Fearlessly directed by master craftsman, John Huston, The African Queen (1951) is an exemplar of the classical Hollywood narrative. Based on a 1935 novel by C.S. Forester, the screenplay by James Agee manages to capture all the harrowing exuberance and spirit of its source material - despite constant meddling from the Production Code of Censorship. And yet, in more recent times, Huston’s masterpiece has fallen under far more critical scrutiny, perhaps because it hardly seems like Huston could have directed it, or Bogart – the tough guy, with or without his gun – to have delivered such an empathetic and gently comedic performance where he all but sheds his trademarked insolence and plays the bemused fop to co-star, Kate Hepburn’s thoroughly ‘stimulated’ popinjay, intoxicated on the self-importance of her missionary work. The African Queen is unlike anything else these two titans of the screen has ever done; each stepping beyond their comfort zone and Teflon-coated iconography. In more recent times, this is what has come to be known as ‘expanding one’s acting range’. The folly of such experimentation is easy to spot when talent is lacking. In the case of Bogie and Hepburn however, there is no cause for concern. By 1951, each was beloved and well-seasoned; accomplished and comfortable within themselves to take the gamble seriously and see it through to success. And does it work? And how!
Assuming many perils along the way, not the least of which was an utter lack of faith from his financiers, John Huston set off on his ambitious sojourn to conquer the wilds. In any other era he might have turned to the patronage of kings to bankroll such an expedition, for within him there lingered an adventurer’s spirit and explorer’s heart. Indeed, Huston was happiest the farthest from the studio. Too late to ‘discover’ the world, he settled for reinventing it through the eye of his camera; digging passionately into the particulars of the exercise and thoroughly engrossed in the experience. Unquestionably, there remains a certain je ne sais quoi to Huston’s humanist approach to this material; using Hepburn’s stalwart Rose Sayer as his sounding board for a critique of religious futility. Not man – nor woman – shall conquer nature through God, as Huston has incisively argued divine intervention already at play in the placement of these natural obstacles by which Capt. Allnut is forced to maneuver not only his vessel but also his patience and unanticipated growing affections for this caustic middle-aged proselytizer. By all accounts, Rose Sayer might just as well have been ‘born again’ or reincarnated as the silly little ingénue, unknowing of the world she has great plans to reform. And Hepburn is magnificent as this blind-sided grand dame who has adopted sternness – at first – to cope in the presence of any man not her brother, and under the watchful eyes and ears of God.
Making a movie most anywhere in the world today is generally considered a luxury. But in Huston’s time, setting out for the uncivilized ‘dark continent’ was not only looked upon as gusty, but somewhat foolhardy. Huston could find no takers to fund his ‘dream project’ in Technicolor half way around the world; bankers likely balking at the logistical nightmares of such a journey, including delays brought on by the inherent dangers of sickness, injuries, and, volatile weather conditions. However, Huston’s luck was to change as the newly formed/London-based Romulus Productions, eager to lure Hollywood talent overseas, agreed to put up the necessary funds. Consisting of five cars and trucks, Huston’s entourage would make their pilgrimage up a remote mud road and through a jungle-infested pass; 3.5 miles from Biondo to the Ruiki River, only then, loading every last necessity – and a few minor luxuries – aboard ‘The African Queen’ (actually, the L.S. Livingston; a steamer built in 1912 and used by the British East Africa Company for more than 40 years to shuttle passengers and cargo across Lake Albert on the border between Uganda and Belgian Congo). Huston and Spiegel had ‘discovered’ the Ruiki, an inky black tributary to the Lualaba, riddled in mystery and decaying vegetation, after logging more than 25,000 miles during their scouting expedition. In fact, the location was so remote it did not even appear on most atlases. During filming ‘the Queen’ actually sank – twice – and had to be raised; Huston electing to periodically go off on a hunting expedition during this ‘down time’ and, by one account, narrowly escaping being gored by a rhino. “John wanted to bag an elephant,” Lauren Bacall would later account, “He was absolutely convinced of his own supremacy as the great white hunter.”
By 1951, Huston and Bogart were not only good friends but great drinking buddies, a past time of which the tea-toddling Hepburn did not approve. Understandable perhaps, since she had coped enough with her paramour, Spencer Tracy’s frequent bouts of alcoholism and was mildly put off by Huston and Bogart’s vast consumption of imported Scotch whiskey. Exercising her disgust for booze, Hepburn refused to drink anything except plain water; a decision ultimately to afflict her with a virulent bout of dysentery. Huston and Bogart would remain the only two members of the crew to escape any illness; Hepburn, famously accounting her nightmarish affliction in her memoir, The Making of The African Queen or How I Went to Africa with Bogie, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. A bucket was placed just out of camera range to accommodate her frequent vomiting; Hepburn’s loss of appetite equating to a rather severe weight loss – her newfound gauntness evident during the early scenes shot at the makeshift mission. Nevertheless, Hepburn’s stubborn resolve, despite a daily case of the runs, impressed even cinematographer, Jack Cardiff. Much later, Cardiff would recall one of Hepburn’s trips to the outhouse, interrupted by a black mamba waiting for her inside and causing the afflicted actress to tear off through the underbrush.
Cast and crew endured hardships in the spirit of a communal passion to achieve something greater than themselves. “John really loved the jungle,” Hepburn would recall with genuine affection, “Just loved it, God help him. He’d still be there to this day. Crazy man. Hopelessly crazy, and wonderful too.” What Huston idolized was likely the verisimilitude of shooting on location. “I wanted these characters to sweat when the script called for it,” he explained in an interview, “On a sound stage you fake it. But here you don’t have to imagine that it’s hot…it’s so hot, so humid and so wet that cigarettes turn green with mold…and clothes mildew overnight. When people sweat it isn’t with the help of a make-up man.” Bogart and Huston were very much kindred spirits. Indeed, Bogart would refer to Huston as ‘unpredictable’ and ‘brilliant’; Huston returning the favor by suggesting of Bogart “he’s an absolute joy to work with…” While their professional relationship remained intact despite a few instances of tempers flaring, Bogart absolutely abhorred the climate in Africa. Indeed, he had hoped to cut their initial ten week shooting schedule short and was genuinely bewildered by Kate Hepburn’s ‘wallowing in this stink hole’. Yet, Hepburn found Africa ‘stimulating’ rather than stifling; the epic humidity and unspeakably primitive conditions bringing out the high-spirited adventuress in her. “Kate was in her glory,” Bogart would recall, “While I was griping, she couldn't pass a fern or berry without wanting to know its pedigree, and insisted on getting the Latin name for everything she saw walking, swimming, flying or crawling.”
Hepburn was initially more skeptical about Bogart’s decision to bring along his young wife, Lauren Bacall for the trip. Like most everyone else, she had underestimated Bacall’s character and the depth of her genuine love for Bogie. Serving in the capacity as something of den mother, hostess, cook and supervisor of their makeshift camps, Bacall garnered the respect of virtually everyone, though particularly Hepburn, who came to regard her with great affection after her quick thinking in taking along antibiotics helped to stave off a crew member’s attack of appendicitis, long enough to rush the man to the nearest hospital in Stanleyville for emergency surgery. Indeed, the friendship between Bacall and Hepburn would ripen and outlast the many ordeals in this daily trial by fire, and remain paramount in the lives of both ladies – particularly after Bogie and Spencer Tracy’s passing, right until Hepburn’s death in 2003. In coaxing performances from his two stars, Huston instructed Hepburn to think of Eleanor Roosevelt putting on her ‘society smile’ under adverse conditions. “It was the best damn piece of acting advice I ever got,” Hepburn would later admit. As for Bogart, the part had originally called for the actor to sport a cockney accent. As Bogart freely admitted he could not do one, Huston had his character’s origins changed from England to Canada. But Huston was rather startled when Bogart refused to partake of a scene in which he is afflicted by leeches. Despite having hired a wrangler to manage the blood-suckers, the thought of attaching a living creature to his flesh left Bogart queasy. Thus, the scene was photographed with plastic leeches glued to Bogart’s body with an insert showing a real live leech in close-up attached to the wrangler’s chest instead.
Until very recently, the enduring myth was John Huston shot all of The African Queen on location in Africa. In reality, there were too many obstacles to make this feasible; Huston settling for the bulk of the footage shot in Uganda where a language barrier with the natives repeatedly resulted in miscommunication, costly delays, and one highly amusing vignette bordering on screwball comedy. Huston’s Art Director, Wilfred Shingleton had built the mission outpost with the express purpose to have it burned to the ground by the Germans. For authenticity, Huston had requested a local chieftain encourage his people to partake in the scene as background extras. Alas, on the day of the torching, not a single native was present. Lost somewhere in translation was the apparent rumor this request was a dark ploy, designed to lure the natives to the set where they would be eaten by Huston and his crew, who were mis-perceived to be cannibals! While Bogie and Hepburn actually did a great deal of their sparring against this rustic backdrop, co-star, Robert Morley (cast as Rose’s doomed brother, Rev. Samuel Sayer) never left London’s Pinewood facilities to shoot any of his scenes; his sermonizing skillfully edited with footage of the native congregation photographed back in Africa. The climactic scuttling of ‘the Queen’ and sinking of the German SMS Königin Luise, was achieved using a combination of full-scale action and sizable miniatures; the scenes depicting Bogart and Hepburn waist deep among the reeds and rushes done partly on location, with close-ups shot back at Pinewood, using rear projection plates.
When production wrapped, Bogart retreated to the relative safety and comfort of the Beverly Hills Hotel for a much-needed respite in the lap of luxury. Unapologetic, he had had quite enough of remaining perpetually stubbly and sweat-soaked, sporting the same tattered clothes and careworn captain’s cap day in and day out, and, living off of baked beans and Scotch whiskey. Yet, it is one of Hollywood’s ironies that the performance Bogart suffered through the most should also win him his only Best Actor Academy Award – and – not the only paradox to be had in this production. C.S. Forester’s novel, first published in 1935, and had been rife for consideration in Hollywood. Yet, somehow, the project continued to languish in turnaround, first at RKO, then later, at Warner Bros., despite such high profile names as Charles Laughton, Leslie Howard, Bette Davis and Elsa Lanchester repeatedly bandied about for consideration in the title roles. Then as now, conventional wisdom resisted telling any tale of romance – fateful, fitful or otherwise – in which the protagonists were well beyond the age of thirty (Bogart, a seasoned 53, and Hepburn, a caustic 45 at the time of filming) – Hollywood’s ageism, a chronic condition almost entirely unfounded in the audience’s immediate and overwhelmingly positive response to The African Queen upon its premiere. Nearly all of the picture’s allure can be attributed to its two iconic stars who ultimately came to be cast in the picture; Huston, despite his long-standing friendship with Bogart, approaching Hepburn first, and consulting her thoughts to have Bogart as a co-star. “Can you imagine anyone but Bogie playing that part,” Hepburn would later muse, “Ridiculous! There is nobody else who could have done it. Thank God, nobody else did it!”
Equally in retrospect, imagining The African Queen without Kate Hepburn seems ludicrous. Who else but Hepburn could have pulled off such an astringent, yet inadvertently comical and ‘thrilling’ performance? Indeed, in committing to the picture, Hepburn made one request of Huston; to have her favorite costume designer, Doris Langley Moore create the dresses she would wear. Alas, the intense humidity and heat never allowed any of these creations to fully dry out from the day’s sweating in them, resulting in pockets of mold infiltrating the fabric. Nevertheless, determined to look her best, Hepburn dragged a full-length mirror around to the various locations where the day’s shooting would take place. When the mirror accidentally cracked in half, an undaunted Hepburn simply continued to drag both halves with her. Huston, mildly amused by Hepburn’s stubbornness, and well aware she objected to the consumption of alcohol, made it a point of exaggerating his own intake, encouraging Bogart to follow suit, in order to stir Hepburn’s ire to a critical breaking point. Hepburn endured this teasing, eventually coming to regard it in the friendly spirit of a good joke for which she had so obviously been had.
As early as 1947, Huston had expressed his interest to make The African Queen with his producing partner, Sam Spiegel for Horizon Pictures. Huston had already brought writer, and good friend, James Agee, whom he regarded as “sensitive and perceptive” to help brainstorm script ideas. While Warner Bros. (presently owning the rights to the novel) were willing to sell the property to Huston and Spiegel outright, their asking price of $50,000 was beyond their grasp. However, Spiegel’s quick thinking resulted in a partnership with Sound Services Inc.; a company not in the business of loaning money, but rather, renting equipment. Spiegel sweetened the deal thus; first, by signing a promissory note to reimburse the company the full amount of their investment with interest; also, agreeing to rent all of the necessary equipment to make the picture from Sound Services. It was enough to get the ink dried on the contract, The African Queen purchased outright by Sound Services Inc. who would continue to hold the rights thereafter. Alas, Agee’s participation on the project was cut short when the aspiring screenwriter suffered a severe heart attack that effectively forced him to retire from the fray.
The African Queen opens with a main title sequence stirring with the exotic sounds of this forgotten part of the world. Depending on one’s point of view, what follows is either a beguiling adventure through these tropical boonies or a dreadfully Darwinian descend into a sort of unkempt purgatory from which only the strongest will survive. In short order we are introduced to Bogart’s peevish, but benign Canadian sea captain, Charlie Allnut, whose mail delivery route through the missionary villages of German-occupied East Africa place him in constant contact with brother and sister Brit evangelists, Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn). Charlie forewarns the Sayers their safety is in question. WWI has begun. Samuel coolly shrugs off this threat. After all, the war is in Europe. Surely the Germans will respect their presence in this part of the world. Charlie thinks Samuel naïve but reserves his judgment to continue on his mail route. Shortly thereafter, German soldiers torch the Sayers mission, beating Samuel so severely he soon contracts an infection, then fever; eventually succumbing to his injuries. On his return trip, Charlie discovers the stark desolation where once there thrived a community. Charlie helps Rose bury her brother’s body, convincing her to join him aboard the African Queen. In discussion of their situation, Rose learns that the Luisa, a German gunboat, is preventing British counter-attacks in the region. She is resolved to use the African Queen as a torpedo boat to sink the Luisa - thereby avenging Samuel's death. Although Charlie reluctantly agrees to this scenario to placate Rose – merely to take her away to relative safety – his quiet hope is she will become discouraged by the insurmountable odds and folly of her plan and ultimately resign herself to quiet exile.
The nightmares resulting from Rose’s seemingly simple plan of counter attack is what fuels the rest of the film's narrative. Together, Charlie and Rose survive some harrowing rapids, escape harm from dangerous wildlife and elude the constant threat of being taken prisoners of war, either by the Germans or very hostile natives. An early confrontation with German soldiers damages the Queen’s boiler, thrusting the helpless vessel into deadly rapids. Violently pitched, the Queen narrowly survives severe flooding with Rose and Charlie clinging to her bow for dear life. Ecstatic over their good fortune, Charlie and Rose momentarily embrace. Thus begins their awkwardly slow, yet ultimately satisfying – if only platonically realized - romance. Rose’s stubborn resolve softens - somewhat. She shares memories of her life with Charlie. This humanizes Rose and allows Charlie to better comprehend the crux of what he had initially misperceived as her spinsterish and stern spirit. Yet, Charlie’s respect for Rose – as she sports a man’s temperament – begins to slowly mutate into something more. Dare we suggest it? Can it be love?
A third set of rapids cripples the Queen’s propeller shaft. However, Rose's ingenuity and Charlie's steady hands manage to resurrect the ship once again. Unfortunately, the Queen adrift becomes lodged in heavy mud. Despite several valiant attempts to free her, Rose and Charlie quickly discover that they are trapped among the rushes and reeds. Charlie contracts malaria and becomes delirious. Without proper food or water to heal her ailing partner, Rose quietly resigns herself to death and prays both she and Charlie will be admitted into Heaven together. Her prayers are answered by way of a thunderstorm that not only provides the two with fresh drinking water but also raises the river levels, thereby floating the Queen to safety and not too far from the Luisa. Recovering from his fever, Charlie helps Rose convert oxygen cylinders into torpedoes. On the eve of another violent storm, Charlie attempts to use the Queen as a battering ram to sink the Louisa. Ill timing and a rush of sea water tips the Queen. As she sinks, Charlie is captured by the Germans and taken aboard the Luisa. The next day, Rose resigns herself to a similar fate, confessing to the German captain their plan to sink the Louisa and thereby forcing him to sentence them to death as spies. Charlie pleads that before they are hanged they be allowed to take one another as man and wife, having endured all the struggles sufficient to declare themselves in the eyes of God. The Captain agrees, even as the gallows are being prepared. Fate intervenes moments after the ceremony. The Luisa suffers a mortal wound, having brushed over the submersed hull of the Queen, thereby detonating its oxygen torpedoes. In the ensuing panic, the Luisa is destroyed, leaving Rose and Charlie to float their way to safety up the Belgian Congo.
The African Queen is exuberant old-school film-making at its finest, Huston concentrating on two aspects of the storytelling; first, the evolution of his two characters, who embark on this journey of self-discovery as moderate adversaries, but ultimately arrive at their destination unequivocally devoted to one another. The film also exposes the futility of war and thoughtless revenge. Rose’s heart is softened by love; her confession to the Germans redeeming her in the eyes of God and thus sparing both hers and Charlie’s lives at the last possible moment by an act of possibly ‘divine’ intervention. The uncharacteristic nature of the project, and the even more startling departures in performances given by Hepburn and Bogart generate a sparkling originality as bold and refreshing as the day they were recorded. In summarizing the picture’s appeal, The New York Times astutely surmised, “(Huston's) lively screen version...is a slick job of movie hoodwinking with a thoroughly implausible romance, set in a frame of wild adventure that is as whopping as its tale of offbeat love. And the main tone and character of it are in the area of the well-disguised spoof...there is beauty and excitement...While the hardships were said to be oppressive, he and his producer, S.P. Eagle (Sam Spiegel), have been repaid. Their picture is doubly provided with the insurance of popularity.”
“The movie is not great art…” Time Magazine suggested, “…but it is great fun!” Undeniably, The African Queen endures today because of the reputation of its three monumental talents: Huston, Bogart and Hepburn with the latter two giving unfettered adult and deeply moving performances. Invariably, Bogart’s is the more spectacular of the two; his transformation from unshaven/ crotchety rummy into a forthright man, forced into rediscovering his heart, is quintessentially among the best work Bogart ever did. The picture also survives as one of the most sublimely gorgeous 3-strip Technicolor experiences – a real Cook’s Tour through the salamander-winding Belgium Congo. With only two days left on location, John Huston announced to his cast and crew he would need an additional three to complete his masterpiece, almost inciting a mutiny. By then, everyone was most eager to return to the relative safety and comfort of their homes. Ultimately, Huston retained only a skeleton crew and his principles for the remaining three days. Decades later, Huston would reflect fondly on the time spent in Africa as “a wonderful experience…one of the happiest I've ever had”. But by then, Huston may have been looking upon his memories through rose-colored glasses. Indeed, he never did bag his elephant. While some critics continue to poo-poo the movie’s reputation as a bona fide classic, it is virtually impossible to dismiss it for its sheer entertainment value.
So, prepare to set sail on adventures anew, because Paramount Home Video's treatment of this American classic on Blu-ray is nothing short of impressive. Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, yet absent from the screen for more than a generation (except in horribly marred third and fifth generation bootlegs) The African Queen has long since been one of the 'Holy Grail' titles desperately sought by film collectors around the world. Extensive restoration work performed in 2010, produced under the old regime at Paramount before that studio officially gave up on its back catalog of classics, farming a good many out to Warner Home Video for distribution, has produced a minor miracle. The resulting 1080p image is crisp, well defined and bursting with the luxurious hues of 3-strip Technicolor. Flesh tones are accurately sun-burnt. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography has never looked quite so appealing. Contrast is superior to anything we have ever seen and film grain has been lovingly preserved, looking very indigenous to its source. Truly, this new Blu-Ray presentation will surely not disappoint. The audio has been cleaned up and is presented in mono as originally intended. Extras are limited to a comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Odd, we are given no audio commentary or even a brief featurette on this monumental restoration. Nevertheless, and bottom line: The African Queen on Blu-ray is very highly recommended! A great movie to revisit during these waning dog days of summer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)