The African Queen (1951)

Film Title: The African Queenthe-african-queen

Year: 1951

Studio: United Artists

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Adventure

Starring:

  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Katharine Hepburn

Review

In 1935 popular British novelist C.S. Forester published his novel The African Queen. The motion picture rights were immediately purchased by Warner Brothers Studios. And there it languished. Bette Davis was reported to be interested in playing the heroine, but the studio was unable to develop a suitable scenario. Fifteen years later studio outsider and raconteur Sam Spiegel bought the screen rights cheaply, interested maverick director John Huston in the project, and began shopping the idea around to the studios. No one was interested. The studio system was trembling under multiple pressures: the Congressional mandate to divest themselves of their theatre chains, the growing popularity of television, and politically, the HUAC hearings were casting aspersions on the patriotism of some of Hollywood’s biggest names (including Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and John Huston). Besides, who would want to see a movie about “two old people going down a river in a beat up boat”?

Bogart was amenable to his buddy Huston’s proposal to play the skipper of the “African Queen”, Charlie Allnut. And why not? Huston had refashioned Bogart’s screen image with their first collaboration in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. Subsequently they had worked together in Across the Pacific (1942) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). But Bogart had left Warner Brothers and had appeared in a series of movies that had not been box office hits. Similarly, Hepburn’s career had been on a down turn. Although she had scored a big hit with Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib in 1949, she had appeared in several long-suffering wife parts and/or period films that had not done much at the box office or made much impression with the critics. Her home studio M.G.M. would not be renewing her contract. And the conservative press, most notably Hedda Hopper, had been branding her a Communist sympathizer at every opportunity. When Spiegel offered her the part of Rose Sayer, she quickly accepted. It would get her out of town, to Africa no less, and would give her the chance to once again to redefine her screen image.

The African Queen’s plot is well known and almost beside the point. The setting is “German East Africa, 1914” (current-day Rwanda, Burundi and the continental portion of Tanzania sit on the territory that was German East Africa in 1914). Circumstances place Charley Allnut, a tough Canadian ex-pat working for Belgian mining interests, and Rose Sayer, a prim-spinster (“not comely among the maidens”) posted with her brother Samuel as missionaries to the 1st Methodist Church in the remote village of Kungdu, together. At the outbreak of World War One, the Germans have rounded up the native population of Kungdu, burned it to the ground, and caused Samuel to have some sort of breakdown, which results in his death. Allnut rescues Rose after her brother’s death and heads down the river toward safety in his boat the “African Queen”. Almost immediately Rose concocts a plan to follow the river down to a lake upon which the German gunboat “Louisa” is the only thing standing in the way of an English invasion of German East Africa. Couldn’t Mr. Allnut jury-rig some kind of torpedo with which they could ram the “Louisa” and thus destroy the German menace? The movie follows this journey as Mr. Allnut and Rose confront torrential rains, perilous rapids, crocodiles and hippos, a shelling by a German fort along the river, cataracts that damage the boat and force them ashore for a week of makeshift repairs, a meandering and difficult to maneuver delta, leeches, malaria, some kind of biting swarming insects, and Charlie’s drinking. But mostly the movie is about how “Mr. Allnut” and “Miss” become Charlie and Rosie.

Time had this to say upon the film’s initial release: “The movie is not great art, but it is great fun. Essentially it is one long, exciting, old-fashioned movie chase. Bogart does the best acting of his career as the badgered rumpot who becomes a man and a lover against his will. Katharine Hepburn is excellent as the gaunt, freckled, fanatic spinster.” That pretty much sums it up. The film is great fun. This was the first color film for Bogart, Hepburn, and Huston. And weren’t they lucky to have famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff along for the ride? Cardiff is among the top color cinematographers of all-time. His groundbreaking work on the Powell/Pressburger films, especially Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, is amazing. And, while unlike those films, Cardiff was working with practical locations much of the time, but he brings the jungle of Africa vividly to life, it’s almost a third character in the film.

The film met with great popular and critical success. It was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Actress for Hepburn, Best Director for Huston, Best Screenplay for Huston and James Agee, and it won Best Actor for Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was not expected, nor was he expecting, to win. The odds on favorite was Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire which won in all the other acting categories. Montgomery Clift for A Place in the Sun was also considered a strong contender. But the Academy chose a Hollywood veteran with nearly seventy previous screen credits over a twenty-year period. He would work with John Huston one more time in 1954’s Beat the Devil and have great personal success with The Caine Mutiny and Sabrina before succumbing to cancer at age 57. The African Queen also revitalized Hepburn’s career as well and set the template for her subsequent screen image as a no-nonsense, high ideals, spinster/widow. David Lean’s Summertime in 1955 and her appearance in The Rainmaker the next year would help cement that image. She’d win two more Academy Awards as Best Actress and made her final appearance on movie theatre screens in 1994.

On Video

The African Queen underwent a major restoration for this DVD and Blu-ray release. I watched the Blu-ray, and it is truly stunning. The film looked better than I’ve ever seen it on the big or small screens. The colors are bright and crisp; skin tones are natural, or as natural as you’d expect them to be in Technicolor. The sound is nicely presented in its original monaural soundtrack. The film has been released on both Blu-ray and standard DVD in a “Commemorative Box Set” that includes the original Lux radio broadcast of The African Queen starring Humphrey Bogart and Greer Garson (Audio CD), a reproduction of Katharine Hepburn’s out-of-print published memoir: The Making of The African Queen or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, Collectible Senitype┬«: a four film frame card illustrating the Technicolor┬« process, and 8 images inspired by original theatrical lobby cards. Both the box set and standard release include a new documentary feature titled Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen. It is well made, informative, and tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the making of this picture.

Conclusion

For most die-hard movie fans this is a no-brainer. The African Queen has at long last been made available to home video and in a stunning release. For those who have never seen the film, this is one of the iconic Hollywood films of its period and contains powerhouse performances by two legendary performers. It’s a rousing movie adventure handsomely captured on film. And it’s just a lot of fun.

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