THE AFRICAN QUEEN
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert
Director: John Huston
Audio: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Portuguese, Spanish
Video: Color, 1.37:1 aspect ratio, 1080p high-definition
Features: Making-of documentary
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: March 23, 2010
“Could you make a torpedo? Well do so, Mr. Allnut.”
Few major Hollywood films of the studio era have had so much going against them as The African Queen and yet somehow emerge triumphant. After all, here was an independently-made movie featuring faded actors and filmed at extreme locations under the constant threat of disease, famine, and all manners of nasty ailments. The film’s basic story, about a pair of incongruous over-the-hill characters boating up and down a river, was hardly the stuff of box office magic, either.
And yet, The African Queen (1951) would become an improbable classic, truly that rare film which against all odds just gets everything right. It is a comedy, an exotic adventure, and a thrilling war story all blended into one seamless narrative. But at its heart, The African Queen is essentially the story of how two utterly disparate characters fall in love with one another. The magic of The African Queen lies in watching the characters’ relationship develop from one of polite disregard into one of sweetly genuine affection. As the saying goes, opposites attract, and what more classic cinematic example than that between Katharine Hepburn’s prim and proper missionary woman Rose Sayer and Humphrey Bogart’s drinkin’, filthy river rat Charlie Allnut?
Adapted by James Agee from the 1935 C.S. Forester novel, The African Queen was the pet project of Sam Spiegel. The legendary Hollywood producer recognized something special in the story, and even before securing any actual funding for the film, managed to convince celebrated Hollywood director John Huston to join the film. With Huston at the helm, Bogart became a natural choice to star, having previously worked with Huston on a number of now-classic films (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Key Largo). And with Huston and Bogart on-board, Katharine Hepburn, having never worked with Bogart, proved to be an easy convert for Spiegel.
Despite the top-notch A-list stars and director attached to the film, there were some valid concerns, however. For one, Bogart and Hepburn were no longer matinee idols (Hepburn having once even been considered “box office poison”). Bogart’s ragged, unshaven look in the film, and Hepburn’s old, dehydrated appearance further diminished the actors’ usual on-screen glamour; would audiences still flock to see such disheveled, smaller-than-life stars? The source novel also had an unhappy, downbeat ending, and there was much uncertainty over whether the film should end in such a manner as well. Should it conclude with Rose and Charlie’s deaths, as perhaps the pessimistic John Huston might have wanted? Or, should it have a standard happy Hollywood ending, which might please audiences more?
The actual shoot itself proved equally problematic. A significant part of The African Queen was filmed on location (this during a period when movies were mostly in-studio productions). As with many on-location shoots, this one was replete with pitfalls, perhaps more so given the film’s remote settings. Cast and crew had to survive with little in the way of sanitation; inevitable bouts of dysentery and malaria spared no one. The African water was simply poisonous to work in, yet outside the water, the African heat was utterly merciless. Living accommodations were nothing more than hastily-built bamboo shacks under the constant threat of flesh-burrowing jiggers and massive armies of soldier ants.
Perhaps to relieve some stress, director John Huston found time during production to vanish and to partake in his passion for hunting, his one dream being to shoot an elephant. It was after one such excursion into the wilderness that Huston returned and proudly proclaimed that he had scouted an ideal location for the film (along the Ruki River in the Belgian Congo). Ironically, Katharine Hepburn, having initially regarded Huston’s love of hunting with undisguised disdain, soon found herself caught up in the excitement of the chase after accompanying Huston on one of his safaris in a failed attempt to rehabilitate him. At least Bogart had the companionship of his devoted celebrity wife Lauren Bacall, who nurtured the cast and crew as cook and nurse while on location.
Certainly, the making of The African Queen proved to be an adventure in itself! One of the screenwriters, Peter Viertel, eventually wrote a fictionalized account of his experiences on the set; his novel White Hunter, Black Heart would later become a film in its own right, directed by Clint Eastwood. However, Katharine Hepburn’s memoir - “The Making of The African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind” remains the final word on all the hardships of the production (this rare memoir is generously included with the commemorative Blu-ray release of The African Queen). Production woes or not, The African Queen somehow managed to be completed, and upon its release, was embraced by audiences and critics alike who thrilled at the exotic locales and the novelty of seeing Bogart and Hepburn together on-screen for the first time.
The African Queen opens circa September 1914 in Africa. The Canadian Charlie Allnut is a jack of all trades but master of none. He works as a machinist at a local mine and runs the Congo River route from the mine in his old steamboat. Occasionally, Charlie delivers mail to a riverside village, where missionaries Rose and her brother Samuel (Robert Morley) are busily at work converting the natives. One day, after sharing some tea with the missionaries, Charlie reveals some bad news to Samuel - war has broken out in Europe. But just as a good shepherd does not abandon his flock when wolves are on the prowl, so the preacher Samuel decides to remain at his post upon learning of the outbreak of war. After all, what can Germans possibly do in Africa, so far from home and the true fighting?
As it turns out, the Germans can do quite a lot. Soldiers unexpectedly march into the village that very same day, burning down homes and abducting villagers to be conscripted into service. Samuel and Rose are helpless to resist, and in the aftermath of the attack, the preacher, bearing witness to the transformation of all his hard work turned into smoldering ashes, succumbs to heart-break and fever. Soon, Rose is left alone in the world to wonder what tragic fate may soon befall her as well.
In time, Charlie again arrives in his old steamboat, only to encounter the demoralized and distraught Rose. He offers to take her down the river to safety, as they certainly cannot remain in the village, should the Germans return. However, navigating the river offers little certainty of escape; not only must Charlie and Rose somehow slip pass a German fortress but they must also safely negotiate through a series of dangerous rapids all the while avoiding hungry, lurking crocodiles. The most dangerous obstacle, though, is the gunboat Louisa. This 100-ton steamer, armed with a 6-pound artillery cannon, patrols a large lake downriver and effectively blocks the escape route for Charlie and Rose. Surely, the slow, rickety, leaky African Queen is no match for a heavily-armed German war ship. Or, is it?
Charlie’s initial plan is to hide out along the river until the war is over, but Rose, perhaps embittered by her recent loss, suggests for a more aggressive approach. Using the equipment available on-board, why not fashion some sort of weapon with which to attack the Louisa? It is a hare-brained scheme, of course, but one born out of desperation. The plan must work, as Charlie and Rose’s very lives depend on it.
Initially at odds with one another, Charlie and Rose soon learn that survival requires mutual support, even if that entails learning to trust (and eventually love) one another. Such trust does not come easily, especially for characters who have seemingly given up on happiness. Rose is a woman of ordinary features whose sole meaningful endeavor in life had been her missionary work. Once that was harshly snatched from her, Rose lost her direction and purpose, and perhaps may have sat amongst the ruins of her village helplessly awaiting death had Charlie not come along. Through his guidance and friendship, Rose eventually blossoms into a more complete person, embracing the desires and emotions which hitherto had been quite dormant. Rose sheds the inhibitions of her former life as a missionary spinster. Perhaps it is the heat of the river or perhaps the thrill of the race for freedom that brings her to life. “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” she even remarks at one point.
Charlie undergoes his own metamorphosis. Beneath his low-key, casual swagger, Charlie is a lone wolf whose life has long been devoid of any female companionship. Charlie’s mistress is his boat, which he kicks every now and then because “she’s the only thing I’ve got.” He soon warms to the presence of a actual woman in Rose and takes some initial pleasure in teaching her the ways of the river, much as a mentor might guide his pupil through the rites of initiations. And where once he may not have risked rocking the boat, so to speak, by the film’s end, he is willing to attempt the hopelessly crazy scheme of attacking the Louisa, even if it means sacrificing himself and his beloved African Queen, all for the new love of his life, Rose.
Indeed, at its core, The African Queen is simply a love story about two very different people who surprisingly fall for one another. Certainly, the wartime derring-do and adventure do enhance the exotic narrative, but Charlie and Rose carry the film through the strength and development of their relationship. Much of the success of the film must ultimately go to the performances by Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Bogart won his only Oscar for his role in The African Queen, while Hepburn would embark upon a career renaissance, even portraying another lovelorn spinster only a few years later in David Lean’s classic Summertime.
The African Queen is truly a one-of-a-kind film (although Cary Grant and Leslie Caron are quite good in the similarly-themed Father Goose). The making of The African Queen may have been as much a life-altering experience as the journey of Charlie and Rose, but in the end, for both journeys, passion and love do conquer all.
Video *** ½
The African Queen is presented pillar-boxed in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Short of seeing this classic film again on the big screen, the color, 1080p high-definition transfer offers quite simply the best visual presentation of The African Queen to date.
One of the greatest challenges to bringing The African Queen to Blu-ray was locating an acceptable source print. Eventually, 4k digitally scanned images created from the original Technicolor three-strip negative camera negative were used, and the arduous restoration process was further fine-tuned with the assistance of the film’s original chief of photography, Jack Cardiff (one of the true masters of Technicolor cinematography). His comments were instrumental in properly restoring the film’s faded dyes, correcting color misregistration, or adjusting process shot alignment issues.
BONUS TRIVIA: The actual steam-boat used in the film can be seen on display at Key Largo in Florida.
Audio ** ½
The restored monaural soundtrack has been meticulously scrubbed clean of pops or hisses and sounds quite good for a film of its age. Nevertheless The African Queen may still sound a bit thin to modern ears. No need to use one’s expensive home audio system here, as the television speakers alone should suffice.
Features ** ½
There is only one supplemental feature, but it is a nice one - the documentary Embracing Chao: Making of ‘The African Queen’ (59 min.). The documentary is loaded with vintage photos and amusing anecdotes about the production, the stars, and the locations of the film. Interviews include archival clips from Bogart, Hepburn, Cardiff, and Huston as well as more modern homage from the likes of Martin Scorsese and Nicolas Meyer. There are also a few glimpses into the restoration process.
The African Queen took a long time to arrive but was well worth the long wait. The Blu-ray edition presents a gorgeous restoration of this timeless masterpiece.