The African Queen Review
The African Queen has a legendary reputation and for good reason. But it has aged. It’s even, dare I say it, a bit dull.
I know, I’m a heathen, but it’s important to talk about the elephant in the room; nostalgia and admiration will get you two-thirds of the way before you have to decide if you’re genuinely enjoying the film or merely appreciating it. The African Queen for me is a fascinating historical document, though one lacking the wry cynicism and urgency of Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, despite C.S. Forester’s original story having all the ingredients that would suit Huston’s taste for irony. The plot is fantastic, the script a gem and the ambition of the production has rarely been matched since. Plus, you have two of the biggest stars of all-time paired up. Those of us who remember the prospect of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro acting onscreen for the first time in Heat can still only guess at the excitement caused by Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart sharing banter. And yet, it unmistakably creaks despite the filmmaking brio; perhaps in moments it is too silly, especially in the ending.
The film stands as a watermark (if you pardon the pun) in cinema history despite what anyone thinks. It was effectively an independent production, certainly one of the first predominantly made on location and definitely the first major work to be filmed in an actual jungle. It wasn’t smooth sailing by any measure but it’s success arguably picked at the cracks starting to show in the tired Hollywood studio system.
While I can’t guarantee you’ll love the film, many do, and it genuinely is a must-see because how it was made is more interesting than the film itself. That’s a cliché trotted out on many-a prestige release but for once, this possibly jaded relative youngster must admit that I got more out of hearing Huston speak than I did watch him direct.
The other reason to grab a copy of this new release is the astonishing transfer. The lush Technicolour photography is gorgeous; it has a unique tone and contrast that gives it a character modern films can't quite capture. It occasionally looks brand new, which is a treat for an Original Academy Ratio too. Maybe that’s part of the problem in trying to enjoy it for what it is; in 1951, especially in the middle of a jungle heading for actual rapids, there was little room for the technical innovation Huston, Welles, Hitchcock et al were pulling off in a studio. It feels old but looks like it was filmed yesterday.
The uncompressed LPCM track (original mono) has a wonderful atmosphere you might have reasonably assumed not possible. It’s clean and sharp, nimbly serving both the wide open effects and the centred dialogue heavy performances of Bogart and Hepburn sparring. Also, included is an isolated music and effects track. For me, the music is another element that unnecessarily pushes the film further into melodrama rather than adventure, but still, it’s a fascinating tool to understand how the film was built.
Interview with Neil Sinyard (16m) - A rather dry discussion of the ties to the original novel, Huston’s spirit and Bogart's disillusion with the studio system, hence his late career choice of The African Queen.
Interview with Kim Newman (19m) - The always reliable Newman enthuses about the appeal of dangerous filmmaking.
Interview with Peter Viertel (18m) - Gives a good insight into the adaptation and how an impossible script came to life.
John Houston at the NFT 1981 (105m) - Presented as a kind of audio commentary. Great fun as Huston was always entertaining and he has lots of grizzled anecdotes.
Angelica Huston and Angela Allen NFT 2010 (31m) - Despite it being a more recent production, this is still audio only, accompanied by screenshots of lobby cards and posters. Angelica gives a fascinating family angle on how the production reflected on them.
Embracing Chaos: Making of The African Queen (59m) - This should be the jewel in the package. Loads of talking heads and classy contributions from people like Martin Scorsese, but it’s chaotic in itself. One of those annoying productions where it’s thought to be clever to build one sentence across a supercut of a dozen contributors. Brilliant history of the film though, if you can put up with that frenetic cutting.
Lux Presents (59m) - Bogart reprises his Oscar winning role in a radio play. These often pop up on releases such as this one and they are always curious little oddities but an interesting angle on part of the old Hollywood machine.
Jack Cardiff commentary - This is wonderful and Cardiff is the star of the set. He’s an easy listen and gets into the real nuts and bolts details of how hard it was to make the film.