The African Queen: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (14th November 2019).
The Film

Oscar (Best Actor in a Leading Role): Humphrey Bogart (won), Best Actress in a Leading Role: Katharine Hepburn (nominated), Best Director: John Huston (nominated), and Best Writing, Screenplay: James Agee and John Huston (nominated) - Academy Awards, 1952
BAFTA Film Award Best Film From Any Source (nominated), Best Foreign Actor: Humphrey Bogart (nominated), and Best Foreign Actress: Katharine Hepburn (nominated) - BAFTA Awards, 1953

British Methodist minister Samuel Sayer (Beat the Devil's Robert Morley) and his spinster sister Rose (The Lion in Winter's Katharine Hepburn) are missionaries in German East Africa 1914 living unaware that the British and Germans are not at war until the arrival of Charlie Allnut (Casablanca's Humphrey Bogart), a Canadian machinist who both works at a nearby Belgian mine and delivers mail along the river in his tugboat The African Queen. The siblings do not realize the extent of the conflict until German soldiers march into the village, round up the natives, and set fire to the huts and the mission. Samuel suffers a nervous breakdown, his health deteriorates quickly, and he dies the morning that Charlie returns after having fled the German-occupied mine site. They bury Samuel quickly and board The African Queen – which is carrying a cache of gelatin explosives the Germans want to get their hands on – with the goal of keeping a low profile and sailing along the river to Kenya. Rose believes that the British will rescue them soon but Charlie explains to her that their advance is blocked by the presence downriver of the German gunboat Louisa; whereupon Rose queries about the possibility of fashioning torpedoes from the gelatin explosives and the oxygen tanks using The African Queen itself as the means of launching them into the German ship. Charlie humors her but she becomes more insistent after finding a trip through treacherous rapids not terrifying but exhilarating, and he finally commits himself to the plan after they survive target practice by German ammunition but "death a dozen times over" lies in wait for them with in a war against the elements, nature, and the enemy with a dash of sexual tension.

Based on the novel by Horatio Hornblower author C.S. Forester, The African Queen is known for the chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn and the thrills of its story as much as it is the many accounts of the thrilling adventure and endurance tests of the production likened to the stories behind the making of Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo with the reputation of John Huston of the fifties and sixties resonating with the next generation of filmmakers even as his output decreased and he took a series of "take the money and run" acting roles along with the odd directing job (Phobia anyone?). However much of the location shoot mishaps are true or publicity department hype – the exciting accounts of legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Black Narcissus) and Peter Viertel's account in the book and film of the days leading up to the start of the shoot in White Hunter Black Heart seem quite embellished next to the Hepburn's book on the making of the film and the remarks of script supervisor Angela Allen (Ronin) present on this release – the film itself holds up well as thrilling entertainment and aching romance in spite of the overall absurdity of the premise with gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by Cardiff, a relationship between the two protagonists that seems well-earned rather than obligatory, and a degree of spectacle in spite of the amount of studio shooting and composite shots. While the bulk of the film's running time consists of just Bogart and Hepburn, the supporting cast does include appearances by Hollywood go-to performers for German/Russian character roles Theodore Bikel (The Defiant Ones) and Walter Gotell (A View to a Kill).
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Video

Released stateside by United Artists and in the United Kingdom by Independent Film Distributors, the film wound up with Twentieth Century Fox for its various home video releases from the 1979 Magnetic Video tape and 1981 CED edition – distributed by RCA/Columbia – through the various tape and laserdisc editions in the 1980s, and a wonderful 1993 Commemorative Edition laserdisc set with a copy of the screenplay and a hardcover reprint of Hepburn's own published account of the film's making. Presumably through the combination of Viacom's ownership of the television rights and Trans-Lux's reissue rights, the film's home video rights eventually ended up with Paramount who undertook a 4K restoration of the film in concert with Britain's ITV Studios – who had previously issued the film on DVD separately and as part of the triple features 3 Classic Adventures, 3 Classic Katharine Hepburn Films, and the Katharine Hepburn Centenary Collection – with the 4K restoration debuting on Blu-ray stateside from Paramount in a standard edition and Commemorative Box Set with a reprint of the Hepburn book and a CD with the Lux radio adaptation featuring Bogart and Greer Garson, followed by ITV's Special Restoration Edition (in the U.S., Warner subsequently sublicensed the film for Blu-ray issues as part of a double feature with Casablanca and The Best of Bogart Collection box set). ITV had the edge on Paramount due to the latter company's bewildering choice of lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio and the former porting over the Cardiff commentary from their earlier DVD as well as including Paramount's "Embracing Chaos" retrospective documentary on the film. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray also utilizes the 4K restoration and it is still a stunner a decade later. The image is completely free of blemishes and the finer grained detail of the opening credits sequence suggests that it has been digitally recreated compared to the various optical transitions within the film proper. Most of the back projection and composite shots were easier to discern even in standard definition but the high definition transfer reveals substantiates Cardiff's remark that the angles of Morley and Hepburn during the opening service sequence were shot separately from the bulk of the scene as the background action of the parishioners behind Hepburn at the organ are now apparent as projection shots rather than shallow focus. Close-ups also support Cardiff's remarks about Bogart not wanting him to deemphasize his facial features and the make-up decisions regarding Hepburn. Skintones have that Technicolor pinkness with Bogart a bit more tanned than the rest of the principals while day-for-night shots have been well-judged and the miniatures hold up better than some of the opticals.
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Audio

The sole feature audio option is an LPCM 2.0 mono track that has also been meticulously cleaned as part of the restoration. The jungle noises that underline the opening credits have an almost modern fidelity while the dialogue and effects are clean but have their limitations to the recording and mixing of the period (particularly the busiest parts of the mix like the opening church service scene). Optional English HoH subtitles are included and have some paraphrasing here and there.

Extras

Extras start off with the audio commentary by cinematographer Jack Cardiff ported from the ITV DVD and Blu-ray who recalls only being allowed to take two lamps with him to Africa (the studio believed that the African sunshine would not need to be augmented) and recalls the difficulty of maneuvering the large Technicolor camera on location, how Huston's desire to have the loud engine sound of the tugboat present during the shooting so the actors would believably have to shout over it displeased the sound recordist, as well as battles with tsetse flies, malaria, and millions of aunts, and the rapid weight loss of many of the crew and Hepburn who had all fallen ill during the shoot. He also reveals that second unit cameraman John von Kotze (The Vengeance of Fu Manchu) and grip Harry Arbour (Eyewitness) both appeared as German soldiers in the film, and that Arbour so impressed Huston that he was one of the first crew members he discussed hiring for an aborted project with producer Alexander Korda (The Third Man). Exclusive to the Eureka Blu-ray is the film's LPCM 2.0 mono isolated music & effects track as well as anaudio recording of the Guardian interview with John Huston at the National Film Theatre in 1981 as an alternate audio track for the feature for the first 88:15. It is a career-wide discussion that only occasionally falls back on the film at hand, with Huston recalling his early uncredited script jobs, his decision to go to London where he was virtually homeless without job opportunities before getting a job on a film that shut down after the first day and returning to Hollywood and his first real triumph as a writer with William Wyler's Jezebel, the indulgences of a producer that allowed him and his co-writer's over a year to research and script Juarez only for director William Dieterle to ruin the script by conceding to actor Paul Muni's demands for more dialogue which lead to him wanting to become a director to have more control over the material and his debut helming The Maltese Falcon. The Q&A part of the talk includes many amusing anecdotes including his relief that he did not have to cast Warner's choice of Ronald Reagan for the role that would be essayed by Tim Holt (The Magnificent Ambersons) in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Also included as a separate extra is an audio recording of an on-stage NFT discussion about the film with Anjelica Huston and script supervisor Angela Allen from 2010 (30:53) in which Allen's account of the location shoot – in which Bogart's then-wife Lauren Bacall was present – seems less of a grueling adventure, although she does substantiate some of the stories and also reveals that not only was she tugged along behind the boat taking script notes but she also doubled for Hepburn in long shots of her character steering the boat. Huston, born during the shoot, mainly discusses the film's importance in her father's life and both women weigh in on Viertel's novel and the film.
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There is also an interview with film historian Neil Sinyard (15:53) who discusses Huston's disillusionment with Hollywood after the reception and studio recutting of The Red Badge of Courage as well as the Blacklist and his hatred of Senator McCarthy, Huston's friendship and working relationship with Bogart, and the director's belief that a story about two people in a boat hinged on the casting only to then realize when Bogart and Hepburn acted together that he was actually directing a comedy. In the interview with critic Kim Newman (18:47), the critic reveals that the project had been making the rounds before Huston became involved and that the conception of it as a vehicle for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester was closer to the characters in the source novel, and Newman even expresses his desire to have seen such a pairing while also conceding that it would never have been shot on location; however, he does note that the choice of Bogart is in keeping with the time period in which "masculinity in movies was owned by battered, middle-aged blokes." Filmmaker Michael Scheingraber who had been working on a documentary about Viertel before his death, and also present here is an interview with co-screenwriter Peter Viertel (17:42) which is either from the roughly seven hours of interview material or some of the footage from the as-yet-unreleased documentary. Ported over from the Paramount and ITV Blu-rays is "Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen" (59:18), a documentary on the making of the film which plays up many of the more fantastic stories about the making of the film with a mix of talking heads from archival appearances by Huston, Cardiff, and the cast as well as contemporary remarks from family members of Huston and Forester, surviving actor Bikel, script supervisor Allen, as well as the usual suspects like critics Richard Schickel and James Ursini as well as filmmaker Martin Scorsese. The Lux Radio Theater adaptation from 1952 with Humphrey Bogart and Greer Garson (59:23) previously included as a separate CD in the U.S. commemorative boxed set is present on the disc as well as the film's theatrical trailer (2:32).

Packaging

The first 3,000 copies come with a limited edition hardbound case and a 60-page perfect bound book featuring:
- "A Pair of Aces and a Queen" from The Picturegoer (vol. 23, no. 879 – 8 Mar 1952)
- "African Adventure" from The Veteran Magazine (Spring 2003)
- Interview with John Huston by Karel Reisz from Sight and Sound (vol. 21, no. 3 – Jan/Mar 1952)
- Extracts from “The Making of The African Queen” by Katharine Hepburn (1987)
- "Peter Viertel: In Memoriam" by Michael Scheingraber (2019)
- Artwork Gallery
- Viewing Notes
- Production Credits & Special Thanks
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Overall

However much of the location shoot mishaps are true or publicity department hype, The African Queen itself holds up well as thrilling entertainment and aching romance in spite of the overall absurdity of the premise

 


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