Mar 21 2010

Finally… The African Queen on DVD and Blu-ray

One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.

Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.

The slovenly loner Mr. Allnut picks up the prim and proper Miss Sayer, who immediately proposes they strike back at the Germans with an impossible journey down the river (past a German fort and through dangerous rapids) and a makeshift torpedo to sink a German gunboat that patrols the lake. The film is a classic journey adventure, with a series of obstacles that they meet with resilience and resourcefulness, but the story is how they move from “Mr. Allnut” and “Miss” to Charlie and Rosie, opposites who find strength, support and unexpected love in one another. These are not “pretty” characters, but they are beautiful and their affair is a natural force outside of society and the church. In the classic Hollywood shorthand, the film fades to black on a passionate kiss (a beautifully conducted scene) and comes up the next morning on the couple, all smiles and warm glows. The audience couldn’t have missed the cues and Huston just lets it play: these children of God have consummated their union in the wilds in the most natural way. There’s a certain amount of providence along the way, but even with a missionary on board there isn’t talk of God providing for them. There’s luck, there’s pluck, there’s Charlie’s practical know-how encouraged by the Rosie’s conviction, and there is the spirit that these two people bring to the journey. And there is the transformation of Rosie and Charlie themselves.

It’s a magnificent adventure, much of shot on location in Africa, which Huston and Jack Cardiff, one of the all-time greats of color cinematography, use to its fullest. Composer Allan Gray scores with strong themes in the old Hollywood style, but Huston drops it out entirely for scenes to hear the jungle sounds, which are a little excessive but very musical in their own right. Even the credits open with an orchestral flourish, then the music drops out to hear the chirps of birds and growls of animals as the camera drifts through the jungle, looking up at the trees as if laying down in the bottom of a boat, and then comes to the mission and the cacophony that passes for a hymn. The African Queen itself, with its big, clumsy, temperamental steam engine, becomes a character and an essential part of the film’s personality and the engine’s distinctive sound – puck-a-puck-a-puck-a-puck-a – is a defining part of the soundtrack.

Dragging the African Queen through the reeds

The restoration is stunning, flawless, as vivid as you can imagine. The greens of the jungle glow in this presentation. While much of the film is shot on location, a lot of it (especially close-ups in the boat ) were studio shot with back projection and the new high-def restoration shows just how technically accomplished that old-school technology was in this film. It’s almost seamless and in some scenes it’s merely the difference in lighting values that betrays the effect.

Both the DVD and Blu-ray feature the hour-long documentary “Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen,” a well-produced and detailed overview of the classic that reminds us that it was not a studio film but in fact an ambitious independent feature. The DVD and Blu-ray editions are also available in a Commemorative Edition, featuring a bonus CD with the original Lux radio adaptation with Bogart and Greer Garson, a reproduction of Katharine Hepburn’s 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,” a Senitype® film frame collectible reproduction and postcards featuring reproductions. This isn’t the lavish overkill you find in deluxe editions of Gone With the Wind or The Maltese Falcon, but it’s really all you need. This set is all about the movie and it’s a beautiful a restoration as you could hope for.

Dave Kehr provides some background on the restoration in his review at the New York Times here.

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