Sometimes, it is worth it. The wait, that horrible expanse of passing time that seems to purposefully thwart your best intentions, often ends up delivering nothing but disappointment, or worse, the prospect of what could have been vs. the undeniable junk you wind up with in the end. But in this case, the inexplicable lack of reasonable excuse, the seeming decades of rumor and regret, the notion that somewhere, in a studio substrata somewhere, a bean counter and a preservationist were battling for future release supremacy, has truly made it all the more worthwhile. After persistent hints at a possible remaster and release, The African Queen is finally available in a pristine new DVD and Blu-ray release and, as suggested, the end result more than makes up for the years of delay.
For many film fans, this was the Holy Grail, the hallowed motion picture project which saw seminal star Humphrey Bogart win his only Oscar. This was the movie which brought together classic cinema giants Katherine Hepburn and director John Huston, each forging what would be a middle-aged masterpiece. No studio wanted to touch the film, Warners sitting on the rights for more than ten years, and when producer Sam Spiegel finally found financing in England, he saw many of the Tinseltown majors turn their noses up in distribution disinterest. Thus we had one of the industry first A-list independents. There was even some wrangling about the ending, Huston in favor of maintaining the original novel’s downbeat, defeatist ideals. Booked passage to the fabled continent itself and a sense of real adventure guaranteed that the entire experience would be unlike any other film of the ’50s.
For those unfamiliar with this certified classic, Bogie plays a Canadian boat captain named Charlie Allnut, whose main occupation seems to be running supplies to sister and brother Methodist missionaries Rose and Samuel Sayer (Hepburn and UK thesp Robert Morley, respectively). It’s 1914, and World War I is about to break out. When the Germans burn down the Sayer’s village and badly beat Samuel, Rose is left alone. She hires Mr. Allnut to transport her out of harms way, and during the trip, she gets the wild idea of turning the stalwart ship, the aforementioned African Queen, into a floating torpedo. They would then set it up to sink an enemy freighter patrolling an important lake downriver. After a series of life-threatening adventures, and a budding romance, Charlie and Rose finally get their chance. But as with all best laid plans, things don’t go quite as planned – personally and politically.
As a paradigm of why certain actors and filmmakers remain revered several decades after their death or greatest success, The African Queen is more than merely exemplary. It represents Bogart at his best, Hepburn gracefully aging into the second half of her onscreen persona, and Huston proving once again that no one knew the careful balance between machismo and melancholy better than this oft ignored directing genius. The entire production took on the aura of a real out of bounds experience, with cast and crew shacked up along the shores of a practically poisonous river, their daily battles with illness and wild animals just part of the regular routine. Along for the ride was Bogart’s then wife Lauren Bacall, who acted like den mother to a group of cranky creative types ill-prepared for “roughing it” so.
That the results became one of the most beloved movies of all time is no surprise. The chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn is so palpable you can feel it pulsating off the terrific three-strip Technicolor stock. Huston’s eye for detail and location authenticity lets you experience every humid hot house moment, each run-in with nature at its most ferocious (even those sequences later shot on a soundstage in London). The story is a constant source of forward momentum, Charlie and Rose looking to connect deeply and decisively. When the plot begins to fall apart, when elements outside their control contravene their need for revenge and a sense of personal power, Huston keeps us right on the edge of our seat. The finale, while slightly sentimental, hits all the right narrative notes.
So why was this film locked away for so long? Why was the only DVD release in Region 1 a sloppy, subpar quick pick cash-in that seemed to vanish as quickly as it arrived? Of course, rights issues play into things, Spiegel’s ownership having long transferred to various companies that have themselves fallen in and out of viability over the years. There was also the problem of the print, deteriorating under the need of a massive overhaul that no one entity was willing to undertake (especially not the current British owners). As studio after studio wised up and made their masterworks available for the fledgling Blu-ray format, The African Queen remained that elusive “must-own” movie. Until this current incarnation, it was the only film featured as part of American Film Institute’s Top 100 not to be available digitally.
As stated before, it was definitely worth the wait. The new Blu-ray package contains a copy of Katherine Hepburn’s tell-all tome The Making of the African Queen, or, How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and almost lost my mind, as well as a definitive hour long documentary on the movie’s infamous making. There’s even a CD featuring Bogart and radio co-star Greer Garson in an audio adaptation of the story. But the big surprise is the quality of the image. In high definition, The African Queen simmers, slowly boiling in the bright subcontinent sun. You can actually see the sinister eyes of the crocodiles as they stare at the passing boat, and even the previously obvious blue/green screen sequences have been cleaned up to merge effortlessly with the background footage featured.
Even better, the long gestation period has given The African Queen something other films from the era lack – a sense of outside purpose. For many, the eventual release of some long lamented title like this could be the set-up for something anticlimactic, an “is that all there is?” feeling of ballyhoo bait and switch. But in this case, Paramount’s preservation of the original Technicolor print, meticulous in capturing Huston’s sanctified visuals, is to be applauded. Like the recent revisit of The Wizard of Oz, or Gone with the Wind, the old studio system of moviemaking comes across in ways that more or less re-establish their artform superiority. While technology today can recreate almost anything – or any place – the tactile realism of filming on location (or carefully recreated sets) just can’t be copied.
Of course, this begs the question of what next? What will be the next major motion picture title from a bygone era that film fans must own, and that DVD distributors have failed to provide? Will it be a long forgotten classic, or a cult effort that few remember fondly? Whatever the case, we now have The African Queen, and somewhere, out in Messageboard Nation, a new debate rages on. Eventually, a new name will creep up and countermand the conversation about current releases and the latest cinema-gimmickry sweeping the industry. For those of us who’ve tolerated the longing, the endless days of waiting and wondering, the arrival of The African Queen on Blu-ray is a real reason to celebrate – as much for the movie as for the manner in which it’s been salvaged and saved for all time.