In six years of writing this blog, I’ve only had two occasions to tell readers that they could catch John Huston’s 1951 romantic comedy action adventure on the big screen. Now I can tell you about a great way to own it. True, even Blu-ray can’t compete with sitting in the dark, surrounded by hundreds of enthusiastic strangers, but it allows you to watch the movie more than twice in six years.
Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Africa, and Technicolor all make for splendid entertainment in The African Queen, a movie unlike any other work of escapist entertainment. The start of World War I traps two very different British subjects behind enemy lines and hundreds of miles of jungle. There’s the earthy, Canadian, working-class mechanic with a small, worn-out riverboat (Humphrey Bogart) and a very prim and proper English missionary (Katharine Hepburn). He wants to hide out until they are safe. She wants to help England in its hour of need.
So we have a bum and a nun on the run. They face rapids, insects, alcohol (he’s for it; she’s against it), German guns, and a budding romance. These aren’t young, glamorous movie stars, but two moderately-attractive middle-aged people in filthy clothes. And their growing love for each other is heart-warming, utterly believable, and funny. After all, these are two very different people, and one of them appears to have never even suspected that she could fall in love.
According to Huston’s autobiography, he didn’t intend the film to be funny. But during production (in Africa and on a soundstage in England) he realized that Bogart and Hepburn’s chemistry was inherently comic, and he went with it.
The HD transfer of this late three-strip Technicolor feature is nothing short of mouth-watering, with highly-saturated yet realistic colors and fine details that made you feel you were in Africa. At least it did that for the scenes actually shot in Africa. Some of the scenes make you feel like you’re on a soundstage. Beautiful restorations can have their drawbacks, but they’re still the best way to watch an old movie.
I have this old movie on Laserdisc, and I remember when that transfer looked great. Compared to this one, it’s blurry.
The only soundtrack is the original mono presented in Dolby Digital. I don’t want or need a new 5.1 mix of a mono movie, but lossless or uncompressed mono would have been nice. So would have been a well-done commentary.
The only extra on the disc is a making-of documentary, and it’s a good one. Huston, Bogart, and Hepburn were all entertaining characters off-screen. The movie was a troubled production, with everyone getting sick on location and the director running off to hunt elephants. It’s an interesting story and well worth watching.
But this is a boxed set, so there’s more in it than just a disc.
The box contains eight reproduced lobby cards. There’s a Senitype card with four mounted 35mm frames–the same frame from the movie, in cyan, magenta, yellow, and full color, representing 3-strip Technicolor. And best of all, there’s a copy of Katharine Hepburn’s otherwise out-of-print memoir, The Making of the African Queen, or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. Warning: This book has very small print.
There’s also a second disc, but it’s neither a Blu-ray nor a DVD. It’s an audio CD containing a radio drama adaptation of the movie starring Bogart and Greer Garson. Such adaptations were common in those days, and turn up every so often as DVD and Blu-ray extras. But putting it on its own CD is a new twist, and a nice one. It allows you to listen to it in places where you don’t have a Blu-ray player–like in your car.
This is one of three movies sent to me for my PC World Blu-ray boxed set gift guide that were set in a jungle during wartime. All three were shot largely on location, and were thus very difficult shoots. While The African Queen is not as thematically ambitious as The Bridge on the River Kwai or Apocalypse Now, it succeeds better in its goals, and is therefore, in my opinion, a better film.