Thursday, 9 September 2010

“The African Queen”. A Review Of The 1951 John Huston Classic Film - Now Fully Restored And Reissued on BLU RAY In 2010.

"…I Never Dreamed That Any Experience Could Be So Stimulating…"

Soldier ants three inches deep on the hut floor, hornet nests alongside the river bank, twenty crocodiles ready to eat you for breakfast should you actually venture into the river, dip your feet in the black rotten water of the river to dissipate the unbearable heat and a parasite called a Jigger Bug would lodge itself between your toes and eventually kill you though liver failure... When you listen to Jack Cardiff's spectacularly good feature-length commentary on the actual filming of "The African Queen" in 1951 (he was Director Of Photography), it's a small miracle that this beloved independent gem ever got made at all...

Escaping the suffocating McCarty trials in the USA at the end of The Forties and beginning of the Fifties (Bogie, Hep and Huston were all considered to have lefty affiliations), Director John Huston set off to Africa to film C.S. Forester's 1935 novel on location (an unheard of thing at the time). He dragged with him huge and cumbersome Technicolor cameras, his sickness-prone crew and Jack Cardiff's two lamps and small generator. 1st location was in Biondo on the Ruiki River in the Belgian Congo, 2nd location was Uganda and 3rd was back in the UK (all shots that required actors getting into the river were done in water tanks in London because the Ruiki was just too dangerous in real life).

Their trials and tribulations throughout the shoot are truly the stuff of Hollywood legend - Lepers carried their equipment, they bunked in bamboo huts with all manner of creepy-crawlies joining them under the netting and an African hunter who had been supplying them with meat on a daily basis was led off by authorities for suspected cannibalism (natives going missing). The water was contaminated with parasites (neither Huston nor Bogie got sick because they were gulping back whiskey), the boiler of the boat almost fell on Katherine Hepburn and nearly killed her (she was ill throughout the shoot, but trooped on), tropical rain storms turned pathways into rivers of mud, swarms of flies ate their skin and they couldn't do their necessaries because two deadly black mamba snakes were lurking in the latrine...ouch!

You learn most of these fab titbits from two sources - Jack Cardiff's commentary and a truly superb near 60-minute feature called "Embracing Chaos - Making The African Queen" (with or without subtitles). It includes contributions from large numbers of luminaries and those actually involved in the movie - John Huston and Katharine Hepburn (excerpts from The Dick Cavatt Show 1972/1973), Guy Hamilton (Assistant Director), Sir John Wolff (Producer), Angela Allen (Script Supervisor), Theodore Bickel (officer on the German boat), Desmond Davis (Clapper Boy), Jack Cardiff (DOP), Lawrence Grober (Huston's biographer), William J. Mann (Hepburn's biographer), Laurence Bergreen (James Agee's biographer), Eric Lax (Bogart's biographer), Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni (Sam Spiegel's biographer - Producer/Financier), Warren Stevens (Bogart's friend), John Forester (C.S Forester's son) and Martin Scorsese. There's even clips of and stuff about Lauren Bacall as Bogie's husband, camp cook, medical helper and general all-round on-set good person. Their romance was genuine and real and it's treated with great affection here. "Embracing Chaos..." is a feast of detail and beautifully put together storytelling - it really is.

The "Posters & Lobby Cards" extra has 6 posters (in full colour) and 6 lobby cards - a treat to look at. The "Star Profiles" of Bogart, Hepburn, Huston and Cardiff turn out to be on-screen info snippets which are good rather than great. The "Behind The Scenes" stills are photos on set with animal noises in the background - again not great. And the trailer only shows you how washed out the original film had become.

Which brings us to the print itself - it's GLORIOUS. Digitally restored in 2009, the vast majority of the film is a joy to look at. Sweat on the hairs of Bogart's arms, the lipstick on Hepburn's lips in the church scene at the beginning, the rusty and stained woodwork of the old boat itself, Robert Morley's huge bug eyes as he watches the natives huts's all beautifully rendered.

There are drawbacks - the aspect is 14:9 - so when your player actually throws the print onto a widescreen TV, it's in a centred box. However, if you adjust it to fit the whole screen, I still found it fitted well and without too much compromise to stretching. There are also sections where there's slight blurring of the focus, stock footage of the river that was damaged - but - and I stress this - it's miniscule.
As I stood back from the 42" Sony and looked at the print - I was gobsmacked at how beautiful it looked almost all of the time.

But the film itself belongs to the astonished lead duo of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn playing Charley Allnut and Rose "Rosie" Sayer - an American gin-sozzled steamboat Captain and a straight-laced prim and proper English Missionary lady. James Agee's wonderfully loaded dialogue spiked up the tension between the two at first, then the slow burning romance and then the mutual appreciation of each other (Huston loved beautiful losers) right up the hoisting of the Union Jack and the patriotic torpedoing of a German gunboat at the very end. Such was the chemistry and force of their brilliant performances - both actors virtually reinvented their careers on the back of the movie (Charles Laughton and Betty Davis had initially been thought of for the parts). A genuinely amazed and humbled Bogart even nabbed the Oscar from the clutches of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Cliff.

This BLU RAY reissue is a triumph because it works on the two most important levels - the print is as lovely as it's ever going to be and the two main extras match that.

"The African Queen" is 60 years old next year and this superb 2010 Blu Ray reissue does that enduring classic proud.

Recommended big time.

PS: for other superb restorations on BLU RAY see also my reviews for - "The Italian Job", "Saturday Night, Sunday Morning", "The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner", "Zulu", "North By Northwest", "Cool Hand Luke", “The Dambusters” and “The Prisoner – The Complete (TV) Series In High Definition”, “Braveheart”, “Snatch” and “The Ladykillers”

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