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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

The African Queen (1951)


Starring: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £25.99


Certificate: PG
Release Date: 18 November 2019

The African Queen is one of the most beloved films of all time, an amazing label in the realm of cinematic hyperbole, But here, true. Made as an independent production by John Huston with backers in U.K. and filmed half in Africa and half on British soundstages, the budget was a lean $1 million, reminding us that money alone does not make a great movie. Books have been written about the making of this movie. Hepburn wrote hers and African Queen’s uncredited screenwriter Peter Viertel wrote a fictional novel about it, White Hunter, Black Heart which was turned into a hugely unsuccessful movie by Clint Eastwood (1990), nonetheless stunning for connoisseurs of the art to realize that actor/producer/director was more than just another Marlboro man restricted to monosyllabic dialogue. Viertel wrote the screenplay demanding Eastwood deliver more dialogue than anything he’d ever done, which the star did in a raspy voice no one had ever heard him do before. After all he was paying homage to John Huston and his gravelly vocal chords had to evince the auteur’s world wise virtue.

Huston’s film is based on the C. S. Forester novel incarnating the director’s enduring theme: people caught up in a hopeless enterprise. African Queen is smack dab in the middle of Huston’s most protean decade (Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948]; Key Largo [1948]; We Were Strangers [1949]; Asphalt Jungle [1950]; Red Badge of Courage [1951]; African Queen [1951]; Moulin Rouge [1952]; Beat the Devil [1953] Moby Dick [1954]; Heaven Knows Mr Allison [1957]).

The Eureka remaster for Blu-ray is consummate perfection. Gone are the tell-tale auras of process screen technology and the classic Technicolor palette is in the finest form ever seen for that period of the brand. Eureka broke the piggy bank for this one with a boatload of extras worth the RRP alone. Audio commentary by the greatest Technicolor Director of Photography of them all, Jack Cardiff (Martin Scorsese says so and he’s not bullshitting); essays by scholars Neil Sinyard and Kim Newman; a priceless interview with Peter Viertel; audio interview with Anjelica Huston and script supervisor Angela Allen and an audio interview with Huston himself (who didn’t know then that he would posthumously star in Orson Welles’s masterwork The Other Side of the Wind, finally brought to us in 2019 – for a fascinating article on this see the Videoscope Winter issue #109 wherein Film Editor Bob Murawski is interviewed by Don Vaughan.- pretty neat trick starring in a major film thirty-three years after you die. I can’t think of anybody else who pulled that off.) Extras are topped off with the prize documentary: Embracing the Chaos: The Making of the African Queen, produced by Nicholas Meyer, directed by Eric Young. I advise this be watched BEFORE viewing the film.

The African Queen is almost seventy years old now and audiences of all ages keep coming back to it. Six year olds like to squirm when they see all those bloodsucking leeches on Bogart’s body. And Hepburn dumping salt on the little buggers is a good remedy for us to remember. I did when I was six and dare say today’s crop of six year old movie watchers will too.

Huston liked movies with a story, so went after good books to turn into films. It’s 1914 in German East Africa and a spinster sister of a missionary has to be transported out before the Kaiser’s local army comes trampling in. The missionary elicits a deathbed promise from Charlie Allnut, a roguish, good natured, drunk boat captain to help Rose escape down the river in Charlie’s scraggly little steam bucket, The African Queen.

Rose hates intemperance. Charlie hates himself for giving his word and the two are on their way. They’re shot at, ford rapids, make underwater repairs and end up pulling the boat through a sea of reeds. Along the way, they fall in love.

Rose: Mr. Allnut?...What did you say is in these boxes with the red lines on them?

Charlie: Well them? That's blastin' gelatine, Miss.

Rose: Is it dangerous?

Charlie: Bless you, no, Miss. That's safety stuff, that is. You can get it wet and it don't do it any harm. You set fire to it and it just burns. You can hit it with a hammer and it won't go off - at least I don't think it will. It takes a detonator to set it off. I'll put it over the side, though, if it worries you.

Rose: No, we may want it. Mr. Allnut?...What are these long, round, torpedo-like things?

Charlie: Oh them? Them's oxygen and hydrogen cylinders, Miss.

Rose: Mr. Allnut?

Charlie: (smugly) I'm still right here, Miss. There ain't much of any other place I could be on a thirty-foot boat, ha, ha, ha.

Rose: You're a machinist, aren't you? I mean, wasn't that your position at the mine?

Charlie: Yes, a kind of a fixer. A jack of all trades, a master of none, like they say.

Rose: Could you make a torpedo?

Charlie: How's that, Miss?

Rose: Could you make a torpedo?

Charlie: A torpedo?...You don't really know what you're askin'. You see, there ain't nothin' so complicated as the inside of a torpedo. It's got gyroscopes, compressed air chambers, compensating cylinders...

Rose: (unperturbed) But all those things, those gyroscopes and things, they're only to make it go, aren't they?

Charlie: Yeah. Yeah, go and hit what it's aimed at.

Rose: Well, we've got The African Queen.

Charlie: How's that, Miss…?

Charlie gets where she’s going with this and it’s more cockeyed than anything he’s ever thought of, sober or pissed, he’s more perplexed now than even when Rose tossed his booze overboard.

Charlie: There's only one little thing wrong with your idea. There ain't nothin' to torpedo!

Rose: Oh yes there is.

Charlie: There's what?

Rose: Something to torpedo.

Charlie: What's that?

Rose: The Louisa.

Charlie: The Louisa! Oh now, don't talk silly, Miss. You can't do that. Honest you can't. I told you before, we can't get down the Ulanga!

Rose: Spengler did.

Charlie: In a canoe, Miss.

Rose: If a German did it, we can do it, too.

Charlie: Not in no launch, Miss!

Rose: How do you know? You've never tried it.

Charlie: I never tried shooting myself in the head, neither. The trouble with you, Miss, is, you, you don't know anything about boats!

Bogie got an Oscar for this, Kate was nominated. Huston taught us all something about filmmaking. I say, take the ride. You won’t be sorry and you’ll have an item in your home theatre library that will be there for you when nothing else works. Bogie and Kate will take you down the river.


John Huff

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