production team. Filmed almost entirely on location in Uganda (with the exception of studio shoots of Bogart and Hepburn in the water, filmed at Isleworth Studios in Middlesex), the lush and vibrant locations prevail upon the film a vividness and grandeur that a predominantly ‘lot’ shoot could never have matched. The trials of filming on location in African have been well documented, with Hepburn herself penning 1987’s The Making of the African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, which as the title suggests, is a laid back and revealing chronicle of her time and tribulations shooting this film on and around the Ruiki river in the Belgian congo. Clint Eastwood’s curious 1990 film, White Hunter, Black Heart, covers similar ground, though fictionalized and based on The African Queen’s uncredited screenwriter Peter Viertel’s 1953 book.
When C.S. Forester wrote his 1935 novel, on which the film is based, it is unlikely that he could have imagined that in less than two decades later his story would become enshrined in a whirl of cinematic history; the legendary first time pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, appearing in their first color features, along with the great director John Huston’s first foray away from black and white, and the outstanding film that would result.
The prim Rose Thayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her brother, the Rev. Samual Thayer (Robert Morley), are serving as missionaries in East Africa, bringing the Methodist word to tribal African peoples when they hear word from Mr. Allnut, a Canadian boat captain, of war having broken out between the great British Empire (of which Rose and the Reverend are citizens) and Germany. That same day, a squad of troops, led by a German commander, sets ablaze the simple village, and the missioned African parishioners flee. The tumult of the vicious village burning sadly sends the Reverend to his grave, leaving his sister Rose little choice but to accompany the Canadian captain down river on his a small, rusty, 30ft, 30-year old boat, named the African Queen.
The gruff and grimy captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) presents a challenge to Rose’s sense of civility and proper decorum (even in the sweltering heat of the African jungle), and the banter and bellyaching that erupts between them eventually blossoms in to a budding romance, and a unification behind an outrageous and bold plan to take on the Germans in the only way they can.
The story of The African Queen is one of opposites; two people awkwardly brushing up against each other’s defined worlds; socially colliding like a gruff, and a prim tectonic plate; their distinctly different circles sparking friction as they are thrust together on a mission to ‘torpedo’ the Louisa, a converted, and formidable German steamship. The collision of civility and ‘field practicality’ is a staple of American cinema, but rarely is it as accomplished, confident, and beautifully portrayed as in The African Queen. Bogart’s grinning oblivion to Hepburn’s discomfort; Hepburn’s grin-and-bear it attitude, and forbearance of mortification, are superbly played. Charlie straightens up (and shaves), and Rose quickly embraces the taste of adventure she is given, which unfolds pleasingly throughout the picture.
In one of the film’s most entertaining exchanges, Rose happily proffers suggestions for how to fix the damaged boat propeller; Charlie responds sardonically, and oblivious to his humorous sleights, Rose continues with enthusiasm. The dialogue is sublime, and the delivery adroit. Here’s an excerpt:
Can't we go on the blades that are left?
There's a torque. Prop wouldn't be balanced. Wouldn't take five minutes for the shaft to be like a corkscrew again.
We'll have to make another blade. There's lots of iron and stuff you could use.
And tie it on, I suppose.
(missing his irony)
Yes, if you think that will do. But wouldn't it be better to -- weld it? That's the right word, isn't it? Weld it on?
You're a one, Rosie. Really you are.
Isn't weld the right word, dear? You know what I mean even if it isn't, don't you?
Oh, it's the right word, all right.
Humphrey Bogart, every bit as greasy and decrepit as the boat he captains, is fun to watch. His Oscar winning performance here is mostly deserved for his comedic talents, with a twitch of the eyebrow and a huff and puff of frustration frequently levied at his prim, clean, and uptight passenger. And Katharine Hepburn’s commanding presence and beauty in this role are a treasure. This exceptional acting duo, legends of cinema, does not disappoint in their first every film together.
Director Huston crafted a surprisingly big film for such a simple tale; he seems to perfectly appreciate the imperfections created by the tough shoot, and sincerely revels in the dialogue and banter between his principles. The thrilling rapids sequences provide ample excitement and adventure as counterpoint to the often caustic interplay dialogue, and the result is unequivocally a cinematic gem.
The Video: 4.5 out of 5
The 1.33:1 image, presented in glorious 1080p High Definition is in a word – extraordinary. The resplendent look of the film, the recipient of faithful and finely achieved restoration, is filled with scenes of exceptional clarity and color. Crisp, faithful, though with some softness in Hepburn’s close-ups (likely by design), I was struck by how fantastic this film looked. As the wonderful Robert Harris noted in his always spot-on “A Few Words About…™” thread, “color is occasionally on the murky side from natural lighting, and early matte shots combining the Queen with backgrounds look precisely like what they are”
In the end, the richness of colors, the lush details (I have never seen Bogart so clearly), and the apt film grain are a sight to behold and worthy of an enthusiastic response from fans, and those who may be newly discovering this classic.
Here's a look at the main menu (thanks, Adam)
The Sound: 3.5 out of 5
Much has been said about the audio accompanying this blu-ray release of The African Queen. Some have stated that by not including an uncompressed audio option, something may have been left on the table. Others, and I tend to agree, feel that the Cadillac of audio options isn’t always the best solution for an audio that may not require, or may be lessened, by such a revealing presentation. But that debate is already playing out in other threads. Suffice to say, the English mono track serves the experience nicely, never betraying the film, and sounding surprisingly solid.
As a side note, and likely the result of my modern film score sensibilities, but Allan Gray’s music is a tad too insistent and overbearing at times for my taste, but that could very well be entirely a personal matter.
The Extras: 2 out of 5
Embracing Chaos: Making of The African Queen: Running almost an hour, this recounting and retrospective is a welcome extra as Martin Scorsese, and others, brings the story of this film’s creation alive. A shame that other special features created through the years were not included (I am uncertain if that is from the myriad rights ownerships that have existed), and some will rightly be disappointed about the lack of additional 'stuff' to accompany this wonderful film. Regardless, this single special feature does provide value.
A treasured tale of two journeys; one a treacherous slog down the river Ulanga, and the other a journey of two opposites finding a love for each other amidst the challenge of their self-appointed mission The African Queen is a deserving classic – a long time coming to our home libraries in a format and presentation worthy of its place in cinematic history. So a sincere thank you to Paramount; thank you to those in the UK who scanned it, thank you to those who treated the original film so respectfully, and as per Robert Harris’ recommendation, thank you to Ron Smith. Keep ‘em coming!
Overall 4.5 out of 5