Film reviews

The African Queen (1951) – Blu-ray Review

Released on on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment, the 1951 John Huston classic The African Queen arrives under its Masters of Cinema brand.  Set during World War I, the story tells of a Christian missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) who is working in a remote East African village.  When the Germans attack, leading to the torching of the village, and the death of her brother (Robert Morley), her only means of escape is with Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a slovenly batchelor, and captain of The African Queen, a tramp steamer he uses to deliver mail and other supplies to the village.

Heading upriver together, Charlie and Rose work to reconcile their very different personalities and outlooks on life, while trying to stay alive in treacherous conditions.  As their growing regard begins to turn to love, they hatch a plan to sink a German gunboat blocking the entrance to the river, in order to disrupt German occupation of this part of Africa, and to allow them to escape the area to freedom.

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As a film starring two of the true legends of Hollywood, working together for the first time, and a film representing Bogart’s first foray into colour, as well as his only Academy Award (for Best Actor), it is lovely to see the film getting such deceptively lavish treatment in this special edition set.  The film itself receives a lovely transfer, taken from a comprehensive 4K restoration.  Having seen this film multiple times on British network television, it is entirely fair to say The African Queen won’t have looked this good since 1951.  As those seeking to buy this set would likely be familiar with the film itself, let’s focus on the extras.

The two stand-out items are an audio commentary from cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, and a lengthy audio Q&A recorded live on stage with director John Huston.  Jack Cardiff died some years ago now, but had a number of tales to tell about working in adverse conditions (something he would later do again as Director of Photography on Rambo: First Blood Part II).  Although a little dry in places, his commentary is clearly recorded while watching the film itself (not always a given, particularly with older films and/or more elderly contributors), so he is able to shape his storytelling to what we are viewing.  He talks engagingly about the difficulties of getting his shots in the Belgian Congo, working on water, often dealing with whirlpools and rapids.  He details crew struggling with dysentery and malaria – the latter affecting Huston’s assistant Kevin McClory, a man well known to fans of the James Bond series.  More interesting, and giving us more of a tangible link to events, are Jack’s stories about the people: Bogart needling him playfully about make-up; Lauren Bacall there to serve sandwiches.  It is a thoughtful, engaging track, which dries up only occasionally, as he is recording alone.

The audio John Huston interview is even better.  Though selected from the extras menu, it plays over the film itself, and is selectable as an audio track.  Lasting around 90 minutes of the film’s 105 minute running time, this is a curated stage-based interview, with the presenter asking questions and taking many from the audience present.  The date of the interview is not clear from onscreen cues – a flaw with the set, in general – but it will likely have been post-1978, as that was when John Huston was diagnosed with emphysema: something he is struggling with audibly through the recording (it is also post-1975, for certain, as he references The Man Who Would Be King, the Sean Connery, Michael Caine film from that year).  This flaw may be fixed on the set’s final artwork, which we’d yet to see at the time of review.  The interview is not specific to The African Queen, and is all the stronger for that fact, as it allows for a full consideration of his life and career, and allows for him to tell stories of how he got into the business, what struggles he faced, his views on the people with whom he worked, and even to give some idea of his personal ideals and politics.  For fans of Huston’s work, this bonus feature is worth the price of purchase alone.

The final sizable extra on the disk is Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen.  This is an hour-long documentary of a type reasonably standard to home releases: talking head soundbites from people involved – usually some time afterwards; thoughts from critics and social commentators etc.  It is fine, but by far the least of the three extras discussed.  What elevates it is we have now lost most, if not all, of the people involved in making The African Queen, hence such testimonies have now become historical record.

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Minor extras include short interviews with Neil Sinyard and Kim Newman (both around 15 minutes or so) – neither of whom are contextualised for audiences, beyond their names being given; a relatively short and not that detailed conversation with screenwriter Peter Viertel; an audio interview from 2010 with Angelica Huston (daughter of John, and celebrated actress in her own right), and script supervisor Angela Allen.  There is even a Lux Radio Theater adaptation from 1952 with Humphrey Bogart and Greer Garson.  Put this with the usual theatrical trailer and an isolated music score, and this is very stacked for a single disc release.

That’s the impressive thing about the set: it treats the film as special.  It acknowledges that for many purchasing the set The African Queen will be a favourite.  Hence, they have dug out rare and unusual items with which to celebrate the release of this classic.  Made in an era not geared to the Blu-ray bonus feature, with, in fact, films never being seen outside of a cinema in this era, Eureka Entertainment have worked hard to produce a release that gives due regard to a true Hollywood classic.

The African Queen is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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