Historical Circuit: The African Queen (****)


The African QueenI confess to leaping (as much as I can these days) for joy when the courier delivered my press copy DVD of this outstanding film.
For the first time since the creation of these lovely little discs, The African Queen (1951) makes its way to the digital realm in alls its glory, having been lovingly retsored by the wizards who work their magic behind the scenes. Shot on location in the African Congo when director John Huston insisted on doing so, the behind the scenes making of the movie was every bit the adventure the film itself became. In fact Clint Eastwood would direct White Hunter Black Heart (1990), a superb study of the film’s making, in which he portrayed a thinly disguised version of John Huston.

Huston was a wild man, feared by the studios, adored by actors and admired by critics for his literate, often beautiful films that were very much a slice of life. His greatest film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) won him an Oscar for Best Director and Screenplay, as well as an award for his father’s supporting performance. Years later he would direct his daughter Anjelica to an Oscar in Prizzi’s Honor (1985) the last great film he made.  Most of his films were adpatations of great literary works, be it classics such as Moby Dick (1956) or The Man Who Would Be King (1975) or modern pot boilers such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) of the aforementioned Prizzi’s Honor (1985). He lived life hard, drinking his way through much of his existence, fighting whenever the spirit moved him, and making some of the greatest movies of the last century. One of his best friends was Humphrey Bogart, an equally hard drinking, hard living man, who was under the direction of Huston a brilliant actor. In the manner that John Ford knew which buttons to push with John Wayne, or Martin Scorsese with Robert de Niro, Huston understood Bogart and guided from him some of the actors darkest performances.
For The African Queen (1951), Bogart won the Academy Award as Best Actor, the only one the film would win, besting BogartMarlon Brando’s ground breaking performance in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) no less. Now years later of course we know that is ridiculous, but Bogart’s performance is immensely likable, and it is easy to understand why the Academy would want to give him an Oscar for his delightful as a river rat who falls in love with a staunch minister’s sister. Katherine Hepburn said the only direction Huston gave her was “to play the part like Eleanor Roosevelt” and that was precisely what she did, delivering one of her most memorable performances. The two of them are terrific together, as two unlikely friends trying to get downriver away from the Germans during the First World War, who incredibly fall in love. They bring out the best in each other, and we can see in the wonderful performances the two give that Bogart and Hepbrun adored one another and liked the experience of working together immensely. Hepbrun was also nominated for an Oscar, as was Huston and the film’s script, but incredibly it was snubbed for a Best Picture nomination.
Shooting on location gave the film a rich texture and gritty realism that shooting on the studio lot in the tanak simply could not have brought to the film. The heat impacted both actors, as did everything they experienced in Africa in the creation of this now classic film.
The print of the film is superb, the colours vibrant and real; the finest I have seen other than on the big screen and far surpassing those terrible video editions that we put up with when there was nothing else to compete with it. DVD ended terrible copies, and now these old films are getting the royal treatment from the studios and emrge looking pristine and perfect.  There is a very cool documentary about the making of the film, but as with all classic films, the star of this is The African Queen, and those two wonderful star crossed lovers.