The African Queen, one
of old Hollywood's most beloved films, has finally come to DVD after
years of squabbling over rights and a meticulous digital restoration.
The result is a happy new life for this painstakingly-produced romantic
adventure, highlighted by two appealing lead performances.
After her brother's death,
English missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and Canadian riverboat
pilot Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) flee German East Africa.
The First World War has broken out, and they are behind enemy lines.
Aboard Charlie's boat, the African Queen, Rose devises a plan
to thwart a German gunboat downriver by outfitting the Queen
as a floating torpedo and ramming the Germans. Charlie is reluctant;
the plan is suicidal. Rose maintains her commitment to the mission,
however, and Charlie finally relents. From this point forward,
the story follows Charlie and Rose as they travel downriver, encounter
a number of rapids and other dangers, and fall into a tentative romance.
Tension therefore develops along parallel lines; as the objective of
their explosive plot grows nearer, so do the two leads to one another.
I should admit that although
I like The African Queen, there are a lot of people who will
like it more than I do. There is no doubt that it's charming
and consistently engaging, but in the end, it feels like John Huston-lite.
Huston's films are often challenging, even from a contemporary
perspective, and they are marked by strong writing, memorable characters,
and propulsive, economic direction. While much of that is true
in The African Queen, its story is ultimately too thin to sustain
this ambitiously-mounted film. This script, credited to Huston
and James Agee, is skillful, and maintains a good balance of character
development, humor, and suspense. Perhaps what prevents the movie
from reaching the higher plateaus of Huston's best films (like The Treasure
of the Sierra Madre
and The Maltese Falcon), is a lack of edge, and the fact that,
although we like the characters here, they lack depth. There isn't
much mystery as to who they are and what they want out of life.
This renders the film's narrative arc kind of flat; onscreen danger
can't compete with the metaphysical suspense of not knowing what a
character may say or do next.
It's not news that The
African Queen was a troubled production. Co-writer and director
John Huston turned the film into a personal challenge to his own masculinity;
uncredited co-writer Peter Viertel memorably fictionalized this in his
novel (and later, screenplay) White
Hunter, Black Heart
(adapted to film by Clint Eastwood in 1990). The production difficulties
are also well documented in the supplemental material included here.
Given all that the cast and crew went through, it's amazing that the
final film is as memorable and moving as it is. The leads were
put through the wringer, but were able to deliver indelible portrayals
Hepburn and Bogart are well-matched.
Hepburn's repressed, uptight old maid is somewhat more in her comfort
zone than Bogart's squirrelly, ragged Allnut. Hepburn's performance
is probably the more convincing of the two, even though Bogart won the
Oscar. She exudes a buttoned-up comportment and contained Puritanical
attitude that likely derives much from Hepburn's own Northeastern
family background. Bogart, however, is playing against type as
the screwy Allnut. He's primarily a comic character, a friendly,
unsophisticated slob. Bogart is likable in the role; his metamorphosis
from brooding loner into the gregarious Allnut is sure to have won over
conservative oldsters at the Academy. But one can't help notice
how hard he acts in the role; we are constantly being reminded
that this is Bogart playing against type. It's an inescapable
distraction. It's not a bad performance, just a very visible
Still, the leads generate a
pleasing dynamic, and their budding romance is relatively believable.
It is the heart of the movie, which, as it progresses, piles on a host
of photographic techniques in order to keep the story credibly placed
on an African river in 1914. The Technicolor photography by the
great Jack Cardiff is excellent. The production design is brilliant.
Studio shots and location footage are seamlessly matched. The
restoration job highlights all of this wonderfully.
Now to the discs themselves,
where I'm afraid both casual and passionate fans of the film alike
will be disappointed.
Disc 2 is not a DVD
at all. It's an audio CD containing the hour-long 1952 Lux
Radio Theater adaptation of the film, starring Bogart and Greer
Garson in the lead roles.
And that's it.
No commentary, no restoration
demonstration, no participation from Lauren Bacall (who was present
for the location shoot), no tributes to Huston or Bogart or Hepburn...
The slim bonus content is nothing short of baffling. This long-awaited
release - and one that has been handled with such great technical
care - deserves more.
The African Queen is a beloved Hollywood treasure. Although it is not a personal favorite of mine, it is without a doubt an enjoyable film with two excellent leads. This release by Paramount, however, is a hand-wringer. The visual and aural restoration is a masterpiece of film preservation. The well-mounted package, however, contains a shocking lack of bonus content. Fans are going to want this release no matter what. But based on the overall content and the price, I can't bring myself to go further than to say that this is recommended.