It is hard to believe that The African Queen (1951) has never been available on DVD before now. For fans of this classic, the wait has been worth it. Paramount Pictures has done an outstanding job in restoring the film — the Technicolor is so vivid it practically jumps off the screen. Print quality aside though, The African Queen is a beloved film for two reasons: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.
Bogart stars as Canadian Captain Charlie Allnut, who ferries mail and supplies up and down the Congo River on his rattletrap boat, the African Queen. Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a British missionary in German East Africa. With the onset of World War I, things have become very dangerous. The village Rose and her brother work in is attacked, and the brother dies shortly afterward. The miners Captain Allnut has been working with are driven out as well, leaving the two of them very much alone, deep in the jungle.
Charlie convinces Rose to come with him, as he knows the German soldiers will be back. They proceed downriver, without much of a plan, until he reveals that the well-armed German gunboat the Louisa is patrolling the huge lake the river feeds into. The Louisa is effectively blocking any British counter-attacks, which leads Rose to suggest they strike it with the African Queen. It is a suicidal mission, as Captain Allnut well knows, but she talks him into it.
The budding romance between the two is a huge element of the film, and the on-screen chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn is superb. Just as important though is the adventure aspect of the story. Their trip down the river is fraught with peril, with life-threatening situations around every bend. They dodge a series of rapids, a German fortress from which they are fired upon, and are seemingly at journey’s end when they get stuck in a swamp of reeds and muck.
Nothing is more dangerous than their plan to sink the Louisa though. Using Charlie’s leftover supplies, they fashion two torpedoes out of oxygen tanks and explosives. The idea is to aim the African Queen at the ship, build up a head of steam, then jump off at the last minute as the two collide.
The production of The African Queen is justly recognized as one of the most pioneering in film history. In 1951, filming on location in Africa was unheard of, except for quickie documentaries. Legendary director John Huston changed all that, and the results are evident in nearly every frame. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, and the shots of crocodiles, hippos, and baboons cavorting in and around the river are priceless.
The one hour bonus feature, Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen, explains the many challenges the production faced. One of the most dangerous was the river itself, which is described as “poison,” due to the high amounts of animal feces and the like present in the water. One of the anecdotes Hepburn relates in a vintage Dick Cavett interview concerns this situation. She explains that she drank only water during the production, which almost killed her. On the other hand, Bogart and Huston, who drank nothing but whiskey, never got sick.
In addition to Hepburn’s recollections, there are also classic excerpts from Huston and Bogart included. The documentary also features new interviews with luminaries such as director Martin Scorsese, producers Mark Rydell and Nicholas Mayer, actor Theodore Bikel, and critic Richard Schickel, among many others.
Both Bogart and Hepburn were nominated for their performances in The African Queen at the 1952 Academy Awards. Humphrey Bogart wound up winning, and claimed his one and only Oscar that year. Another nod to the enduring status of the film was Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). The picture was a thinly veiled portrait of Huston’s behavior during the shoot.
Due to the toxicity of the river on location, all of the shots of the actors in the water were filmed on a soundstage in England, in front of a blue screen. Because of the technology at the time, there was a certain amount of “bleed” between these shots and the scenery that was overlapped on them in post-production. As Embracing Chaos shows, this flaw was finally eliminated with the meticulous remastering process utilized for the DVD.
The African Queen has literally never looked better. From top to bottom, the release of the film on DVD is a first-rate job, and is recommended unequivocally.