The African Queen, Blu-ray (1951/2010)
Starring: Humphrey Board, Katharine Hepburn, Theodore Bikel, Robert Morley
Director: John Huston
Studio: Horizon-Romulus/Paramount 07591 [3/23/10]
Video: 1.33:1 Technicolor, 1080p HD
Audio: English, French or Spanish DD mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish, French, Portuguese
Extras: Only “Making The African Queen” documentary (1 hour)
Length: 105 minutes
The only indication here of the magnificent visual restoration carried out on this classic is a sticker on the front of the package saying “Meticulously Restored.” You are asked to pay about $10 more for the Commemorative Box Set, which then includes some sort of card illustrating the Technicolor process, the entire memoir by Katharine Hepburn about the filming of The African Queen, and a separate audio CD of the original Lux Radio Theater broadcast of The African Queen, with Bogart and Hepburn replaced by Greer Garson. However, neither version includes anything on the specifics of the film restoration process, which is a shame since this is the first film on which Paramount has done such extensive restoration work – more like the efforts of The Criterion Collection.
However, both Blu-ray versions include a new and absolutely fascinating hour-long Blu-ray documentary on the making of the film, for which a major portion was shot on location in the Congo at a time when such demanding location shooting was seldom done, and with the huge and bulky three-strip Technicolor camera. Hepburn reveals in a TV appearance how ill she became on the shoot in the Belgian Congo because she was drinking only the water, while Huston and Bogart were drinking only alcohol and didn’t get sick. Many illnesses and encounters with insect and wildlife threatened the production, yet Huston states in some footage following the filming that in general things went very well and he had a great time in Africa. His appetite for shooting in difficult locations had already been created doing The Treasure of Sierra Madre in Mexico.
Huston had worked before with both Bogart and Robert Morley, and adapted a novel by C.S. Forester, working together with writer James Agee, and bringing in another writer to come up with a positive ending – which was not finalized when shooting began in Africa. Hepburn is an English missionary spinster who for ten years has been struggling to Christianize the natives, together with her minister brother (Morley). Bogart (who won an Oscar for his role) plays a heavy-drinking Canadian river rat who tends a beat-up old steamer with the self-mocking name The African Queen. It is during the First World War and the German soldiers come into the village and burn all the missionary huts and the church, taking away the natives. The brother dies and the spinster and boat-owner decide to escape down a nearly-unnavigable river to get to a large East African lake where a German gunboat is located. Rose convinces Charlie to join forces to create makeshift torpedoes to sink the German ship. They endure unbelievable challenges including terrible river rapids, leeches, German soldiers, torrential rains. Though at first hating one another, their trials eventually bring them into one another’s arms. The chemistry between the two actors is magnificent.
The scenery is gorgeous, and the Blu-ray transfer is first rate. The restoration process corrects most of the blueish bleed area visible around the actors during blue-screen portions, but in the outdoor scenes shot in Britain it is very obvious the background is projected or painted and not the real thing. The insect attack is very fake-looking, but I suppose the original footage without the crudely-added bugs was unavailable for adding cgi insects that looked realistic. All the scenes where one or both of the actors are actually in the river had to be shot in Britain because the African waters were too dangerous on many different accounts. The shot where Bogart puts his glass over the side of the boat to get water before adding his gin had me gagging.
The story is a wonderful mix of drama, comedy and high adventure, with absolutely perfect acting on the part of both Bogart and Hepburn. It’s a super classic for the whole family. And unlike some of the admittedly fine restorations of classic black-and-white films for Blu-ray, The African Queen on DVD looked so bad that this restored version finally allows us to see the original Technicolor – with its over-brilliant colors and everybody sporting a thoroughly Hollywood tan – in all its glory.
— John Sunier