Judge Gordon Sullivan found Katherine Hepburn's performance almost as good as Miss Piggy's.
The greatest adventure a man ever lived…with a woman!
Humphrey Bogart was less than half a decade from an untimely demise, while Katherine Hepburn and John Huston were in the middle of careers that would span another three decades. They would come together on location to give us the stone-classic The African Queen, a drama, romance, war, and action picture all rolled into one. Here on digital disc for the first time ever (with a simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD release) just shy of the film's sixtieth anniversary, The African Queen (Blu-ray) still holds up as an amazing piece of cinema and should rightly take its place alongside some of the best movies of the era. Fans who've been clamoring for this disc since the arrival of DVD may have complaints about the extras, but the audiovisual presentation is so solid it's hard to feel justified in complaining.
Facts of the Case
A hard-drinking riverboat captain (Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca) and a straight-laced missionary (Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story) are displaced from an African village by the Germans during World War I. The only way to get out and avoid the Germans is to follow the river and, hopefully, sneak by German patrols. The missionary, Rose, has a better idea: rather than slip quietly past the Germans to save themselves, she and Captain Charlie can use their boat as a weapon to sink the big German boat and save countless lives. Charlie doesn't much like the sound of that idea, so the two have their share of differences during their lengthy ride up the river.
Like many classic films (Citizen Kane and Casablanca come to mind), most people are as likely to be familiar with parodies of The African Queen before they see the actual film. I know that was the case when I first saw the film; I couldn't get the Muppet Babies parody with Miss Piggy as Rose out of my head. The accumulated weight of all those parodies and references can be more than most films can bear. Luckily, The African Queen still stands up almost six decades later despite the fact that this is not the best work of Bogart, Hepburn, or Huston. Together, though, they're greater than the sum of their parts. All the elements come together to form a near-perfect picture.
The main reason that The African Queen succeeds is its simplicity. We've really only got two characters (Charlie and Rose), a simple plot (get up the river to safety), and a simple conflict (Charlie's self-interest versus Rose's self-sacrifice). It might as well be a radio or stage play, because most of the film is two people talking on a boat. Still, talk they do. Both Bogart and Hepburn play slightly against type: Bogart's a little more talkative than usual, while Hepburn stays surprisingly quiet for longer stretches. They're both amazing at being stubborn. Every single moment on the boat revolves around their basic conflict of self-interest against self-sacrifice, from their interpersonal communication to their argument over how and where to steer the boat. That they fall in love is inevitable, and makes one wish that contemporary Hollywood would release more romantic stories featuring middle-aged characters.
Despite the stage-y nature of the film's story, the impact of the setting cannot be diminished. Huston dragged his stars to film in Africa, and the location's oppressive heat comes through and only amplifies the tension between the captain and the missionary. Location shooting was a masterful move by Huston that brought a reality to the film which adds to its impact all these years later.
I can say with some confidence that unless you saw The African Queen back in 1951 during its initial run, you haven't really seen The African Queen until you've seen this Blu-ray disc. I first encountered the film on VHS, and although I was impressed with Bogart and Hepburn, the film left me a little cold. Revisiting for this review, I was simply blown away by the film. The gorgeous Technicolor cinematography simply jumps off the screen, with a variety of greens that simply wasn't visible on the old VHS release. Despite the clarity of the colors, the heat and humidity seem to cloak everything in a thin haze that adds to the individual drops of sweat clinging to the actors. Flesh tones are generally accurate and grain is perfectly acceptable for a film of this vintage. Detail, too, is impressive. For instance, you can see individual drops of spittle come off of Humphrey Bogart's mouth during a particularly heated discussion with Rose. It's a staggering restoration that helps put The African Queen in the pantheon of classic films where it belongs. The audio is less impressive in this context, but does a fine job with both the score and dialogue with little hiss or distortion to detract from the performances.
The only extra on this Blu-ray release is a documentary, entitled "Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen." It's an hour-long look at the making of the film that combines contemporary footage (like a newsreel of Bogart and Bacall being quizzed about the upcoming production) with newer talking-head style interview footage. It's a great overview of the film, but that's all there is.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Considering how great this film looks I feel somewhat like a heel for suggesting that The African Queen needs more extras, but so many other classic films have not only received this kind of technical treatment but also received lavish extras to boot. The Commemorative Box Set versions of the Blu-ray and DVD release help a little, adding both a radio production and Hepburn's memoir of the experience, but even that doesn't feel like enough, especially for the jump in price. Fans have been waiting over a decade for the film's premiere on disc, and I can't help but feel like many will be disappointed with the extras here.
There's no doubt in my mind that The African Queen is a classic film that lives up to its reputation. Thankfully, fans new and old can determine that for themselves now that the film has finally been released in the digital age. Although the lack of extras is a bit of a black mark on this Blu-ray, the transfer is stunning enough to make the disc worth a purchase for most fans.
Sure, more extras would be nice, but considering the quality of the film and the transfer, this release of The African Queen is not guilty.
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